Confession time: I was a classic “good kid” for most of my early life. I didn’t drink until I was in my senior year of high school, and I didn’t touch drugs — even weed — until I was in college. Maybe that’s why games like Drug Wars on DOS, furtively played on classroom computers throughout the 90s, held a special kind of allure to me.
Developed by John E. Dell in 1984, Drug Wars is a pretty straightforward simulation game based around the economic concept of arbitrage. In other words, buy low, sell high. You play as a dealer in New York City, trading in everything from cocaine to acid to quaaludes. With a loan shark and the cops breathing down your neck, your goal is to make as much cash as you can in a calendar month by traveling around the boroughs and unloading your illicit substances for more than you paid for them.
I don’t think any parents or teachers realized we were ever playing Drug Wars, or I imagine they would have been pretty unhappy about it. This was a game about selling drugs and shooting cops that was getting passed around during the peak period of furor over video games eroding the morality of children. It helped that Drug Wars was text-based. At a glance, any teacher peering over to see what their students were doing on the computer would just see a lot of words, which wouldn’t trigger the same immediate alarms as the graphical tank battles of Scorched Earth, for instance.
Drug Wars was actually based on an earlier game, a BASIC title called Star Trader, released in 1974. That game kicked off an entire genre of space trading games in which players travel from one planet or star system to another in order to buy and sell goods, including titles like Eve Online and Privateer. But Drug Wars added that spice of depravity to the proceedings that gave it a sordid appeal to middle schoolers straining against the limits of childhood. Was it a good game? I honestly couldn’t tell you, since I mostly only ever really watched other people play it.
As with most successful computer games of the 80s by hobbyist developers, Drug Wars was cloned, ported, and built-upon over and over again. Dell released multiple versions himself, then a game called Dope Wars for Windows swept the internet in the late 90s. The DS title Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars includes the basic drug trading arbitrage mechanic, and there have been numerous mobile variants of the game as well. There was even a Zynga-developed social network version of the game, an MMORPG that was eventually dropped in 2009. And of course, everything that was at any time popular is now being resurrected in zombie metaverse form — yes, there’s a terrible-looking Dope Wars NFT project out there now too.
In a way, Drug Wars anticipated games like GTA, which allow players to revel to chaos. That said, it was arguably more cerebral than later action-focused titles, being primarily about doing basic math. It certainly wasn’t a nuanced or even broadly accurate depiction of policing, the drug trade, or even New York in the 80s. Of course it wasn’t — this was the decade when much of the rest of the country saw NYC as a blighted hellhole. But if nothing else, Drug Wars proved the power of players’ imaginations. With the barest of descriptions, text-based games built around compelling mechanics could transport us into the outer reaches of space — or the outer boroughs.