(Content warning: Vehicular homicide.)
Cliche when it comes to the game is to sensibly chuckle at the quaint moral outrage that made it infamous: all this over some crudely-drawn stick figures! This condescending ahistorical reaction doesn’t just sell short humanity’s ability to read abstraction and process media, and thus really the medium of video games as a whole, even the ones with Good Graphics, but Death Race in particular. Death Race is ooky-spooky, a power that I think has only been accentuated with time as its graphics age and it gets removed from the hustle and bustle of an arcade. It feels downright haunted. Something is wrong, not with its morality so much as it feels jarringly like it shouldn’t exist in playable form. It should be an urban legend like Polybius, or a creepypasta like sonic.exe, or a plot point in a horror movie like the cursed TV broadcast in Halloween III .
The sound design is perhaps the most vital part of evoking this atmosphere. There’s a constant low hum straight out of Eraserhead , which clashes with the mid-range overtones provided by the car engine’s revving when you move. The high end is filled out with the piercing cry of distress that follows every thud as you ram into people, littering the playing field with the cross-marked graves of innocence and persecution. These pedestrians are absolutely defenseless against the grill of your automobile, and they scramble around frantically changing directions at random, so terrified out of clear thinking are they. This time, it’s not the game world that is hostile: it’s YOU. You’re the villain, animate raw malice in car form, the Heavy Metal cabinet depicting the driver character as nothing shy of the gleeful Angel of Death that you will become for the low price of a quarter and your eternal soul. It’s Hatred  , stripped of all pretension. There’s not a win state, only a score and a time limit. It’s engrossing and addictive and emotionally-involving and and even cathartic. There’s a fanmade port out I recommend, keep in mind though that it changes the graphics a bit, such as replacing the stick figure sprites with something that looks more like gremlins, and I’m not sure if the original had its wraparound canvas or not.
It’s known that Death Race is a quick-and-dirty reskin of Exidy’s earlier Demolition Derby game in the face of business dealings gone awry, but they could have made it a game about, I don’t know, garbage pick-up or animal control or something. Completely abstract blocks. It would have been just as much fun, the tank-control game mechanics here are tight but operating them is suitably challenging enough to engage, and every run is fresh. Instead, they put together a horror game where you are a spree killer. Bold! They backpedalled from this precipice of tastelessness, with the concept that the pedestrians you ruthlessly mow down aren’t human beings, but they’re gremlins, and you are the literal (not metaphorical) Grim Reaper, helpfully sending them back home. Oh, how nice! How completely vacated of any punch at all. It’s a paper-thin veil, basically a condescending lie, that asks us to believe ass-covering newspaper quotes and one word on the cabinet over what is plainly obvious to everyone who looks at the game. (The concept of the gremlin, this archetypical post-hoc justification of virtual murder, could come in handy for us later down the line, say, in most any video game with aliens or demons or Nazis.) Before the controversy, Exidy even took out ads that trumpeted precisely how devoid it was of context: “Death Race 98 is what the player wants it to be: mobsters in the 30’s, commandos in the 40’s, dragsters in the 50’s, hells angels in the 60’s, street racers in the 70’s.”
The half-hearted feints at narrative recontextualization are completely dominated, not even by the work itself, but by the then-very-well-known grindhouse film Death Race 2000 , on which it was transparently modeled (continuing the trend of games looking up to movies.) Death Race 2000 was not a horror experience, but an exploitation film, squarely focused on delivering slapstick carnage and bare skin, which was very common in the 1970s USA. It didn’t flinch from its premise, where the state gamifies wanton murder, especially those it deems undesirable, like the elderly or any women, who are worth more points for killing. Critics and fans alike could clearly see such a state of affairs as depicted in the film was a satirical and comedic extension of everyday evaluations of the value of human lives. People in the film more or less up and say that the vaunted “American tradition” is but a churning engine of death and automobile worship. The controversy was over if the social commentary was but a feint, an excuse for the immoral spectacle that perhaps was inexcusable; if it was too high-minded or under-emphasized and ended up going over the heads of the literal elementary schoolers sneaking into the R-rated movie, which was very common in the 1970s USA. This familiar line of suspicion (across eras and political lines) demands satire be broad, easily-distinguished, and single-dimensionally didactic enough for a 9-year-old to grasp, even if (in a given particular instance) underestimated children are not around nor invoked. It doesn’t sound much like satire to me — it sounds more like uncut paranoia about irony, ambiguity, open questions, and interpretation as the refuge of evil.
It’s hard to argue that Death Race  was intended as a deft satire, but it’s almost inarguable that it was meant as provocative, transgressive, and tongue-in-cheek, which for most purposes is the same thing. Keep in mind how it fits in with its arcade brethren as much as it sticks out. Last time we were in the arcade, Atari was trying out the idea that video games could be sexy, but skipping ahead to 1976, familiar notions have set in: Video games are for children. Simultaneously though, it’s not as though Death Race was the first violent video game, not by a long shot — video games in the arcade circa 76 are already largely violent-themed, when not directly imitating big brother Sports and other traditional games. There’s the war-themed Tank , the grandparent of Counter-Strike , or Sea Wolf , or the western-themed Gun Fight , about which one arcade proprietor had this to say:
“…that’s the tradition of the Great American West, having a shootout, a duel, in the street. But deliberately running people down — that isn’t an American tradition at all.” [Tuscon Daily Citizen, January 14, 1977]
All too true! Intentionally mowing down pedestrians just isn’t part of any American cultural tradition. That’s what makes it safe. For Death Race to influence kids in the very literal way hypothesized by some at the time including professional psychiatrists, a (one-in-a-million) child who played Death Race and/or saw the film at age 9 would need to hold on to that idea, which gets its potency and appeal from its abhorrent aberrance, as what is in fact good and normal, all the way through their driver’s test at age 18, in direct contradiction of every other stimulus surrounding them, like seeing thousands of real life people model non-homicidal driving. This kind of thinking from the alleged Moral Majority was dominant for about 30 years, despite being cuckoo bananas. Gamer culture is, to this day, quite noticeably and understandably once-bitten-twice-shy about talking about the possible negative effects or aspects of media because of it.
The perhaps accidental echo of the “American tradition” that the movie Death Race 2000 spoke of so glowingly is very telling. War is certainly American tradition — why, Tank came out right at the tail end of the Vietnam War! Gun Fight, like The Oregon Trail , also depicts American tradition through the lens of the western! Violence in the name of justice or warfare is not just excusable, but downright wholesome and patriotic. Nevermind that colonial expansion and war are just as much displays of wanton violence against the groups who don’t have as much capability with violent force as you that just happen to have been lent institutional legitimacy by the state in a way that Death Races haven’t yet. (I do actually like westerns, believe it or not, but one should not mistake them for anything but a flight of complete fantasy.) What’s missing from this trenchant media analysis is not just any notion of the comparable death tolls of intentional vehicular homicide versus wars and genocide, but any real concept of hegemony, the normalization of ideas. Kids aren’t constantly inundated from all angles with talk of how cool and good it is to kill strangers with your car, but entire industries and large chunks of the population and culture that aren’t even being paid off are committed to convincing kids and generally everyone that war is good and normal, worldwide.
Death Race is conspicuous among its peers only in its failure to provide any adequate justification, any way for your opposition to fight back on a level & fair playing field. Maybe they knew what they were doing, maybe they just honestly didn’t see this difference. In succeeding as a work and as a commercial proposition, it lays bare the truth that nobody comes to the arcade to model moral behavior. That despite the pretense and illusion, violence is all ultimately just as senseless and abhorrent and and perverse and primal in a warzone as it is in in a parking lot. This is why Death Race must be singled out as both an immoral aberration and a damnation on its whole medium, as a cause of violence and sickness and not a symptom or illustration. To do anything else would be to concede to its implicit indictment, or, you know, to maybe just chill out a little bit, both of which are equally unthinkable.