Despite exaggerations to the contrary, very few video games actually portray sexual assault. Sure, there’s a ton of murder, and definitely lots of gendered violence, but games that write in actual sexual violence are quite rare, which is actually sort of surprising when you learn about Custer’s Revenge.
The game, which came in in 1982 for the Atari 2600 and cost a whopping $49.95 (making it the priciest of Atari games then on the market), had a very simple premise: you are a naked, erection-wielding General Custer and you must avoid a volley of arrows in order to to rape a Native American who is—as indicated by the cover art—tied to a pole. Yeah, that’s it.
Custer’s Revenge was an early attempt to create and market “adult” video games, but promotion was difficult, especially since Mystique, the publishers and developers of the game, made it very clear that the game was “NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS.” In order to drum up publicity, Mystique actually showed the game to women’s and Native American groups, who were quick to give them free press with outraged protests. Feminist Andrea Dworkin even argued that Custer’s Revenge “generated many gang rapes of Native American women,” a claim that is difficult to prove, to say the least. Compared to say Pac-Man, the best-selling Atari 2600 game of all time, which sold 7 million, Custer’s Revenge was small potatoes, only selling 80,000 total. Regardless, the backlash most certainly helped move copies that might have otherwise simply collected dust on the shelf.
So how does Custer’s Revenge hold up nowadays? Despite the stomach-turning “plot,” the game actually manages to be so very comically low-rent that it falls very short of anything that is actually visually lurid. I mean you really have to use your imagination to connect those abrupt little pixels to the historic atrocities of the sexual violence and genocide exacted against Native Americans. They just didn’t quite have the technology to really depict any detail at the time, a fact which allowed game designer Joel Miller to maintain plausible deniability, claiming that the woman was a “willing participant” (this despite the game’s title and cover art). Nonetheless, Mystique later released a companion game, General Retreat, featuring the Native American woman attempting to rape Custer under cannonball fire, which, I guess, was an attempt at equality?
Ah, such innocent times! When the libidinal horrors of entertainment were technologically limited to blocky little boners and booties!
It’s possible that protests eventually staved off sales of the game, but what’s more likely is that no one really wanted to play it. PC World magazine named it the third worst game of all time, adding to the obvious objections that it was extremely difficult to play and it just looked terrible. The underground infamy of of Custer’s Revenge outlasted the game itself, inspiring a much more graphic remake in 2008, which was notably protested by a indigenous activists, including a female game designer and a video game journalist. Eventually pressure from activists got the game removed from the internet in 2014 (though I doubt too many people felt its loss).
More after the jump…