Over the years, we’ve been regaled by a vision of a wonderfully dystopian future where we – the little people – will be distracted from the vast liberties taken by a corporate controlled tyranny by some form of bloodthirsty designer sport, only to excel at that brutal form of entertainment and change society by scoring one last goal.
Now, the millennium’s finally rolled around we see that, much to our interminable vexation, there was no computer initiated nuclear war, alien invasion or devastating global economic collapse to usher in a new age of savage entertainment and human based blood-sports. Instead, we are plagued by a society-gone-insane for a fun-murdering “health & safety” fad, and our chances of a drunken Sunday afternoon watching Houston battle Tokyo on the Rollerball rink are, if anything, further away from realization than ever.
There are attempts at investigating the notion, such as Fear Factor and Survivor, but these are handled in such tooth-achingly saccharine ways the shows could cause diabetes (with any semblance of credibility thoroughly ploughed into the earth by gigantic, tawdry publicity machines).
And what does it say about us, the entertained, who watch these facile programs? Do we watch them due to their core entertainment values? Hardly. We watch them in the hope that something will go wrong, and for a brief and wonderful moment the triteness of Fear Factor will metamorphose into the life altering events of The Running Man. We would talk for years to come about how we saw a “contestant” fall to his death on live TV, or skewered his brain through the eyeball with a reinforcement rod, or ran headlong into another contestant and broke his spine in four places before falling into a vegetative coma for 10 years.
It all sounds pretty repulsive when it’s spoken about so blatantly, doesn’t it? But let’s not pretend that a show which promised and delivered this kind of fatal excitement wouldn’t have ratings through the roof. Though it’s certain to be remembered as a dire tragedy, Steve Irwin recently proved our love of dangerously real entertainment. Why else did people watch him aggravate animals for so long, if it wasn’t for the chance that one of them would prove the lethal abilities he regularly told us about? No use complaining when it happens.
We may have developed a peculiar set of moralistic and socially-restrictive boundaries when it comes to civilized entertainment, and we may cluck our tongues and throw sanctimonious eyes skyward when it comes to violent sports, but the fact remains that when all programmed notions of civility are stripped away, violent, aggressive entertainment is intrinsically compatible with raw human nature.
Naturally, videogames have stirred up more than an equal share of the controversy when it comes to flaunting supposedly decadent and irresponsible forms of sadistic entertainment. Indeed, the industry was still new when the first sectarian protests against “playing the digital bad guy” arose in 1976 due to an arcade game inspired by the controversial movie Death Race 2000.
The forerunner to the videogame, starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, caused plenty of uproar all of its own, though time seems to have tamed it and branded it with something of a chintzy visage. The story entailed a tyrannical government’s practice of distracting the oppressed populace by staging a cross country road race which required the drivers to kill people en route to score points (the basis for many a contentious computer game to come, wouldn’t you agree?). As with many of these murderous franchises, the protagonist not only comes out on top of his chosen sport, but manages to topple a government in the process.
Hell, if a few rounds of potentially fatal televised violence could get rid of some of the nutcases running today’s world, who wouldn’t be tempted to get behind the wheel?
Even in 1975, opinions of acceptability were considerably different than today’s. More relaxed in some aspects (infanticide and unprovoked murder were no problem), while remaining dogmatically Victorian in others (no swearing, please, we’re reactionary). Movies were at least age restricted, but videogames were for kids, and when the new Death Race machine from Exidy gave players the opportunity to take on David “Frankenstein” Cassidy’s role from the cult movie, moral panic hit the arcades of America.
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.
The object (in the film) was for two competing teams of players armed with rudimentary weaponry to place a dog’s skull on a spike at the opposition’s end of the play area. Naturally, the means by which this was achieved was pretty much left to the conscience of the team members. The movie then went on to inspire a group of German’s to form their own “jugger” league, which has received considerable amateur recognition, and has since spread to Australia and the U.S. Naturally, the weapons are well padded and contact is limited, but the mere existence of independent jugger teams exemplifies the feeling of dissatisfaction permeating the global super-sport business.
As the Jugger first took to the nuclear wastelands, a U.K.-based software developer, The Bitmap Brothers, released a sequel to one of their debut games, Speedball, and redefined brutal-sport entertainment in a way that has yet to be surpassed.
In 1990, the beauty of mayhem, allure of destruction and glamour of violence were skillfully woven into Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe: a Commodore Amiga game of pure, knuckle-whitening carnage capable of corrupting even the most devout pacifist into a blood hungry, designer-sport savage.
Taking control of the newest, most pitiable team in the Speedball leagues, Brutal Deluxe, it’s the player’s misfortune and privilege to take this down-at-heel gang of miscreants to the top, by fair means or foul. A multitude of upgrade attributes, such as aggression, intelligence, speed and power, built the impoverished team into the fighting force of your design. Whether you preferred to run rings around the opponent with light-footed intellectuals or score points by brutalizing the opposing players with lumbering animals, the team’s ability and direction were first decided in the gym and not the arena.
The frantic, non-stop engagement puts the player through a distinct physical and mental ordeal while endeavoring to enact the simple task of carrying a metal ball to the opposite end of a steel-clad pit and post it in a narrow goal mouth. Due to the abundant lack of rules, this high-speed passage into enemy territory is no small task. There is nothing the opposition cannot or will not do to prevent enemy access. In fact, players are actively encouraged to inflict sufficient damage to have unfortunate competitors carried away on stretchers by robotic medics, being lavished with points for such vicious conduct.
Available for a plethora of different platforms from 1990 to the present day, Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe is the yardstick by which every game connoisseur should measure sports simulation and, by extension, come to terms with the savagery of human existence and learn to revel in it.
There are no apologies to make for acknowledging all aspects of your animalistic psyche, and though we are unlikely to see any true form of the promised amusement this side of a nuclear war, there is a wealth of material out there for the discerning violence junkie. This unique, unbranded genre which has subtly permeated our media for over 30 years is the unforgiving, shameless pinnacle of raw entertainment, where sport is no longer about winning and losing: It’s about living and dying.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.