Despite protests from the company's president, Pete Kaufman, that drivers were in fact plowing down "gremlins" rather than human beings (despite the prototype game having the wonderfully esoteric title Pedestrian), Death Race was all conscientious objectors needed to condemn yet another form of entertainment. Placards were at the ready, and it was time to picket the amusements.
Naturally, the press leapt on the bullet points of the story, and the more people objected, the more gamers wanted to play it. Although Death Race ultimately fell among thieves, its mass publicity certainly put the failing videogame business on life support until the early '80s.
One way or another, Death Race proved gamers love for unnecessary violence, and an unspoken, unacknowledged sub-genre was born.
Similar only in its approach to a dystopian society controlled by barbaric entertainment, the 1974 short story Roller Ball Murder, by William Harrison, was adapted into the cult film we know and love, Rollerball. Harrison's vision, which utilized the designer blood-sport as an outlet for people's increasingly antisocial feelings, has had a considerably more profound impact on fictionalized, ferocious entertainment than Death Race. What's interesting is Rollerball is only part of a real-life legacy that began in 1935.
A movie promoter named Leo Seltzer attempted to capitalize on the bizarre 1920s trend for dance marathons, and by cross breeding it with the new roller skating fad, evolved the increasingly labored spectacle into a simulated cross country race. Dozens of two-man teams were required to circle a race track thousands of times on roller skates; disqualified if both racers were off the track at any one time. The Transcontinental Roller Derby became massively popular, but never more so than when catastrophe struck.
The sheer number of contestants (all desperate to win the diminutive prize money so they might claw their way out of the Depression) often led to mass collisions and injury; at which point the crowds went wild. The "sport" was tweaked to maximize on physical contact and the potential for carnage. This formed the basis for the sporting aspects of Rollerball, which in turn laid the foundations for a host of futuristic games of savage consequence in both the movies and our gaming media.
The films never really came thick and fast, but a steady drip-feed of varying quality titles has sated some small part of our aggressive natures. Although Arnie's one-liners weren't quite up to his usual standard, The Running Man was, curiously, a vast improvement over the original book written by Stephen King (under the pseudonym Richard Bachman). The original tale told of a game show whereby contestants volunteered to go on the run from studio appointed hunters and were required to post in video diaries twice a day, the disappointing twist being the studio made surreptitious use of the postmarks to determine the whereabouts of the ill-fated players.
The movie improved on the concept by correcting the book's major flaw: the game. The rules in the book were distinctly inconsistent and underdeveloped, while the film clarified, simplified and exemplified. The nature of The Running Man was best explained in one simple outburst from the movie's wonderfully reptilian antagonist, Damon Killian: "Well, it is a contact sport, OK? You want ratings. You want people in front of the television instead of picket lines. Well, you're not gonna get that with re-runs of Gilligan's Island!" Indeed we are not, and for a lack of genuine entertainment in the style of The Running Man, we have been forced to look to fiction in order to satisfy our feelings of social repression.
But even these dramatized sports have encouraged people to physically explore the more brutal side of their nature. The 1989 post-apocalyptic Australian movie staring stony-faced veteran Rutger Hauer, Salute of the Jugger (also known as Salute to the Jugger and The Blood of Heroes) has seen the contact sport around which the story revolved mutate into an actual amateur league.