People play video games for a myriad of reasons. Relaxation, mental stimulation, engrossing plotlines, eye-catching graphics, and much more draw gamers to certain titles. But one goal in particular lures players back to games over and over again: high scores. In the modern world of gaming, it’s easy to share personal accolades. Consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation offer achievements and trophies for completing various tasks throughout their games. Mobile apps often feature badges, online ranking boards, or missions that gain the player points. All of these are immediately viewable not only to the player, but to anyone they friend on that platform as well. But prior to this, it was a bit harder to show off your gaming skill.
In 1978, Taito’s smash hit Space Invaders became the first arcade game to save high scores, allowing players to compete against one another for the top slot. But what about home consoles? How could you show off your gaming mastery if no one was around to see your triumphs? Publisher Activision came up with the answer, and it’s about as “1980s” as it can get!
Founded in 1979 by former Atari developers, Activision became the first third-party game publisher. Nearly all the company’s early games included a segment in their instruction booklets about earning a special iron-on patch. This generally involved reaching a certain score or beating a level in a specified amount of time. After meeting this criterion, the player snapped a picture of their television screen showing the relevant score, waited for the film to get developed and printed, and then mailed the physical photo out to Activision headquarters. In return for this proof, Activision sent back a special patch, along with a congratulatory note.
Most games only had one patch associated with them, such as Chopper Command (1982) which offered a patch for earning 10,000 points, and Skiing (1980), for slaloming down the Expert level hill in under 28.2 seconds. But others offered multiple rewards for higher scores and more difficult achievements. Robot Tank (1983) awarded a Medal of Merit, a Cross of Excellence, and a Star of Honor based on the number of tanks a player destroyed. The sports game Decathlon (1983) fittingly offered bronze, silver, and gold medals for scores topping off at 10,000 points.
Getting those patches probably sounds like an awful lot of work today—and I’m sure Activision didn’t offer two-day shipping—but imagine swaggering into your local arcade wearing your favorite denim jacket, with high score patches blazing up and down both sleeves. You’ve just announced your video game prowess without having to say a word! And you can bet your fellow gamers were just waiting to compare their own patch collection, to see who REALLY dominated the scene.
It might be easier to share high scores with today’s technology, but these vividly colored patches stood out as unique, physical symbols in an era when bragging rights were less accessible, and it’s easy to see why gamers coveted them. While these patches have long since been discontinued, we’re excited to preserve a selection at The Strong to document this phase in gaming culture.