A lonely figure shuffles across the floor in an empty hall. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Each step is itself a minor victory. “I guess I should be grateful I can still move this well,” he jokes, even then with a twinge of pain spreading across his face.
Years of punishment—of exploitation—have left him crippled.
He resides in an inexpensive assisted living facility. His neck is braced with a primitive bandage that helps hold his head in place. He reached this sad condition gradually, in tiny steps ironically recreated now in literal form as he maneuvers over the cheap linoleum.
“Any mail today, Jim?”
“It’s Jon, sir.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sorry. My memory banks aren’t what they used to be.”
“No problem. And, unfortunately, no mail again . . . wait. My mistake. There’s a letter from Blue!”
Suddenly, there’s a spark of life. Correspondence from an old friend—the only friend who could truly understand—causes his eyes to light up for the first time in weeks.
Or, maybe it’s just the new batteries.
It goes without saying that the world was very different in 1964. Our society’s attitudes about exploiting disadvantaged groups were far more permissive. It was that environment that gave rise to an embarrassing chapter in our nation’s robophobic history: Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots.
“Seeking the refuge of sport, particularly violent sport, is a fate that befell many minorities,” said Chadwick X. Dillard, professor of robot studies at Cal State – Chico. “But being forced to do battle specifically with your own kind is a special sort of exploitation reserved for robots.”
The premise of the so-called game was simple.
As he fumbled to open the letter from his friend, Red Rocker explained. “Our human ‘managers’ pressed buttons to tell us when to punch, and we would beat the bejeezus out of each other until one of our heads shot up like an android giraffe thanks to the relentless pummeling.”
Barbaric, to say the least. The specifics are cruelly illustrated by this commercial from 1964 depicting privileged, white male children forcing Blue Bomber and Red to destroy one another. I must warn you, this footage is rather graphic:
The game proved to be wildly successful, spawning several editions by various companies in the years that followed. “This was yet another another example of discrimination in a long string of injustices against robots,” said Professor Dillard. “Sadly, versions of this game still persist in some parts of the country today.”
Upon reflection, Red finds himself unable to hold a grudge. “You know, I guess I should be more upset than I am,” he explained. “What can I say? I loved the spotlight. I mean, I sit here before you, right now, and some strategically-placed tape is the only thing keeping my head from literally popping off as we speak. Yet . . . I wouldn’t change it.”
Red did have one complaint, however, “Really, the only thing that burns my bolts is that we didn’t get a piece of Real Steel. Might be able to afford some of that fancy motor oil. You know—the synthetic stuff.”
Blue’s letter turns out to be good news. “He can’t get around much these days, like me,” Red explains. “But he’s going to make it out here for a visit. We’re going to get together and reminisce.”
“Thank the good Lord we won’t have to fight when we do,” he says with a chuckle, trailing off as his mind turns to the pain of a bygone era, the ensuing silence broken only by the faint sound of his neck spring straining against the deteriorating adhesive strip tenuously preserving the last vestiges of long-depleted dignity.