Death Race was an arcade game released by Exidy in 1976, amid a pack of other such driving games as Atari’s Grand Trak 10 (1974) and Le Mans (1976), as well as Indy 800 (1975), published under Atari’s secret Kee label. Racing games were pretty hot at the time, but Death Race threw in a little something special to the mix: instead of racing around a track, you drove your vehicle around an arena trying to run over little stick figures, who when hit would shriek and turn into a cross for you to avoid. It would become the first game to generate widespread concerns about video game violence.
The blocky and abstract graphical representation of its obvious inspiration, Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation flick Death Race 2000, seems positively quaint by today’s standards. Death Race, however, drove a storm of controversy as word got out about the game. It was decried as “morbid” by trade publications of the time, and the National Safety Council branded it as “sick”. Newspapers ran stories gleefully outlining the premise of the game, and no reassurances from Exidy’s marketing man Paul Jacobs that players were actually dispatching “gremlins”, as noted in a label on the game’s dashboard, could quite quell the outrage.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, Death Race was a hit for Exidy and helped establish them as a long-time player in the video game market. The game also paved the way for more realistic video game violence, in the vein of the Mortal Kombat and the Grand Theft Auto games. All of which, of course, helped to turn kids into hardened killers, in the same way that video baseball games turned them into professional ball players.
For more information on Death Race, consult your local Dot Eaters article.