Custer’s Revenge

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S1: Before we begin, this episode contains references to sexual assault and racist content. On the morning of October 15th, 2021, the conservative political strategist, Liz Mair tweeted, I have resorted to burning Pokemon cards as a punishment when my kid doesn’t do basic stuff, he has to do. Inevitably, people on the internet got mad.

S2: The feeling of knowing that you’re being trolled is it’s hard to describe, but I’m going to try to describe it.

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S1: Rachel Hampton is one of the hosts of Slate’s Internet Culture podcast, I See. Why am I?

S2: The media response to that is I should do something about this and by do something about it. It’s like snarky quote, tweet or react or something in some way.

S1: That’s what thousands of people did to Mayor’s tweet, which has over 15000 responses, including this one, which captures the gist of the reaction. Why are people allowed to have kids before some kind of test to prove they’re not psychopaths? One response even came from the actor, Seth Rogen, who wrote Save the valuable ones. The kid can pay for therapy when they’re older.

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S2: But then there’s the second reaction the kind of smarter non lizard brain part of you that is like, Why am I giving this airtime?

S1: That’s smarter part of you knows the person who tweeted that outrageous thing wants attention, even if it’s hostile. And as it turns out, just the day before, Mayer had tweeted, This website is getting to be really boring. I’m starting to consider tweeting deliberately crazy and offensive stuff just to try to spice it up again. By the end of the day, she was playing the whole thing off as a gotcha, something she’d done on purpose to rile people up. And if you’d gotten riled up, you might have felt a little used. In the scheme of online outrage, this was not a significant event. Someone who seemed to want attention got it just another day on the internet, where this kind of thing has come to feel like par for the course. Part of the way we live now, a regular feature of the social media age. But it isn’t really new. In 1982, in fact, a video game company made a game so horrible. They realized the only way they could sell it was by outraging people, and they succeeded at that. But that doesn’t mean they were a success.

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S2: It’s like never entirely clear what direction the outrage is going to go. Who exactly it’s going to help,

S1: because that’s the thing about outrage. You can’t be sure how it’s going to play out. This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin trolling in its simplest terms, is being deliberately offensive in order to provoke people. The word and its contemporary sense didn’t exist until the beginning of the modern internet, but the practice goes back much further. In today’s episode, we’re going to be looking at a particularly pronounced example from the early days of the digital age. Custer’s revenge and outrageously racist and misogynistic video game that inspired a frenzy of protests, lawsuits and bans before it was even in stores. It’s a story about trolls and the trolls and the ways they can intersect in predictable and unpredictable ways. So today on Decoder Ring, what a trolling look like in 1982. So I want to start with how I found out about Custer’s revenge.

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S3: So my name is Kate Willaert. For the last like decade, I’ve been researching the history of playable female characters in video games and case research

S1: goes into a web series she makes called video games. But this past summer, it also went into an article she wrote for the gaming site Kotaku. It was a deep dive into a video game company called am-I, which is short for American multiple

S3: industries, and they published a line of games called Mystique Presents Swedish Erotica.

S1: Mystique Presents Swedish erotica was a line of quote unquote adult video games made for the Atari 2600 in 1982. Custer’s revenge was one of those games you

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S3: play as the famed General Custer. He’s nude except for boots and a hat.

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S1: He also has a large, very pixelated erection. He runs across the bottom of the screen, occasionally dodging arrows if he makes it from screen left to screen right. He gets his so-called revenge to rape a Native American woman tied to a green post each time he thrusts. He gets a point

S3: and it’s just like, Oh my gosh.

S1: Custer’s revenge is infamous in video game circles, taught in academic contexts, and regularly shows up on lists and videos about the worst video games ever made. But in Atari Kotaku PS Kate uncovered a bunch of information about the complicated history of am-I the company that made it. After reading the article, I emailed Kate about doing this episode, and she gave me your blessing to build on her research, to do some more reporting and see if I could talk to people who’d been involved at the time. I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I figured that 40 years later, anyone who had anything to do with Custer’s revenge would be too embarrassed to talk.

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S4: But I was wrong. I think what they gave for me was make money.

S1: That’s Stuart Kesten, Kesten was the co-founder and president of am-I.

S4: I knew we did a good job. I got everybody’s attention.

S1: I spoke with a number of other people involved with am-I and Custer’s revenge. But unlike Stuart Kesten, there were only willing to speak with me on background. You won’t be hearing their voices in this episode. The recollections did not always align with Kesten, but they did collectively relay to me a story of a product that was so bad, both so vile and so shoddy that the only way to sell it was by getting a lot of negative attention, though that’s not how the whole thing started. So let’s head back to 1982, the year Custer’s revenge was released half a decade earlier. The video game company Atari had introduced a home console, a video game system that you could play at home, and this relatively new market was booming.

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S5: One of today’s greatest marketing triumphs in the entertainment field is video games. It’s a business which is tripled in size in just three years.

S1: Ron Hendren. Many of the games you can play on an Atari were made by Atari, but there were also a bunch of games of varying quality being made by third party developers for the Atari system. Whoever was making the games, they tended to be aimed at kids and families.

S6: Hey, Six Zone, let me show in the mountain zone. Hey, check it out. Get the energy guys so long Harley Rockets.

S1: Almost no one was making games strictly for grown ups.

S4: It was all for kids.

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S1: That’s Stuart Kesten again. He’s been a marketing executive at companies including L’Oreal. But at this point, he was working for himself in Los Angeles in 81.

S4: I think he’s like, What’s missing? Video games were big. So he created an adult video game.

S1: Actually, three adult video games, all of which were closely modeled on existing Atari products. One was Custer’s revenge. Another was called Bachelor Party to play, you bounced a naked male figure and a wall of naked female figures. The other was called Beat em and eat em. In it, you play as one or two naked women running beneath an ejaculating male figure trying to catch his semen in their mouths. Here’s how the official instructions put it.

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S7: The object of the game is to eat them every time he beats them, you score one point for each and every drop you swallow without a miss. But should you miss? Shame on you. You lose one turn. After all, it could have been a famous doctor or lawyer.

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S1: It’s unclear if the general concept or the idea for the specific games came from Stuart Kesten alone because Kesten had a business partner, a man named Joel Martin Martin’s deceased now. But you can hear him in a segment from the 1986 documentary Rated X. Joel is sitting in a desk chair, holding a joystick, playing Custer’s revenge and narrating as he plays.

S6: And when you get to the and then you press the red button and you score.

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S1: Stuart Kesten is standing right next to

S6: Joel Mistake has been designed and created and manufactured the adult in mind.

S1: The two had teamed up initially to make plastic cases for video and audio cassettes. Martin’s wife ran a manufacturing company in Hong Kong, and it seems like Martin was responsible for funding and manufacturing the games while Kesten was the pitchman. Together, they incorporated American multiple industries in July of 1982. By August, they had over three dozen people working for them, including three engineers in Silicon Valley who actually built the games. And they had licensed a product name, one that was sure to make people sit up and pay attention. Swedish Erotica, the marquee brand name in pornography

S6: now Caballero Control Group, is proud to preview for your pleasure and consideration glimpses of Swedish erotic as newest series of sizzling Kesten

S1: Swedish erotica started out as the name on a line of short pornographic movies that were shown on a loop at Porno Houses. But as pornography made the jump to home video in the late 1970s, so did the name

S6: in part two volume two films showing two beautiful girlfriends his art collection when they get carried away with the size of one of the statue’s cocks. You ain’t seen nothing yet, says films, and shows them his work of art and real flesh and blood.

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S1: That’s from a Swedish erotica promo video from 1978. As a as you can hear, these movies were not in any way Swedish. The name just capitalized on a sense of Sweden, a sexually permissive. By the early 1980s, it was the name on a line of VHS tapes so popular the porn company that owned the title license it out for stuff like Swedish erotica branded dirty playing cards. In 1982, Stuart Kesten licensed the name for Amies new adult video games, which would be released under the umbrella title Mystique presents Swedish Erotica. It guaranteed the game’s name recognition with buyers and sellers and also gave them an odd kind of legitimacy. In August of 1982, The Hollywood Reporter announced the licensing deal in an article titled Adult Video Games Will Titillate Home Market beginning in October. It introduced AMA’s existence and outlined its bullish plans to have half a million game cartridges in stores in time to meet the Christmas rush and then another 1.5 million copies and three new games in stores by January. In the piece, Stuart Kesten predicts that by the end of 1983, am-I will be the second biggest home video game manufacturer in America, behind only Atari. I think it’s important to point something out here, and it’s that putting aside the game’s premises and considering them solely as something to play, they still really suck

S4: for the game’s good. No, they weren’t good.

S1: They were dull, mindless, repetitive, as one review would put it, Custer’s revenge is as boring as boring, can be consisting of simply running from screen left to screen right. The other thing is that we’re talking about games or the Atari 2600, a console that was released in 1977 and featured games like Frogger and Space Invaders. Games of the Atari could be well-designed. They could be fun to play, they could be classics, but they couldn’t fit 200 pixels across much less high resolution realistic graphics. Bachelor Party The game in which naked male and female figures bash into each other is so rudimentary the graphics barely resemble human bodies at all. The figures in Beat Him and Edam and Custer’s Revenge are recognizable, but very crudely rendered out of chunky square pixels. They have no features, no curves. They’re a step up from stick figures, albeit stick figures with Iraq penises. The whole thing is just deeply lousy. It seems that absolute most like a dirty novelty item someone might spend 10 minutes with and never look at again. But remember, am-I had made a licensing deal so it could sell itself as pornography as connected to Swedish erotica. This communicated something confusing about the games, which are definitely dirty and provocative, but not exactly pornographic or erotic in the sense that it’s impossible to imagine anyone being turned on by them. Going forward, this would prove complicated for Amy, who would start to insist that despite the name, they meant it all is a dirty joke, something to amuse, not arouse. But at this point in the rollout, Amy wasn’t particularly concerned about this

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S4: or anything else. They were among the worst games going, said matter. The package was a package out there. Yeah, great concept. I had three games and all the artwork was I would have to say elegance compared to the trash that was being put out by all the other people.

S1: Elegant is definitely not the word I would use, but the art on the package was much more lascivious than the games themselves because it wasn’t drawn in pixels. The box art for Custer’s revenge showed a glamorously airbrushed drawing of an unconscious Native American woman bound to a post with a cartoon of Custer drawn in Robert Crumb style, perspiring and salivating beneath her. The packaging was put together by the ad team Amy had hired, who said Amy planned to spend four million dollars on advertising in 1983. Amy also hired a high powered publicity firm whose clients included The Rolling Stones, Johnny Carson and Jack Nicholson. In early October, Amy started doing a round of press in advance of revealing the mystique line to retailers and press at a trade show in New York City. At that point, the company was presenting the line as an innovative, if lewd way to capture a new audience for video games not as a prank or a provocation, but a real business with big potential and the tagline When you score, you score. On October 6th, an L.A. Times story about the mystique line and Custer’s revenge in particular, was syndicated in papers all over the country. And that original marketing plan starts to implode. On October 7th, 1982, The Oklahoman, the daily newspaper based in Oklahoma City, ran an article with the headline Indian Wants Video Custer to die on shelf for his sins. Oklahoma has the second highest indigenous population of any state, and the piece quoted J.R. Cook, the head of a tribal youth organization, saying ever since the pilgrims landed, the Indian people have been continually raped and exploited. He went on to say directly to Kesten, Although I am a firm believer in free enterprise, I feel your marketing such an offensive product violates the dignity of the American Indians. Up to this point, this critique that this game was offensive because it turned the history of brutality against Native Americans and particularly Native American women into a crude video game had not been a part of the press coverage. That first Hollywood Reporter article was typical. It describes the player’s goal in Custer’s revenge as being to rescue the Indian maiden and who was tied to a pole to rescue her. But that’s not how the game’s own instructions described it. The ones included in early press gets read in part. You are general Custer, your dander is up, your pistol is waving, you’ve hog tied, a ravishing Indian made in and have a chance to rewrite history and even up an old score. Now, the Indian men’s hands may be tied, but she’s not about to take it lying down. Remember, revenge is sweet. So what’s he supposed to be getting revenge for anyway? On June 25th, 1876, George Armstrong Custer, then the lieutenant colonel of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, attacked a large encampment of Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians near the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana. Custer and more than 260 of his troops were killed in the battle, which became known as the Battle of Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand. Custer’s death quickly became a kind of national obsession, a scream upon which non-Indigenous Americans could project their feelings and fantasies about the United States’ brutal war against Native Americans from the start. Some people thought Custer was a fool who’d blundered into a massacre, but well into the 20th century more thought him a hero.

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S6: There’s 6000. Less than 600 of us. The regiment is being sacrificed badly. I wouldn’t want to see a foreigner puts it in a dirty deal like this.

S1: That’s a scene from 1940 ones they died with their boots on, which starred Errol Flynn as Custer. He enters West Point as an overconfident dandy by the time of his death has grown into an honorable leader and a martyr for the American nation. But by 1970, with the Vietnam War recasting American imperialism and the American Indian Movement on the rise, Custer’s reputation was changing.

S6: Grant called me impetuous to a drunkard sitting there in the White House, calling me the impetuous

S1: that Custer is from the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man, in which Custer, played by the actor. Richard Mulligan is a vainglorious, reckless monster, not a hero or even a fool, but a villain. This was more in line with how Native Americans had always seen him as part of the United States’s centuries long, brutal colonization campaign, which had reached a particularly violent phase as Custer arrived on the Great Plains in 1866. Just two years earlier, U.S. troops had killed hundreds of Indian men, women and children in the Sand Creek massacre. Some of the soldiers cut off body parts, including female genitalia, and wore them over their saddle horns and on their hats. The rape and assault of native women throughout the colonization of the Americas has often gone unrecorded, but has been endemic since Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean. To this day, American Indian women have a higher rate of violence committed against them than any group in the country, and that’s just some of the history that informs Custer’s revenge. Not that anyone and am I want to think about it? Here’s Joel Martin responding to a question about Custer in the documentary Rated X.

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S6: Can you explain a little about who Custer was and why he takes revenge? As long as you don’t take it too seriously,

S1: this is what Stuart Kesten said when I asked him how they came up with the idea for the

S4: game. What’s out there? That could be fun. So I was looking for something that could be fun.

S1: What if you’re looking for something fun? How could you possibly come up with Custer’s revenge?

S3: Why is it that people look at this game and don’t actually process that, that this is actually a game about raping a native woman?

S1: Jodi Byrd is an associate professor at Cornell, who specializes in indigenous studies, feminism and video games, among other things, and is also a citizen of the Chickasaw nation of Oklahoma.

S3: There’s almost an assumption that indigenous women are so highly rape taboo in our society that they can’t even be raped. Native women are so highly readable that they are unable to be considered victims of rape.

S1: You can see this strange blindness, this inability to describe the most obvious and striking feature of the game in the media coverage to the articles about the mystique line mentioned Custer’s revenge, not because it was the most flabbergasting, only offensive because they would not describe the gameplay in Beat Him and Edam, the game in which female characters catch ejaculate in their mouths. Many papers one even print that game’s name, but they were OK, writing around the objective of Custer’s revenge

S3: like an inability to think about it as having any actual connection to living people. And it’s partly to American Indians are presumed gone by so many parts of this country. Settler culture sort of presumes us gone and dead and therefore somehow unable to be offended.

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S1: But native peoples were offended.

S6: What offends you most about

S1: the game in this news clip about the game? You can hear a woman named Lois read Elk. Explain why she finds Custer’s revenge so offensive.

S8: That is, suppose that it is a Hitler character attacking a Jewish woman with a Jewish woman. Be smiling after they had just put her relatives in the gas chambers in the ovens.

S6: The maker of Custer’s Revenge tells us they call her home video game.

S1: A week after that article in The Oklahoman, native groups in the area asked the Oklahoma City Council to ban the game, and at this point, that army seems to have realized that instead of having made something provocative, they’ve made something weapons grade outrageous and they might be able to capitalize on that.

S4: Everybody loves controversy. Wow. I like making money that way. Every time they talk bad about the game, it’s just the right thing going away.

S1: Am I in their press team? Head to New York City with the strategy to pursue controversy in a new group of people to inflame? So there was another group of people who were so outraged by the game, they felt they had to do something about it. My name is

S3: Dorchen Leidholdt and I direct the largest legal services program for survivors of gender based violence in the United States.

S1: Dorchen has been an activist feminist since the 1970s, and one of the groups she was very involved with was called Women Against Pornography throughout the 1970s as a knock on effect of the loosening of a number of obscenity laws. There had been a massive uptick in easily accessible hardcore pornography and attendant concerns about how to regulate it, especially in new forms of electronic media. This pornography often included blatantly misogynistic violence, like the infamous 1978 cover of the porn magazine Hustler, in which a naked woman is being fed through a meat grinder.

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S3: I remember sitting in the women’s coffee house in the village with a group of other radical feminist. We all had our little plaid flannel shirt song and our combat boots, and we were passing around that issue of Hustler. And just it was like, we have to we have to do something about this.

S1: By 1982, women against pornography regularly staged actions against places like Penthouse and Hustler, handed out awards to egregiously misogynistic advertisers, had a storefront in Times Square and a big mailing list of women aghast at the endemic sexism in the imagery around them. Women like Kristen Reilly, who was then a graphic designer and who spoke with me on the same call as Dorchen,

S3: I was working in Midtown Manhattan and walking to work across town to 7th Avenue and the newsstands. I passed Reilly the corners. They paid premiums to put their magazines for pornography up front. And I was just enraged, I was enraged by this. I needed somehow to address this issue for myself. Doesn’t this bother anybody else? We have to do something about it.

S1: She went to a women against pornography meeting and got involved.

S3: Penthouse wasn’t in every subway station and big ads for Penthouse, and I carried a big fat marker with me and I nice to write from liberate men, show the pee wee.

S1: I should say here that by 1982, women against pornography and its objectives were already controversial within the feminist movement itself. A rift was developing. On one side were the anti-pornography feminists who believed, as a famous line goes, that pornography is the theory and rape is the practice. On the other was what came to be known as pro-sex feminists. But at this point, women against pornography had a lot of support from members who were ready to hit the streets. In October of 1982, they became aware of Custer’s revenge. Now their Dorchen or Kristen, remember exactly how they learned of it. The game was not yet available in stores, but the organization was paying close attention to things like this at the time. Upon learning of it, Kristen Reilly was particularly horrified.

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S3: The racist element of it was was very important. I actually felt the need to think about it. And Dorchen, you do this to a group of people. And in the end, it’s a game, it’s a game to native women. I mean, it was appalling.

S1: Kristen Reilly started to coordinate an action against the game with a Native American activist named Rudy Martin. It was part of an organization called the American Indian Community House. Meanwhile, Army and their publicity team had arrived in New York City on Wednesday, October 13th, 1982, the night before the trade show. They rented out a nightclub for a press event. Part of what one newspaper described as a super aggressive, a publicity blitz. They invited not only the press, but also feminist and indigenous groups. I was told the initial objective of this was to head off some of the criticism, or at least to let detractors see the game and see how goofy it looked. But it only served to stir the pot and outcome army would embrace. The turnout at the event was unexpectedly large, and some stories appeared that night on the local news. The next day, October 14th, was the first day of the trade show, which took place at the Hilton Hotel on 6th Avenue in Midtown. Indigenous and feminist demonstrators in collaboration gathered across the street from the hotel, holding signs that said things like Respect our women, the mothers of our nation and pornography is rape. Theme is now a home video game.

S3: We got a police permit to have the protest across the street from the Hilton Hotel, but we decided that we would just forget about what the police wanted to put us. We were going to take it right in front of the hotel and make people participating in the convention walk through our picket line. Three hundred people, long Native Americans in their regalia and chanting, and women from all over the place mournful, powerful moving chants and we were really just moved. It was a powerful, powerful collaboration. It went on the up and down the block, you know, in a circular line up and down the block. Down, up, down, up. Constant. It was probably the most powerful moving, extraordinary protest I’ve ever participated in.

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S1: The protests made the game into a huge news story.

S6: The video cartridge is called Custer’s Revenge, and it definitely is not for children. The one on the

S1: left, it was on TV, the radio and newspapers across the country. The women who had helped organize the protests were gratified. They wanted to get the word out.

S3: There was radio TV. I thought this is so important and this has to be picked up.

S1: But someone else was pleased with the coverage to

S4: say there is not a newspaper in the country that doesn’t carry us this on a radio station in the country. They didn’t carry us five days a week Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

S1: Kesten is so keen even now to argue that everything was going exactly as Army planned that he initially told me they had actually hired a protester to help create the scene at the Hilton. This is not true. Even Kesten backed off it when I pressed him. But it has long been a rumour about the protest, one that makes Army and their press team look like they really knew what they were doing. What am I got the 15 minutes of fame it was after no one. There seems to have been prepared for it. Two days after the protest, Custer’s revenge was all over the news, though not yet available in stores and armies, no press is bad. Press strategy was in full effect. You can see it in the company’s reaction to the news that Atari plan to file a lawsuit to block the game’s distribution and sale. This is a representative from Atari.

S6: We have built our reputation on family entertainment, and I, for one, do not believe that the cartridges like Custer’s Revenge have anything to do with family entertainment.

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S1: But Kesten took Atari threats in stride, telling a press service is a compliment in a way. Here we are a little company brand new in this industry and we’re already attracting a lot of attention from someone as big as Atari. In the coming weeks, am I would maintain this jocular tone? Sure, the press was bad. A petition condemning the game had been signed by over 10000 people. Reportedly, 1200 people a day were calling Atari to complain, and the Surgeon General of America right at this time expressed a concern that the youth of America were becoming addicted. Body and soul to dreadful video games. But even so, Kesten got a Spread in People magazine. He’s photographed holding his arms out in a hoodie shrug, and the peace is a softball would display copy, saying Indians, feminists and Atari are on the warpath over an X-rated video game. You can hear Kesten trying to keep things similarly light in that documentary Rated X, he’s smirking as he speaks the object.

S6: Custer’s revenge is for Custer to cross over a desert obstacle course and reach the Indian maiden and make an impression on her. What do you mean by impression on? As you can see, the games do have a little sexual action,

S1: Kesten gets a little less murky when asked directly about the protests

S6: or specifically who was protesting, but their objections have to do with, you know, they thought that the game involved raping a Ravager. What about racism? What about those objections? I don’t know about racism. There’s no racism involved or intended in our games. There’s no raping. There’s no harm. They’re not being marketed to the kid market. We’re marketing our games to the, you know, the packaging. Not for sale, minors,

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S1: for all the posturing, things were starting to fall apart when you make enough people mad. They may start to outnumber the people you’ve made curious, especially when the curious can’t even buy your game, which was still not in stores thanks to a number of manufacturing snafus. If this was all supposed to be making the cash register ring, it couldn’t. There was nothing to buy yet. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the bad press was not going over so well with everyone at the company. In fact, by the time the games begin to trickle into stores in very late November, the Friday after Thanksgiving, the instructions contained a notable change. Remember the line about how Custer, hogtied and Indian maiden, and now he has a chance to rewrite history and even up an old score? The copies that went on sale said instead that you’ve set your sights on a ravishing maiden named revenge. In other words, the name Custer’s Revenge no longer referred to avenging the 7th Cavalry’s defeat with an act of sexual violence now was just the name of the Native American woman. If this was supposed to make the game more palatable, it was way too late for that.

S9: Custer’s revenge features a nude general Custer fighting his way past Indian arrows. You score the big points in this game by getting the general to rape an Indian woman tied to a stake.

S1: Well, if you that’s from a CBC TV spot. There was a limit to the. Any publicity is good publicity strategy and army had reached it. Suffolk County, Los Angeles and the entire nation of Canada had joined Oklahoma City in considering banning the game. Arms offices had been vandalized. Some retailers wouldn’t take the games because of their late arrival. Others declined them or returned them because of the protests. Am I had planned to have a half a million cartridges in stores for Christmas? They ended up with a fraction of that. There have been various figures thrown around over the years about how many copies of Custer’s revenge were really sold, the lowest being 75000. But my sense is that even that’s too high. It was not great timing for an additional reason. This was the Christmas right before the video game crash of 1983, when a glut of games, many of them low quality captions like Custer’s revenge cratered the market for the next two years. Army limped through Christmas and then in January, even as protests continued, a seemingly new company announced that it was taking over distribution of the mystique line. Am I was out? So was Stuart Kesten, and so was Custer’s revenge. The press release read as follows

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S7: We will be discontinuing Custer’s revenge in our adult video game line. We believe that even though American multiples intent was to depict an entertaining, amusing scenario, the game came to symbolize rape and racism. No company would want to be associated with either,

S1: but this brand new start wasn’t quite what it seemed. Stuart Kesten business partner Joel Martin was one of the people behind this new outfit, and the shipped copies of Custer’s revenge will remain on sale for months. The new company would go on to introduce three new adult games for sale by Christmas of 1983. They went nowhere and got barely any attention. The new games were sold as two in 1s, though each cartridge contained a regular version of the game and a gender swapped version modified so you could play as the female character. In Europe, where Custer’s revenge was never discontinued, you could play a gender swapped version called General Retreat, where a Native American woman dodges arrows to have her way with Custer Kate Willaert. The writer who introduced me to this story realized something about these gender swapped games.

S3: It really struck me when I looked at the timeline and I was just like, There’s more female porn game characters than there are, you know, regular female characters on the Atari.

S1: In fact, the five female protagonists in these so-called erotic games accounted for half of the playable female characters ever available in America on the Atari 2600. When I was talking to Stuart Kesten and everyone else who had been directly involved with am-I and Custer’s revenge, I got the sense that they really wanted to be seen as high level manipulators playing the public into giving them oodles of press, but that the reality was way more haphazard than that. They were making it up as they went along and pretending everything was going according to plan, right up until the whole thing tanked. But that’s really what a troll is. Not someone who means to do one thing or another, but who exists in a state of indeterminacy, who says whatever your reaction is. That’s what I was, after all these years later. Stuart Kesten takes pride in the fact that his game shows up on lists of the worst games ever. But looking back at Custer’s revenge makes it clear that what’s important is not the ever shifting self-congratulatory excuses of a troll ish company. But the object itself and the people who felt the need to say loudly that it wasn’t OK. The intent of the troll is to make you feel duped. Foolish corny for being sincere, but some things are worth being sincere about, even if it means a troll can claim you played right into their hands, even if it makes that something better known than it otherwise might have been. In the case of Custer’s revenge, neither of those outcomes seems so bad. 40 years later, it seems like something we should know about. It seems like a good marker that though the 1980s may have been a different time when lots of people didn’t know better. Some people did. This is Decoder ring, I’m Willa Paskin. This episode was written by Willa Paskin and edited by Benjamin Frisch and Gabriel Roth. Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. I want to give an a special thank you to Kate Willaert for everything. I’d also like to thank Chris Stark, Carly Castlerock, Michael Case, Randy Hacker, Matthew Payne, Nitesh Power and Jun Thomas. Thank you so much for listening to the season of Decoder, and we’ll be back in 2022 for Slate. Plus, listeners will have a special bonus episode in January talking about the making of the season. If you want to join, you can sign up at Slate.com Slash Decoder Plus. In the meantime, if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode. Please, you can email us at Decoder ring at Slate.com.

S10: Otherwise, we’ll see you next year.