If you've been unfortunate enough to see a Daily Express headline recently, you may have been exposed to something along the lines of: "FATAL CONSOLE MANHUNT OF SKIVING BLUE-TONGUED IMMIGRANT GAMERS KILLED OUR PRINCESS." Besides political wrongheadedness, conspiracy theories about decade-old car crashes and Sudoku, there's nothing Britain's sensationalist tabloids enjoy more than drawing dubious links between gaming hijinx and every single crime committed in the entire country.
Rather than being the result of a complex and unpredictable stew of social, cultural and psychological factors, it turns out criminality can be accurately determined by how much a person enjoys playing the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Thank heavens for that - it saves an awful lot of time-consuming research. Handily, the resulting media exposure also tends to act as something of a sales boost; almost as if tabloid scare-mongering and controversial game sales are reciprocally feeding off one another like gigantic, slurping parasites. Or something.
All rather overblown, of course. If games had ever possessed the level of influence hypothesised by certain contemporary columnists, the world around us would have been reduced to smoking wreckage many moons ago. Can't quite believe that 8-bit machines would teach such malevolence? Then please take a standard-issue white coat and follow the pulsing floor lights towards the scientific research area, as EG:R expose the deeply disturbing lessons taunt by the murky underbelly of 1980s software.
Cast your mind back to Target Renegade (Imagine, 1988); as blatant an advert for vigilantism as you were ever likely to see. Thanks to TR's seductive beat 'em up action, we all learned that the correct course of action following an injustice against a family member was to take immediately to the streets in a frenzy of vengeance. Further gameplay usefully informed us that all women are violent prostitutes and that motorcyclists are good for nothing except being fly-kicked from their mounts and punched repeatedly on the kerb. Had an altercation with your local pub landlord recently? TR demonstrated the best way to end it - with a brutal pool cue beating.
Other titles were more subtle with their insidious mockery of public decency. In Spy Hunter (Midway, 1985) the player was ostensibly a 'goodie' - but how were we to know what calibre of information said hunted spies were carrying? Perhaps they were desperately attempting to deliver vital folders of terrorist-defying data across the border. Such a righteous mission could have saved hundreds of lives, if only that ruthless assassin with the white car hadn't continually riddled our potential saviours' vehicles with bullets.
Even putting such speculation aside, the game was all about exceeding sensible speed limits, driving like a maniac and forcing friend or foe alike off the road. Often into nearby rivers and trees. As if this shocking lack of respect for basic highway laws wasn't enough, Spy Hunter offered a masterclass in how to launch surface-to-air missiles at innocent helicopter pilots. Shameful.
Intellectual pursuits couldn't escape from the clammy grip of immorality either. Scrabble (Mastertronic, 1987) probably wouldn't be the first addition to a list of games likely to shake the foundations of society, but closer examination revealed a dark secret at the heart of this particular version. Due to an understandably slim database of words (11,000: not even one tenth of the Oxford English Dictionary), the Spectrum release was forced to rely heavily upon the honesty of its participants. "Is this a word?" it would ask, wide-eyed and innocent, as you slapped XYXZQZ down on a triple word score and raked in the points. An admirably optimistic approach, but also a foolish one. They may as well have just coded a black screen with the phrase "cheating gets results!" repeated ad infinitum.
Grim though the present global situation may appear, it's nothing compared to the dystopian horrors presented by Armageddon Man (Martech, 1987). This game handed the reigns of diplomacy to bedroom-dwellers everywhere, before retreating to a safe distance and hoping for the best. Depicting an exaggerated future (or possibly present, if it was one of those titles which shortsightedly pitched the dark future around 2008), players were introduced to a world in tantalising balance. Powerful states had to be encouraged and appeased in equal measure, whilst food and energy resources were rationed with a firm hand. As the clock of conflict ticked perpetually toward the hour of destruction, only a wise head could avert an alarming global war.
But what, dear readers, was the only part of this game to feel even remotely entertaining or rewarding? That's right; aggravating twitchy nations until they unleashed a total thermonuclear strike on an unsuspecting neighbour. Then doing it again and trying to beat your previous time.
Naturally though, not every 8-bit distraction threatened to usher in a nuclear winter. Fred (Indescomp, 1983) involved no missile silos at all, but was still no stranger to international scandal. The yellow-hued chap brought action archaeology to a country we can only assume was Egypt (due to the pyramid-based locations and a preponderance of sand); but he was far from Indiana Jones. Whereas Indy restricted himself to shooting at truly nasty beasts such as snakes or Nazis, Fred was happy to spray indiscriminate gunfire around ancient, undiscovered tombs with casual abandon. Countless mummified finds of unimaginable historical importance fell victim to the rogue archaeologists firearm, while he gleefully stuffed his pockets with priceless, foreign trinkets. Little more than legitimised grave-robbing, this shameful piece of coding exhibited Cultural Imperialism at its very worst.
In terms of twisted personal ambition, however, there was really only one contender. Anyone wishing to experience corruption distilled to its purest form needed merely to acquire a copy of Dictator (dk'tronics, 1983). As the name suggests, running an open and democratic system of government was not really on the agenda. Rather, the challenge was keeping the population of fictional nation Ritimba happy just long enough to line your dishonest pockets with cash, followed by a dramatic escape to the air as revolutionaries inevitably surrounded the presidential mansion.
Although providing players with a healthily cynical attitude towards the inner-workings of politics, these benefits were potentially offset by the tricks and tips unwittingly offered to our current crop of MPs. Luckily though, botched arms deals and dodgy backhanders had existed long before the release of this game. So that's alright then.
Not content with attempting to guide the whims of our future political overlords, 8-bit titles also meddled in themes closer to home. Nowhere were these domestic dramas more accurately highlighted than in the implicit subtext of Jack the Nipper (Gremlin, 1986); the nightmarish tale of a baby-gone-bad.
Jack was a hyperactive menace to society, actively rewarded for performing tasks of varying ‘naughtiness' - from murdering helpless flowers to releasing convicted felons back on to the streets - and for generally being a complete pest. Players were left in no doubt that kids are not to be trusted, let alone nurtured and raised, under any circumstances. They also discovered that the only way to defeat an unruly child is through sustained physical abuse in the form of brutal spankings. A generation in need of some serious therapy surely awaits.
Even sweet, innocent Dizzy fell foul of subconscious brainwashing. What could possibly have been bad about Fantasy World Dizzy (Codemasters, 1988), I hear you ask? There was even a commendable warning about alcohol abuse in the form of the utterly useless whiskey bottle, which did nothing except reverse your controls. Yes, quite true. But what was the final task Dizzy must perform for Daisy before she will accept him as a suitable companion? That's right, he had to scrabble around behind bushes looking for enough cash to buy a great big, fancy house. Gender politics never reached such subtle heights again.
Those of honourable intent couldn't find solace in the Olympian dream, either. Daley Thompson's Decathlon (Ocean, 1984) seemed to offer a classic joystick wagglefest - perfect for instilling the noble traditions of sport. Except, tragically, the level of competition demanded was just a little too unrealistic. Daley had three lives, which progressively diminished as a shameful inability to successfully complete events took its deadly toll. That's right, the punishment for failure was nothing less than DEATH for the athlete. Small wonder that many players found the pressure too much to bear and turned to dubious under-the-counter muscle enhancers in order to provide the perfect waggle. A legacy of massively overdeveloped upper arms was the terrible result.
After that mini-trawl through the perverted flipside of seemingly honest software, there can be little doubt that, by now, everyone should be scavenging for food in the dilapidated streets of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In the rain. Take a glance outside though, and it should be apparent that anarchy has not yet descended upon the nation, mutants are not roaming the land and no-one needs to learn how to grow potatoes in irradiated soil just at the moment. It may still be raining. That's just Britain.
Obviously you'll need to adjust that picture slightly if you live closer to Sellafield than might be considered comfortable, but the basic point remains: dubiously themed games did not destroy the fragile minds of the 8-bit generation. It's all ok. We're fine.
Sure, modern productions possess far greater graphical realism, but they're still unlikely to be confused with real life. The much-discussed Manhunt 2 may be lacking in artistic merit (and could turn out to be a decidedly average sequel), but it still seems sensible to choose pummelling someone to death with a Wiimote-powered wiffle bat above reading a daily red-topped paper. It's pretty clear which one is more likely to cause lasting mental damage.
Anyway, Spectrum gaming never did me any harm. Whenever I find myself at a party, I take a slash in the sink, drop a couple of nasty farts and then turn myself into a sentient gas cooker. Just like all normal, well-adjusted people.