How the F.B.I. Made 'Winners Don't Use Drugs' the Arcade Motto of the '90s
How the intelligence community tried to win the drug war one arcade at a time.
Walk into your local retro arcade and you’ll see it. Cycling through the teaser screens on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Gunblade, Rambo III, and more is a pixelated image of a blue or sometimes grey background glowing for that moment before you drop in a quarter. In the center is the gold-flecked seal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Similarly gold letters on the bottom read: “Winners Don’t Use Drugs.” When the slogan was first introduced in the late ‘80s, kids saw it as a harmless scold among a sea of War on Drugs messaging aimed at them. Aside from the occasional ironic D.A.R.E. T-shirt, it might be the most glaring piece of period propaganda from that era, going strong, now a generation later.
“Winners Don’t Use Drugs” was such a ubiquitous symbol of childhood days spent in darkened arcades that finding a gamer who doesn’t remember it instantly outs them as a hapless n00b. Gamers might assume this emblem of the War on Drugs must’ve been wrung through test groups or some G-man brain trust. But nah. It started with a dinner between old buddies.
In 1989, the director of the F.B.I.’s Office of Public Affairs was Bob Davenport, who was tasked by then-F.B.I. Director William S. Sessions to get a proposed series of public service announcements in front of American kids. “We assigned a couple of our headquarters staff to come up with some ideas,” Davenport told me by phone. “Of course, we had a lot of other things going on too. We were doing conferences around the country with local law enforcement trying to get them more involved in drug prevention.”
The bureau distributed a zillion pamphlets and held countless conversation sessions with kids and their parents. But the campaign struggled to find a distinct, personal message. Then former F.B.I. agent Bob Fay got involved.
Fay was by then the executive director of the American Amusement Machine Association, the trade organization for companies that made, among other quarter-eaters, arcade games, which in the days of 8-bit Nintendo dominance, totally crushed home consoles for gaming experiences. Fay was friends with Davenport from their Bureau days, and happened to make dinner plans with him one night in Washington. The subject of a new anti-drug campaign at the F.B.I. came up.
“We were talking about my new career and how he had this emphasis on drug awareness,” Fay told me, “and I said, ‘Hey, I might be able to help you out. I’ve got thousands of video games that we could put a message on.” Davenport recalled a similarly random beginning to the campaign, and attributed the video game aspect to Fay’s new job and his offhanded suggestion. “Frankly we hadn’t even thought about that until Bob Fay came to us and said, ‘Look, I think I can help you out,’” Davenport said.
Their chat was a rare moment of serendipity in an era when Washington tried really hard to steer America’s youth away from all the mood-altering substances that used to get their parents good and high. You might remember it as a weird time to be a kid.
In the 1980s America adopted a take-all-prisoners stance on controlled substances, most notably crack and other hard drugs that gained a certain sense of inflated infamy in the Reagan years. In 1971, Richard Nixon declared that drug abuse would be “public enemy No. 1” — rather a compliment, really, considering Nixon’s taste in enemies. He jacked up the size and visibility of federal drug enforcement agencies, and launched the sort of countermeasures we’re still laboring under today: mandatory prison sentences for possessing drugs and making possession of even small amounts of substances felonious.
Jimmy Carter eased these policies during his term as president, but under Ronald Reagan the country cracked down on nonviolent drug users again and pumped billions into the military ostensibly to fight trafficking. The Reagan Administration used direct and covert force to attack operations that were dealing in hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit drugs. At home, the government warned 7-year-olds not to smoke crack.
The feds started with programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), created in 1983 to send police into schools to talk to kids about drugs and addiction. In 1984, First Lady Nancy Reagan initiated her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, the abstinence-based approach of its day. The implicit message was that drug dealers were pretty awesome and would offer you free stuff, which you should decline because Nancy Reagan told you to.
To get this idea across, the First Lady used highly-publicized appearances as herself on TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes and had other popular shows like Punky Brewster incorporate drug-related storylines into special episodes. Pop singer LaToya Jackson recorded a maybe-terrible, definitely amazing song, “Just Say No”, that spoke about drug abuse. Such varied pop culture personalities as Pee-wee Herman, Clint Eastwood, RoboCop, and the cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles recorded PSAs warning against drug use.
Shit, man, Pee-wee’s getting stern. So many of these messages were predicated on what the government thought about “being cool,” a sucker’s game for any authority figure. Meanwhile Reagan was getting money moved: His Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 appropriated $1.7 billion of federal tax money to combat trafficking and also set mandatory minimum prison sentences for people who didn’t listen to Paul Reubens.
Fay and Davenport’s casual dinner idea to spread the anti-drug message via video games came out of the F.B.I.’s Drug Awareness Program. It was headed by the Bureau’s director, Sessions, a Reagan appointee. Sessions wanted to connect the message through activities young people enjoyed, a philosophy that grew out of his abiding connection to the Boy Scouts.
Sessions’ family has a long and decorated scout pedigree. He received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, as did his son, Pete, who is now a Texas Congressman. William Sessions’s father wrote the first God and Country handbook the Boy Scouts of America still hands out. It was from the scouts that Sessions knew the value of speaking to youths through their pursuits and hobbies, an approach he instilled in the Drug Awareness Program.
But the Boy Scouts were too small a niche for the F.B.I.’s anti-drug ambitions. How could this seemingly antagonistic federal agency buddy up to kids? Enter: Fay and Davenport. But how did a former F.B.I. agent get into the video game industry in the first place?
In the mid-1980s, before he took his position at the AAMA, Fay was the F.B.I.’s white-collar crimes supervisor in Atlanta. He got into the video game scene because he ran an undercover operation that took down one of the biggest video game piracy schemes in the world.
“The way it worked was that counterfeiters would go from Korea to Toronto, and then into the States,” Fay told me. “In those days customs wasn’t checked from Canada, and if they had a good pipeline, and they had distributors in the States, people they know would spread out and would buy these and sell them to whoever they could sell them to.” It was a major problem.
At the time, the industry’s top concern was software piracy; counterfeit versions accounted for a fifth of all video games in the late ‘80s. One of Fay’s former classmates at Rutgers University happened to be the president of the U.S. subsidiary of a major video game developer, and asked Fay whether the F.B.I. could help stop the counterfeiters who were costing the company and the industry millions.
“He said, ‘Look I could be losing $5 million per game,’” Fay explained. “I said, ‘Look that’s a decent white-collar crime case.’” Just like that, undercover F.B.I. agents had to start boning up on their video game knowledge.
Agents gathered evidence against five men who were running the counterfeit video game ring. But that created a dilemma for Fay. “It was pretty well organized from Korea into Canada, then Canada into the United States,” Fay said. “I said, ‘Look I could pull the plug on it and get these guys arrested, but if anything goes to trial then we couldn’t continue the undercover operation.’”
The case eventually went to trial, and as the operation wound down, Fay’s expertise presented a new opportunity with the AAMA. The executive director was leaving, and Fay had learned the inner workings of the industry. They asked him whether he’d be willing to leave the bureau for the head job.
And that’s how Fay eventually found himself at a dinner with Davenport, brainstorming a way to bring an anti-dope motto into arcades across the country.
Davenport recalled that Fay’s nonchalant offer began picking up steam soon after the dinner. “He made a couple of trips to headquarters in Washington, and we had several meetings with our staff,” Davenport said. “It was a spontaneous thing that just kind of happened.”
Because Fay was essentially a made man, as a former F.B.I. agent, getting the slogan together was a relative breeze. “In this situation, due to my relationship with Bob,” Fay said, “it was just a give-and-take. ‘Hey we can do this.’ ‘What do you want us to do? What do you need?’ ‘This is what I need.’” And it was a very small operation: Four guys got it going. “Once they gave me what they needed and the Bureau gave me the materials to meet the requirements,” Fay said, “[the manufacturers] were able to get it programmed.” He told me outright: “It was a very easy process.”
But what, then, should the slogan say? How could the Bureau be concise without coming off as condescending or paternalistic? The teams spitballed phrases and designs. Fay remembers that Davenport came up with the final slogan. Davenport believes it was someone else. “We were just tossing things around,” he said. Anyway, both of them found “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” direct and snappy, with a blithe cheerfulness that would’ve fit at any Boy Scouts meeting. “We wanted to get it to something that was short,” Fay said, “something that you could say winners not only applied to game-playing, but also if you want to be a winner in life, you can’t use drugs.”
Sessions and the Bureau didn’t burden the process with stipulations — just that the design be simple and distinct. “We needed something that was going to be recognizable with the seal there,” Fay said. “Then we wanted to have the short message there, something that would be read and digested by the young people, because the video game players were mainly teenagers — probably 12 to 21 or 22 years old.”
Davenport said the brevity of the message was a bit of a departure for the Bureau. “In some of the other programs we had a lot more detail about the dangers of using drugs,” he said. “But as far as the video game was concerned, I think it was just sort of a flash.”
To get that flash, they agreed it needed to be outside of the gameplay itself. The message would appear on an arcade game’s attract mode, so that it could be read when the game wasn’t being played. There was one other stipulation: “Another big factor in the program was you didn’t have to put money in for the message to repeat,” Fay said.
Fay used his position as head of the AAMA to facilitate the launch of the slogan with 20 of the biggest domestic and international video game developers, including Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Williams, Namco, Midway, Konami, and Taito. A January 1989 press conference with Sessions at F.B.I.’s Washington D.C. headquarters included the heads of three of the game developers. “I made a contest of it,” Fay said. “I said, ‘Look, the first manufacturer that gets the slogans programmed in we’ll feature your product at the F.B.I. press conference.’” So they did.
As the slogan began its rollout, the image became more and more ubiquitous. “It was pretty much impossible to go to a video arcade in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s without seeing it at least a few times,” video game historian Patrick Scott Patterson told me. “Given how quickly game titles would be released and rotated in arcades and street locations, the video game world always changed fast. Yet the ‘Winners’ logo was always found on-screen somewhere.”
The seal also had the unintended benefit of making pirated games easier to spot. “The ones from manufacturers had a seal on it, so we could tell that it wasn’t a copy,” Fay said. “The counterfeit copies didn’t have the F.B.I. shield.”
Did their play work? Short answer: Who knows. Longer answer, asking Davenport and Fay: They nailed what the Bureau asked of them. “It’s difficult to know when doing a public relations program how effective it was,” Fay said. “The Bureau was happy with it. We were happy with it. It gave us as an industry some credibility that the F.B.I. would trust us to do it.” Davenport’s take: “From some of the feedback that we were getting from the video game industry and others in the drug awareness program, we felt that it was pretty successful.” And there’s no telling how many impressions those screens made over the years, across how many games, across how many kids. The number must be into the billions by now.
Their famous slogan was loaded onto arcade games until 2000. The Environmental Protection Agency even tried its approach with a “Recycle It, Don’t Trash It!” screen that never reached the same levels of popularity. “Winners” still keeps getting pop-culture nods. An episode of The Simpsons featured a caricature of George H.W. Bush spouting off the famous phrase. An episode of Futurama included a game with an attract screen that tells lead character Fry that “Winners Don’t Play Video Games.” Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game includes a replica of the screen with a seal of the “Vegan Bureau of Investigation” and a quote from “VBI Director William S. Broccoli” telling gamers, “Winners Don’t Eat Meat.” And like D.A.R.E., it eventually got its own T-Shirt. Wear it with unironic pride.
Even today, people I asked about the “Winners Don’t Use Drugs” campaign consider it a more nostalgic — and hell, who knows, maybe effective — piece of messaging than the head-patting of “Just Say No.” I pestered players at Barcade, the arcade near my office that happens to serve craft beers with your Galaga, and they seemed to remember it fondly. “Oh yeah, I remember that,” one said. “Weird, I hadn’t thought about that in forever.” It was, after all, just a flash on the screen, part of the wallpaper of any arcade in the ‘90s. Then again, maybe kids were already primed for government messages in their favorite activities, like the similarly benign anti-piracy messages that flickered on after firing up just about any VHS cassette.
An old-school gamer friend of mine recalled the slogan immediately. “I specifically remember this being the precursor to tearing up Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, X-Men, etc.,” he said. “Seeing it was always the moment before you wiped the sweat off your palms and gave your arcade challenger a look like you’re going to murder him. Drugs at that age just generally terrified me, so seeing that on something I looked forward to obviously solidified the point,” he said. “Although I smoke weed now, I guess I could say that ‘Winners Don’t Use Drugs’ was a pretty integral part of why I don’t do hard drugs: because the Ninja Turtles never did it, and I know that because I paid the quarter every time.”
Patterson, the video game historian, saw the slogan as an ill-advised, if not innocuous, intrusion by the government. “I’m sure they thought that the arcades would be the perfect place to ‘reach the children’ or what not, as the detached political leaders out there have always thought of video games as a kid’s thing and still do today,” he said. “It might have been a little weird but it sure beat the government continuing to add extra taxes and regulations to what arcades we had left by that point in time, so I guess I never really minded back then.”
Davenport and Fay were optimistic. “I think it was sharp, catchy,” Fay said. “It was appropriate because you were getting ready to play a game, and when you play a video game you hope to win, you know, get a good score and win.” Davenport echoed that statement: “There was sort of a subliminal message there that maybe stuck in the minds of the game players.”
Davenport left the F.B.I. in 1990 and became director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He later did some consulting work for various government agencies, but is now fully retired and lives on a farm in Kentucky. Fay, meanwhile, has continued in the game industry. He has held top positions in international sales and government relations at companies like Incredible Technologies, the largest U.S. manufacturer of coin-operated games; Merit Industries, a leader in bar game touch-screen time-killers; AMI Entertainment, the company that makes those touch-screen jukeboxes in bars; and now serves as a sales consultant for Apple Industries, a company that specializes in photo booths. He also works as an intellectual property protection consultant for AMI and for Raw Thrills, the arcade company that published the Big Buck Hunter series.
The slogan attributed to Sessions would actually outlast his F.B.I. tenure by seven years. A Department of Justice report filed in January 1993 by Attorney General William Barr included accusations that Sessions had improperly used tax exemptions for travel in limousines and private jets, among other alleged misappropriations. Sessions, the old scout, denied wrongdoing, but he was dismissed by incoming President Clinton in July of that year. The “Winners” screen lived on, however, attributing the quote simply to “FBI Director.”
It might as well have been signed by “Anonymous Bureaucrat.” Unlike the other anti-drug pitches of its day, “Winners” was unselfconsciously stiff in a way that turned out to be more durable than the other cartoonish messaging regularly seen by kids. It was never cool, and didn’t try to arbitrate for them. By stressing the word “winners,” the phrase went straight to the point of gaming itself. And in games, there’s something quantitative about it. No one even knows what the hell “cool” is. But you sure can tell who’s a winner when someone whips your ass at Street Fighter II and forces you to plug another quarter into the machine.