30 years of PC games: The biggest controversies in gaming history

Already knew? It’s not just PC games that are celebrating a milestone birthday, but also video game consoles themselves! In any case, 50 years ago, the Magnavox Odyssey was the first device that allowed you to play electronic games in your own four walls. Half a century is a long time – and a lot has happened since then. Much of it has been good, some bad, and in between there have been some tangible scandals and controversies, which we discuss below.

What was the first controversy, or more precisely, the first major scandal in video game history? We could cite lurid headlines that a bunch of teenagers died playing the arcade machine Berzerk (1980). However, it remained with such sad side notes, which were at best passed on as ghost stories. No, the first really big scandal caused a veritable earthquake in the industry and decisively changed its continued existence. Above all, he showed that no manufacturer is infallible and untouchable. And he made sure that the Japanese got the upper hand in development for almost two decades. All of this was the consequence of the video game crash of 1983.

The debacle had already started a year earlier, when console manufacturer Atari lost a legal dispute and game developer Activision was allowed to produce modules for the VCS 2600 on its own. Due to the verdict, other companies naturally sensed their chance to enter the lucrative business. This resulted in a flood of new games that were not all of the same quality and thus caused the console’s image to deteriorate.

At the same time, Atari itself faltered and quickly produced a technically mediocre VCS-2600 adaptation of the arcade classic Pac-Man. Nevertheless, with over eight million units sold, it blossomed into the most successful game on the console – and that is exactly what should be the undoing of the industry giant in retrospect.

If Atari had put more effort into the VCS 2600 version of Pac Man, the big video game crash might never have happened, or at least not on this scale.

Source: Atari / plassma media agency

From now on, the executive floor no longer concentrated on quality, but rather on big, lucrative names. The license for Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster ET was obtained in the same year and, according to rumours, it paid more than 20 million US dollars. Designer Howard Scott Warshaw, who was one of the star developers at the time thanks to the baller hit Yar’s Revenge (1981), was commissioned with the implementation and only had one month to do it. The result: an action-adventure that seemed confusing and suffered equally from an inscrutable game concept and boring level design.

Despite the lousy quality, Atari was sure they had a bestseller in their hands and produced a whopping five million modules. Which was necessary anyway, because the manufacturer would have had to sell at least 80 percent of it just to recoup the horrendously high license costs.

As anyone can imagine, this backfired: ET sold well, but not as sensationally as hoped. Almost half of all modules should never go over the counter, which is why Atari had a whole bunch of copies buried in a landfill near Alamogordo, a small town in the US state of New Mexico. This story was considered a myth for a long time until it was confirmed in 2014 after several months of excavation at the site.

In 1984 the US market collapsed and trust in Atari was gone. Also, the VCS console was now six years old, while home computers like the Commodore 64 (from 1982) seemed more lucrative due to their versatility. And it wasn’t until 1985 that video games celebrated a renaissance in the USA with the Nintendo Entertainment System, from which the Japanese benefited massively.

We’ll skip straight to the next scandal that will surely make some regular readers sigh: It’s about “killer games.” The debate that followed began before the term was even “invented”.

Night Trap became the victim of a politically motivated hate campaign in 1994.  The allegations that in the game you had to lure defenseless girls into traps were completely far-fetched.

Night Trap became the victim of a politically motivated hate campaign in 1994. The allegations that in the game you had to lure defenseless girls into traps were completely far-fetched.

Source: Digital Pictures / Moby Games

Germany has always been a pioneer when it comes to the question: are video games harmful to children? As early as 1984, the Federal Testing Agency for Fonts Harmful to Young People (BPjS for short) spoke up for the first time and put the shoot ’em up River Raid, the racing game Speed ​​Racer and the 3D vector game Battlezone on the index. From today’s perspective, the reasoning behind the judgment reads truly adventurously and is peppered with phrases such as “The video game River Raid is socio-ethically disorienting (…)”.

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