The Berzerk arcade cabinet is a fascinating piece of video game history. It was one of the first games to use voice synthesis, which was an insanely expensive process back in 1980. In fact, it’s estimated that Berzerk‘s 30-word vocabulary cost $1,000 per word to produce due to its expensive Linear Predictive Coding. The game was also notable for introducing the world to “Evil Otto,” an antagonistic smiley face that would chase the player down if he or she spent too much time in a single panel of the maze. (It’s no coincidence that Evil Otto shares a surname with Dave Otto, a security officer who had worked with Berzerk designer Alan McNeil.)
Perhaps the most macabre piece of trivia about this arcade game, however, is that it’s infamously known as the first arcade game to be tied to the death of its players.
Now, urban legends are bound to spring up from circumstances like this, and it’s been said that Berzerk had killed three people at Friar Tuck’s Game Room arcade in Calumet City, Illinois. The scary thing is, at least two of these deaths actually happened.
The first — and the one that is almost certainly more urban legend than truth — was Jeff Dailey, who allegedly had entered his initials twice in the Berzerk machine’s top ten players list before dying of a heart attack. Weird detail: His score was 16,660 (remove the “binary” numbers, 1 and 0, and you’ve got 666). Reports are conflicted about this, though it’s been claimed that Dailey had been friends with Peter Burkowski, death number two.
Simon Parkin’s book Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline tells the story:
(The full book can be purchased on Amazon, if you want to read it. And you should.)
Some have claimed there is no official source for this story, and that it’s likely part of an urban legend. I, however, managed to find this article in the April 27, 1982 edition of the Chicago Tribune:
Sadly, Burkowski’s death was no hoax. (The only detail still up in the air here is the spelling of his last name: most sources say “Burkowski” while the Chicago Tribune says “Bukowski” with no R.)
Mark Allen, Lake County deputy coroner (mentioned in the Tribune article) seemed to think the source of the heart attack may have been the combination of elevated heart rate (due to the excitement of scoring so high in Berzerk) and some scarring on his heart tissue, which would have been present long before he’d entered the arcade. Allen is quoted elsewhere as saying: “We certainly don’t want to scare people away from video games. Peter could have died in a number of stressful situations. We once had a boy who had a heart attack while studying for an exam. It just happened that he died in front of a video game, but it’s also quite interesting.”
Berzerk‘s designer Alan McNeil has publicly refuted one death while acknowledging the other, according to a sidebar titled “Kill the Humanoid!” in Issue 47 of Retro Gamer magazine.
This is in line with everything I’ve seen thus far. If Jeff Dailey did indeed die under the same circumstances, why would the Chicago Tribune leave that detail out? All the evidence seems to imply that Dailey’s death was nothing more than an urban legend. (GotGame’s Gamebusters did their own research on the topic and came to roughly the same conclusion I did on this one. They did find an obituary for a Jeff Dailey who would have been approximately the right age, though he died in a completely different state under completely different circumstances.)
The third death may have had absolutely nothing to do with Berzerk, though it took place outside the very same Friar Tuck’s Game Room in 1988. Sources claim there was an altercation that ended when one arcade-goer decided to stab another to death. Some have suggested the fight started over a quarter that was inserted into a Berzerk machine (the very same one Burkowski had played?), though this is a difficult detail to confirm now that so many decades have passed.
Of course, one of the most eerie details about this whole thing is that Calumet City is home to not one but two water towers that bear a striking resemblance to Evil Otto.