Custer’s Revenge Controversy: A History

This was actually a small research project that I worked on for a history class in college. At the time of taking this class, Anita Sarkeesian had announced her Kickstarter to the ire of a dedicated group of male gamers. No videos has been released at that point, but the nature of the harassment and hatred toward her had been made public. Coincidentally, the history class I was in at the time was about the history of sexuality in the US. I considered writing something game related if I could, especially because I could see this was a growing issue. I wanted to go back and research, as far as I know anyway, the first real interaction feminists had with the game industry. Spoiler alert, it was not a positive one.

This brought me to the game “Custer’s Revenge.”

I pitched the idea to my professor and got the green light to start work on this paper. I think it does illustrate some important points and helps put modern arguments into context. Let’s hop right into it.

 

When people think of Atari, what is likely to come to mind is nostalgic memories of Pong, Centipede, and Pac Man. The idea that sex existed fused within video game culture, as early as 1982, on such primitive machines is something that barely registers as a footnote in videogame history. When the game Custer’s Revenge was released for the Atari 2600 home console in 1982 it was met with immediate criticism from women’s rights groups and Native Americans in particular but news of this game was widespread and even prompted Atari to eventually file a lawsuit against the company. Custer’s Revenge was not alone. There were other sex related videogames that would make their way to the market during the 1980s. Custer’s Revenge was really the first to be released and got the most press attention. The same developer had planned on releasing other titles but following a steep collapse of the game industry in the mid-1980s, games like ‘Custer’s Revenge’ would disappear from the mainstream audience. The question I really aim to answer is one that occurred to me when I first learned about this game. How could anyone really take such a crude image seriously?

Atari first began as a company in 1972 founded by Nolan Bushnell. The first game Bushnell developed was not pong but a game called Computer Space, which was released in 1971 before the official founding of Atari as a company.[1] The game was not a success. “Computer Space redeemed itself mostly as a negative example for Bushnell and Al Acorn when they made the next game and as the first step toward the creation of Atari and Pong.”[2] The main complaint players had for Computer Space was that it was too complicated. Bushnell and his designer Al Acorn, did “Take $500 in royalties to start their new company. On the whole, however, Computer Space was a failure that motivated Pong’s designers to keep things simple the second time around.”[3] This is a philosophy that extended well beyond Pong. Atari kept that same philosophy when it came to their home consoles like the cartridge based Atari 2600. Atari did not keep tight controls over their patents. This meant that any company could make any game they wanted for the console without fear of legal action. Atari in effect put very little oversight in the development of software for their console.  “After the 1975 Christmas season, A Business Week reporter wrote ‘at the moment only two companies are serious factors in consumer electronic game,’ Atari and Magnavox. Ten years later, the video game industry had crashed, burned and risen again.”[4] When Nintendo came onto the scene they maintained “zealous control of its technology and products it staved off competition…to screen and occasionally block independent software developers from access to its hardware.”[5] Nintendo took the opposite approach that Atari did; instead of licensing out patents to encourage software development Nintendo required all games be branded with the “Nintendo Official Seal of Quality.” It meant that a game like Custer’s Revenge could not and would not be released under Nintendo’s tight market control. These rules would stay in effect into the 1990s. Nintendo refused to release violent or sexually explicit games on their consoles.

Custer’s Revenge was a very simple game like most others at the time. The player would take control of General Custer clad only in a cowboy hat and boots, sporting a massive erection. The player moves him from left to right dodging onslaughts of incoming arrows. If the player was not hit by an arrow, on the far right side of the screen there is a crude depiction of a nude Native American woman tied to a tree that the scantily clad General Custer could have sex with. It did not take long for the controversy pot to boil. The game was sold under the slogan, “When you score, you score.”[6] The game’s box was marked as “An adult Videogame Cartridge” across the top and in large letters on the bottom, “An Adult Video Game Cartridge for use with the Atari Video Game System NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS.” The game was developed by American Multiple Industries, its president, Stewart Kesten told People Weekly, “NOW [Nation Organization for Women] will complain about anything not showing a woman in the dominant position. We would not promote such an offensive thing such as rape in a game. It’s a fun sequence where the woman is enjoying a sexual act willingly.”[7] Kesten made the claim that the game was clearly marked for sale to adults only, “My older kids [18 and 21] think Custer’s Revenge is terrific, and my wife loves it.”[8] The article also mentions the lawsuit that Atari filed against AMI and Kesten with a spokesperson saying, “We’ve built a business on family entertainment. We want those games off the market.”[9] The lawsuit was filed because “Atari which logs 1,200 Custer’s Revenge complaints a day, alleging that Atari’s name is wrongfully associated with AMI’s activities.”[10]  Atari created the environment for games like this to be released but still tried to distance them from the debate. In an article published by Ms. AMI’s public relations firm commented, “It’s strictly for fun. These little…figures are not doing violence to women. The only thing that could be construed as violent is tying an Indian maiden to a post and ravishing her, but he doesn’t beat her first.”[11]

Of course many did not agree with Kesten’s sentiment Virginia Cornue, the executive director of NOW said, in the same article in People Weekly that Kesten was interviewed for, “It promotes violence against women for fun. It’s like having a little surrogate act out the rape for you.”[12] After hearing Kesten’s comments about the game she also said, “That makes it even more objectionable. It says the woman enjoys being raped.”[13] Cornue was not alone with that sentiment. Denise Fuge, who was the president of NOW-New York told Ms., “The game uses new technology to exploit women and degrade the American Indian community, portrays rape as an erotic act, and promotes the acceptability of raping certain groups of women, that is, Indian women.”[14] The then Executive Director of American Indian Community House, Michael A. Bush, said, “As American Indians…we see this disgusting video game for what it truly is-a sexist, racist, sadistic expression, the sole purpose of which is to fill the pockets of its creators and promoters.”[15] The Wisconsin State Journal wrote, “At least seven companies, all in California, are designing or making sex and violence relates games.”[16] Barry Jacobs attended the National Music, Sound, and Video Show in Manhattan where the game was unveiled to the public for the first time and said, “[The game] is not very erotic, because the game console isn’t capable of producing very sophisticated images.”[17] The Indiana Gazette wrote “In New York City A hundred women from Indian organizations, The YWCA, NOW, and Women Against Pornography united to demonstrate outside the Hilton Hotel where the game was introduced at a trade show.”[18] The article also said “In Albuquerque, NM, just three days after ‘Custer’s Revenge’ was stocked at three video cartridge outlets, an alliance of 17 Indian and women’s groups, including the Rape Crisis Center, sent a task force to each of the stores to deliver written and verbal complaints.”[19] This article also cited other protests in Oklahoma City, Connecticut, and Los Angeles. The protests against this game were very wide spread and very united among women’s groups. The outrage was actually popular enough to be written about in Stars and Stripes, which is a newspaper printed by the military and circulated to bases overseas. The article does not mention anything new really but as a result, military personnel as far away as Japan knew about the debate surrounding this game, which emphasizes how widespread media coverage was.

An article written by Jacquelyn Mitchard for the Madison Capital Times titled, “’Custer’ game is not funny it is sadistic.”[20] Mitchard wrote, “Don’t call Stuart Kesten a guy who’d give up a dream-even if he knew it was somebody else’s nightmare.”[21] Mitchard also responded to Kesten’s comments he made in People Weekly, “The woman’s position in ‘Custer’s Revenge’ as people who didn’t spend October on Mars probably already know can’t even be called ‘non-dominant.’ Kesten might call it even ‘funnier’ than that. She’s nude and bound with ropes.”[22] This article in particular emphasizes how widespread the controversy was especially among women. “Though nobody really knows whether Custer ever [committed rape] personally or just left it to the troops, the idea of cavalry soldiers raping Indian women wasn’t one some genius had to dream up it was good old historical fact.”[23] She argues that is why this game is in particularly bad taste, because things like this might likely have happened in American history and it should not be glorified. Mitchard sarcastically concludes, “Say, how about one called ‘Back to Buchenwald’? An SS officer, clad only in boots and armband, had to dodge searchlights to creep through camp and ravish a thin, dark-haired woman bound in ropes. The woman needn’t have Semitic features. Everyone will get the reference.”[24]

The game also caught the attention of Andrea Dworkin, a feminist and big name in the movement against pornography. Dworkin took the ideology one step further than the other articles. “The pornographic videogame “Custer’s Revenge” generated many gang rapes of Native American Women. In the game, men try to capture a ‘squaw,’ tie her to a tree and rape her. In the sexually explicit game the penis goes in and out, in and out.”[25] Dworkin testified against this game in court in Minneapolis about a redistricting law that would limit where pornography could be sold. The testimony included that of a Native American woman Dworkin called a “Victim of the ‘game’”[26] The woman was not identified by name but she gave a very graphic testimony. “I was attacked by two white men…They let me know that the rape of a ‘squaw’ by white men was practically honored by white society. In fact it had been made into a video game called ‘Custer’s Last Stand’. They held me down as one was running the tip of his knife across my face and throat he said, ‘Do you want to play ‘Custer’s Last Stand it’s great, you lose but you don’t care do you?’…They both laughed and then he said, ‘There is a lot of cock in Custer’s Last Stand. You should be grateful squaw, that All-American boys like us want you. Maybe we will tie you to a tree and start a fire around you.’”[27] This was rewritten by Dworkin but the same testimony was given at the court trial. It is of course hard to pin point if the game was in fact the cause of the rape, which is what Dworkin believed, but court testimony like this cannot be ignored. The public hearings on the issue of pornography occurred in 1983 and they successfully passed the ordinance. It was vetoed by the mayor over concerns about its constitutionality.

“Custer’s Revenge” will always be an interesting footnote in the history of video games. After all of the controversy the game was actually altered. The name was later changed to “Westward Ho!” and when the still scantily clad General Custer survived the arrow assault, the native woman portrayed in the game would make a gesture signaling him to come over. These changes were ultimately futile. Just a few years after it was released, the videogame industry fell into a deep collapse. With that collapse it took many game companies with it and among the companies that would not survive was American Multiple Industries. Shortly after Atari’s near collapse, Nintendo came out with the Nintendo Entertainment System, which caused and huge comeback to playing videogames at home. Nintendo, however, was very restrictive about what games would be released on their system. Sex was entirely out of the question in any kind of graphic way like was portrayed in “Custer’s Revenge.” Nintendo acted as a censor that eliminated any portrayals of sex in videogames, it took nearly a decade for that to change and it was only after Nintendo received direct competition for the home market.

The most important thing about this game that can be learned is that the images are only a small part of what made this game truly offensive. Today, our cellphones can produce more sophisticated images than the Atari 2600. So why did people take such issue with this?  Jacquelyn Mitchard I think summarized this best. It was never about image quality. It was about the message. A woman tied to a post while the player was being rewarded for initiating rape the character is a terrible message. Then, in modern times to a lesser extent, video games were seen in many ways as entertainment exclusively for children. This played a part in the controversy but was not the root issue. The issues brought up by women’s rights groups was not the stereotypical “Won’t someone please think of the children” kind of arguments. They voiced real concerns, and they were valid. The graphics were terrible, the sound even worse, it was not sexy, boring and repetitive but all of those were secondary to the message that the game mechanics were communicating. When it comes to video games, even today, the message is always the most important thing.

 

[1] Lowood, Henry, “Videogames in Computer Space: The Complex History of Pong.” IEEE Annuals of the History of Computing (July-September 2009) 10

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Lowood, Henry, “Videogames in Computer Space: The Complex History of Pong.” IEEE Annuals of the History of Computing (July-September 2009) 16

[5] History of Pong 17

[6] J. Graham, “Custer May be Shot Down Again in the Battle of the Sexes Over X Rated Videogames.” People Weekly Vol. 18 (Nov 15, 1982). 110

[7] J. Graham, “Custer May be Shot Down Again in the Battle of the Sexes Over X Rated Videogames.” People Weekly Vol. 18 (Nov 15, 1982) 115

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] A. Hornady, “X-Rated Computer Games.” Ms. Vol. 11 (Jan 1983) 110

[12] . Graham, “Custer May be Shot Down Again in the Battle of the Sexes Over X Rated Videogames.” People Weekly Vol. 18 (Nov 15, 1982) 115

[13] Ibid

[14] A. Hornady, “X-Rated Computer Games.” Ms. Vol. 11 (Jan 1983) 110

[15] Ibid

[16] Chargot, Patricia, “Sex, Violence hit video-game world.” Wisconsin State Journal Sec 6 (November 7, 1982) 3

[17] Ibid

[18] “Protest of X-rated games gets impressive results” Indiana Gazette (Jan 7, 1983) 6

[19] Ibid

[20] Mitchard, Jacquelyn, “Custer game is not funny it is sadistic,” Madison Capital Times (Nov 30, 1982) 15

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Mitchard, Jacquelyn, “Custer game is not funny it is sadistic,” Madison Capital Times (Nov 30, 1982) 15

[24] Ibid

[25] Dworkin, Andrea. “Letters from a Warzone,” Letters From a Warzone: writings, 1976-1989, 1989, 317

[26] Ibid

[27] Dworkin, Andrea. “Letter from a Warzone,” Letters From a Warzone: writings, 1976-1989, 1989, 317

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