A few years ago, I briefly covered a series of medical themed games for the Super NES: Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon, Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus, Packy & Marlon, and the infamous Captain Novolin. Today, I’m going to cover the fifth, an obscure health education game with the provocative title of The AIDS Avenger.
The games comprised the “Health Hero” series, a series of medically-themed educational games released by Raya Systems between 1992 and 1995. Raya Systems was founded in 1988 by Steve Brown. On his LinkedIn page, Brown boasts that Raya was “the first ‘Digital Therapeutics’ company,” focusing on how Raya Systems games were part of several research studies in the 1990s examining how educational games can help children beneficially alter their health habits. Captain Novolin and Packy & Marlon taught children how to manage Type-2 diabetes, Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus focused on asthma and avoiding asthma triggers, and Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon taught about the long-term health risks of smoking. The games were created in conjunction with federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and partnerships with pharmaceutical and medical supply companies such as Novo Nordisk, Circadian Inc., and Boehringer Mannheim Diagnostics.
In the vein of the rest of the “Health Hero” series, The AIDS Avenger was an educational game designed to teach adolescents about misconceptions related to HIV and AIDS. Presumably, based on a 1993 Raya promotional video, the game was developed by PCS, a company that is infuriatingly hard to research (you try Googling the word “PCS” and see how many entries you get for PCs in general).
In fact there is not a lot of source material on The AIDS Avenger. On December 27, 1993, Raya Systems filed a trademark with U.S. government for the name “The AIDS Avenger.” the trademark application came with an image of a person in profile wearing a helmet reminiscent of Judge Dredd. The aforementioned Raya promotional film on the “Health Hero” series (preserved by VideoGameEphemera) described The AIDS Avenger as “targeting AIDS and HIV awareness in adolescents.” It also displayed some limited gameplay footage.
The game appears to have been a point-and-click adventure, as opposed to the platformer and shooter styles of Raya’s other two games of the time: Captain Novolin and Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon, respectively. The player navigates the titular Avenger (the image submitted for trademark was of the main character) through a neighborhood and a school. At one point, the player receives a prompt to answer a true or false question with the statement “HIV is the virus which leads to AIDS.” Another screen shows the player aiming The AIDS Avenger’s gun using a mouse cursor to shoot a small, indistinguishable sprite, possibly a “goblin” as indicated by a counter in the bottom left of the screen. The game also had a glossary of relevant vocabulary terms, including “Blood Transfusion,” “Condom,” “French Kissing,” “Haemophilia,” “Immune System,” and “Intravenous Drugs.”
A June 29, 1993, article in PC Magazine elaborated further on the game’s educational objectives and gameplay. It also provided screenshots not available in the promotional film:
[Y]ou must travel through various scenes fighting fear and ignorance by disseminating information. When you overhear a character making false assumptions about AIDS and HIV, you are prompted to provide the correct information from a choice of statements. If you choose correctly, you’re awarded points and you exorcise a goblin of ignorance. There are four levels to the game, which addresses more mature topics the higher you go.
According to PC Magazine, the game also came with parental controls where some of the more sensitive materials addressed in the game could be closed off by a password. The report also noted that proceeds from the game’s sales would go to the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Interested customers could order directly from Raya and the game was to retail for $39.99.
Unlike the rest of the “Health Hero” series, which all appeared exclusively on the Super NES, The AIDS Avenger was a PC game. It is likely the game’s subject matter would not have passed Nintendo’s strict content restrictions. Mentions of condom use, safe sex, and intravenous drugs, educational purposes or no, may have gone out of bounds of the company’s prohibitions on descriptions of sexual content and drug use. Possibly Nintendo, doggedly determined to maintain their image of video games as children’s toys, thought a game addressing HIV was too controversial for their tastes? We may never know.
However, this didn’t stop Nintendo from taking advantage of the ambitious title when it suited them politically. You may recall between 1993 and 1994 members of the video game industry met with federal lawmakers in a series of Congressional hearings on video game violence. The end result of these hearings was the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (I did a whole eight-part video lecture series on it). During one of the hearings, Nintendo of America President Howard Lincoln cited the “Health Hero” series as an example of the educational benefits of Nintendo systems, conveniently citing The AIDS Avenger:
“‘Captain Novaline,’ [sic] Bronkie the Bronchiasaurus,’ ‘Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon,’ and ‘the AIDS Avenger,’ teach children about diabetes, asthma, and the dangers of smoking and AIDS, respectively”
Howard Lincoln, “Responses to Questions Submitted by Senator Lieberman,” Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games, 94-5.
Sure, The AIDS Avenger never appeared on a Nintendo system, but if you can exploit it to get some free PR points and make a not-so-subtle dig at rival Sega, what’s the harm, right? This is coming from the same man who sent the following public love letter to Sega of America President Tom Kalinske, while the entire industry was facing the federally mandated creation of a ratings system: “Dear Tom, Roses are red, violets are blue, so you had a bad day, boo hoo hoo. All my best, Howard.”
A lot has been said about the quality of the “Health Hero” series, and make no mistake, the games are generally middling to bad from a gameplay perspective. Many of them suffer from poor controls, bad level design, and poor audiovisual presentation, and while I’ve never played The AIDS Avenger (if you have, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts) I can’t imagine it was much better than its fellow “Health Hero” games in these departments.
Nevertheless, in making a game tackling HIV/AIDS misconceptions, you can’t fault Raya’s ambition. Misinformation about HIV and AIDS during the 1980s and the 1990s was rampant, and public health advocates are still trying to dispel myths about the disease (including the persistent and disproven internet myth that you can get HIV from a banana). See these examples of PSA posters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from the 1980s with headlines such as “You won’t get AIDS in a restaurant” and “You won’t get AIDS from a public pool” to get a sense of what health advocates had to deal with while Raya was making The AIDS Avenger. HIV patients faced public stigma, harassment, and discrimination. Combine this with the misconception in the 1980s and 1990s that HIV only affected the LGBTQ community, which also faced rampant discrimination and harassment, which permeated all the way up to the federal government, and you had an atmosphere where people were starved for accurate information about the disease. A game like The AIDS Avenger designed to help better inform young people about HIV/AIDS and empower them to dispel misinformation had the potential to do a lot of good.
That being said, I really wish they had picked a better title. An “AIDS Avenger” was a news media trope describing HIV-positive people who deliberately infected people with the virus. For example, in 1991, there was a case of a woman who wrote a letter to Ebony magazine claiming she was deliberately infecting people, claims that were later proven to be a hoax. There was also the case of Alberto Gonzales, an Oregon man who was convicted of attempted murder in 1992 for allegedly deliberately infecting a 17-year-old girl with HIV. Urban myths persisted of people injecting people with HIV-infected blood or having sex with people just to give them the virus. However, there’s not much evidence to support these cases (see for example this 1995 article from The Independent and this one from Snopes). In any case, what is the AIDS Avenger actually avenging? Given the gameplay, he might be more accurately described as The AIDS Informer. I don’t think they meant to be insensitive, but I wish Raya had given the title a little more thought.
Let’s wrap things up by circling back to the question of whether this game was ever released. Given the scant information on The AIDS Avenger, the general assumption is that it never came out. However, the PC Magazine article soliciting orders gives me pause. This game was never going to have a mass audience appeal. Its design as a medical education game guaranteed a niche audience. This was certainly the case with the other “Health Hero” games. Copies of Captain Novolin were distributed in hospitals through Novo Nordisk, the makers of Novolin brand insulin who partnered with Raya on the game (“Captain Novolin versus Diabetes,” GamePro, September 1992, pg 14). As late as 1996, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation sold copies of the game directly with the proceeds going to diabetes research. Packy & Marlon was given out to children at two California health clinics as part of a study on educational games and diabetes practices run by Raya and Stanford University. Did The AIDS Avenger also receive a limited run in medical facilities? I recently reached out to a former Raya Systems executive who confirmed that it did come out for the PC, but could not recall any details about its distribution or whether any copies still exist. Again, we may never know, and The AIDS Avenger may very well be lost media.
But who knows? Members of the Video Game History Foundation were recently able to save and digitize, Days of Thunder a hitherto unreleased NES game. It is possible the original source code, a demo, or even a full copy of the game is out there somewhere. If you come across it, I’d be eager to hear from you.
If you want to learn more about Raya Systems and the infamous Captain Novolin, I highly recommend you check out Cassidy’s writeup of the game over at Bad Game Hall of Fame. I also recently hosted a talk on medical education games, specifically highlighting the entire “Health Hero” series for the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The talk will eventually be available on the Museum’s YouTube channel, and I will provide a link when it goes up. If you want to help become an AIDS Informer yourself and learn more about HIV/AIDS, including transmission, prevention, treatment, and common myths, check out HIV.gov, Planned Parenthood, and the American Foundation for AIDS Research.