In July 1976, a reporter named Wendy Walker wrote an article for the Associated Press about a new arcade game she’d seen children playing in a shopping mall. The machine, Exidy’s Death Race, featured player-controlled cars scoring points by running over what appeared, to the reporter, to be human beings. (In fact, both the manual and the instructions on the cabinet called them ‘gremlins’.)
In Walker’s article — possibly the first occurrence of a video game being called out for inappropriate content — she struck a tone of moderate disapproval, comparing the sound effect played when a gremlin was run over to ‘the scream of a child’.
Over the next few days, over a hundred newspapers across the United States would syndicate the story. It was a ready-made package; it even came with a photo. The biggest decision an editor had to make was the headline that would run above it.
Which meant America’s newspaper editors had a problem: what do you call an arcade game before the term ‘arcade game’ emerges as a standard?
A review of the headlines written for this single article exposes a striking lack of consensus. The breadth of terminology used in 1976 gives us a fascinating insight into the brief period when arcade games had begun to find their way into public life, but before we’d figured out what to call them.
The Prosaic Headline
Some editors chose technically descriptive, though uninspired, terms:
If we don’t count the terse, headline-friendly ‘game’ (which was sometimes, oddly, wrapped in scare quotes), then the term most often employed might be surprising: the short-lived ‘computerized game’ had the lead (with ‘computer game’ a long way behind).
The Contextual Description
Other editors opted to define the machine not by its nature, but by the locations that it might be found.
The Uninformed Author
For many newspapers, this article might have been one of the first they’d ever printed about a video game. The headlines their editors chose could betray either a dogged determination to make a comparison to something their readers already knew about, or a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the topic.
The Glimpse of the Editor
Some headlines provided unintended insights into the people who wrote them. From the dismissive tone of the Mexia Daily News…
…to the making-up-wordsness of the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph…
…while the editor of the Anniston Star was evidently so keen on finding a headline that would fit into the column width that the result was, if not illuminating, strangely minimalist and poetic.
And some headlines read more like a report of a bizarre accident or crime.
The Conspicuously Absent
Curiously, the names which in retrospect seem the most obvious were neglected entirely. ‘Video game’ wasn’t an unknown expression; by early 1976 it was regularly used in Magnavox and Atari advertising. But perhaps its association with home consoles had led people to think that was the only valid usage; no editor referred to Death Race by these words.
The second surprising omission was ‘arcade game’, a phrase that through the 1950s and ’60s was popularly used for mechanical amusements like pinball and shooting games.
But in the minds of 1976’s editors, it wasn’t yet associated with the newer breed of electronic amusements. Even with arcades mentioned in the article, no-one found their way to describe Death Race as an arcade game.
A Short-Lived Uncertainty
Six months after Wendy Walker’s article, a second round of Death Race news coverage was ignited when the National Safety Council condemned the game. In contrast to the earlier story, there were signs that certain names had begun to gain ground in the public consciousness:
It took a few more years for these terms to become predominant. By the time of the Space Invaders craze, ‘video game’ and ‘arcade game’ required no explanation; most of the alternate terms had almost disappeared.
It’s easy to look at history as an inevitable progression toward the present day. But, as a look back at the summer of 1976 illustrates, the terminology we use wasn’t predestined. Maybe if things had gone slightly differently, you’d be reading this article on a website with a different name.