Shocking: The Classic Video Games That We Didn’t Know Were Problematic Until Now
It seems like video games are becoming more and more political these days, and not everyone’s happy about it. From racism to sexism, it feels like everything’s becoming a bit — or a lot — problematic.
But unfortunately, looking back with a fresh eye shows something none of us were willing to admit to ourselves: our classic favourite games have been problematic the entire time. Let’s take a look.
The Oregon Trail (1971)
Famously hailed as the first survival game and a direct spiritual predecessor to DayZ, The Oregon Trail turned heads when it arrived in Minnesota in 1971. We all laughed and groaned as our pioneer settlers were killed by bears, killed by dysentery, and their dysentery-riddled corpses dug up and eaten by bears.
But nobody was laughing when teacher and inventor Don Rawitsch revealed the secret inspiration behind the game: he absolutely fucking hated all of the kids in his class and had named all of the settlers after them so that he could simulate them all dying of cholera. So entranced were the children by the experience that none of them noticed, and it’s only years later — when Rawitsch confessed to his crime — that we began to understand the full extent of his disturbed mental state. Dark stuff indeed.
First released in 1972, this simple table tennis simulator couldn’t be more straightforward — two paddles bounce a ball back and forth until someone misses and the ball disintegrates into the void. But lurking beneath this innocent exterior lies a deeply troubling gender bias. With decades of experience behind us, we can now see that the left paddle, which is canonically female, has to work twice as hard as the right (male) paddle for the same amount of points.
It’s tempting to dismiss this as “just how it was at the time,” but we won’t learn if we don’t confront difficult truths. Video games, like all art, reflect who we are as a society — and those paddles reflect the little pong ball. It’s not hard to see the connection.
Space Invaders (1978)
The descending alien hordes of 1978’s Space Invaders have inspired countless re-imaginings, from games like Duke Nukem and Half-Life, to movies like Independence Day and E.T. But when we go back to where it all began, one thing becomes clear — these aren’t invaders. They’re refugees, looking desperately for a new home to escape their wartorn planet. And how do we greet them? With fire and steel, obliterating them without even the chance to open a dialogue of understanding and exchange.
Creator Tomohiro Nishikado intended the game to be a biting commentary on the dangers of dogmatic xenophobia, but all of that was lost as we rushed to shoot the shit out of these fucking aliens for 25 cents a pop. How many of these tentacled refugees from beyond the stars would have grown up to be great artists and scientists?
We never questioned why Pac-Man wanted to eat the ghosts when the little round hero orb first showed us around his hypercolour hellmaze in 1980, but recently unearthed design documents show clearly that Pac-Man was always intended to represent the overfed fat-cat CEOs of the banking industry, confronted by the revenant spirits of workers that his laissez-faire market policies have displaced and killed.
When we finally eat that forbidden fruit and are able to turn the tables on these ‘annoying’ ghosts, we should actually be ashamed of the glee we feel, ashamed of the adrenaline in our veins that comes from finally destroying our oppressors. Who is the real oppressor? (Spoiler warning: it’s capitalism.)
Two highly-trained soldiers from an unanswerable black-ops paramilitary strike unit going on an unsupervised rampage doesn’t sound like it would be problematic, but as always time and distance has given us the perspective we needed to see what was always lurking just beneath the surface.
We’re sorry to the Contra fans in the audience, but we can now exclusively reveal that the title of the game, ‘Contra’, is — problematically — the same as the word ‘Contra’ in the famous 1985 Iran-Contra scandal that engulfed the Reagan administration. That’s right: exactly the same word. We couldn’t believe it either, but sometimes it takes a while to see these things. There’s only one word to describe this: very problematic.
Huge shout-out to the good boy Goku for the ‘left paddle is canonically female’ joke