Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Video Game Violence Heats Up

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I remember going to the roller skating rink on Thursday nights and even though I was an avid gamer, puberty had started to kick in and girls were much more interesting to me.  That is, until Mortal Kombat.  I had already seen and gotten my butt kicked by most of the Street Fighter II players, but that game was too cartoon-like and I didn’t much care for it.  Mortal Kombat was different.  It had digitized actors playing as each of the fighters, heavy blows to the face would result in large globs of blood spraying across the floor, and I’ll never forget the first time someone won a round with Johnny Cage and the words “Finish Him!” flashed on-screen.  The player walked up to his opponent and did what looked like a complex combination of buttons, the screen darkened, and Johnny Cage straight up punched the guys head off.  Blood erupted from the severed stump while the head bounced on the floor while Johnny Cage put his sunglasses on and struck a pose.  That was my first experience with a “fatality,” which would go on to be one of the most controversial subjects in gaming history.

Senator Joseph Lieberman

In the arcades it was all good and well but once this content hit home consoles in 1992 suddenly governmental groups took notice, namely senators Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) and Herb Kohl (Wisconsin).  They decided that video game companies were pandering violence to children, using these “toys” (game consoles) as the vehicle, and in December 1993 decided to take it to congress.  At that time both Nintendo and Sega had versions of Mortal Kombat on the market, but each had its own way of handling the questionable content.  Nintendo thought it was taking the moral high ground by converting the blood to gray sweat – hardcore SNES players of the time used Game Genie to turn it back to red – and changed the fatalities to bloodless “finishing moves.”  Sega, being the more salacious of the bunch, kept all the violence and fatalities intact on its consoles and instead opted for a code to unlock it – every Sega player remembers “ABACABB” and “DULLARD” for the Genesis as well as “212DU” for Game Gear.  Sega had decided to self-police its titles and implemented a rating system on its games, mostly taking queues from the motion picture industry.  There were 3 ratings: GA (general audiences), MA-13 (parental advisory under 13), and MA-17 (parental advisory under 17).  For one reason or another Mortal Kombat received an MA-13 from Sega.  Not that any of this mattered.


Senator Kohl

To the senators, changing fatalities were finishing moves didn’t change the fact that Scorpion would still char the opponent to bones.  As for the rating system, especially one that was self-established, it may as well have been a promotional logo.  To further explain their opinions, the senators screened what they claimed was the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat.  Since anyone who played that version knows how rough and fake it looks, they opted to show off the much more crisp and clear arcade version.  Semantics, sure, but still valid.  It’s important to note that Mortal Kombat was not alone in these hearings.  Night Trap, Lethal Enforcers, and Doom shared the spotlight.

The fallout of these initial hearings was actually quite large.  USA Today, the Washington Post, and New York Times each captured the scene in Night Trap where a young woman in a nightgown is assaulted and taken away.  Night Trap was pulled from Toys R Us shelves, which at this time was the exclusive retailer for the recently released Sega CD console.  No matter how much Digital Pictures CEO Tom Zito contested that the controversial scene in the title was to protect the girl from getting kidnapped and not to cause it like the hearing claimed, it fell on deaf ears.  For those that go back and look up the game and/or scene in question (it’s linked in the photo below), you can see it’s rather tame and pointless even by the standards of 1993.  In addition senator Lieberman penned the Video Game Ratings Act of 1994 and introduced it to congress in February ’94.  It’s important to note that this Act sought a governmental body, the Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission, that would provide an industry-wide standard for video game ratings.  Congress had stated that if the industry themselves would agree to set up one central body to do this job, then this law would not be passed.

Click on the picture to see what all the fuss was about concerning this scene

As a result, Congress held hearings in 1994, to get “video games” to explain themselves.  Before Nintendo and Sega spoke there were the expected experts explaining how video games are basically training serial killers with every new title.  The National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) stated a strong case for Mortal Kombat and Doom as “training early killers,”¹ which they have continued even today.  According to an article by Wired’s Chris Kohler, a college professor attacked Nintendo at not only being violent but also “sexist and racist.”¹  Even more interesting, however, is the fact that after this bombardment of hate, Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln and Sega’s Bill White chose to trade blows with each other over their competitor’s wrongdoing instead of teaming up to defend the industry.  This is by far the most significant and unfortunate factors of these hearings.  Once again Night Trap fell under the limelight as Lincoln hammered away at its content while also taunting Sega and its other titles².  White, on the other hand, chose to explain how responsible Sega was being with its rating system and attacked Nintendo for having inappropriate content without any rating or warning to parents².  Not only that, both Lincoln and White chose to slam each other outside of the courtroom and in public papers with statements that would have been Twitter fodder nowadays².


When all was said and done the industry had made a mess of itself and no one within video games looked good.  It was high time to establish a universal rating system for fear that the government would get involved and potentially senator Lieberman deciding the fate of future video games.  Despite Sega hoping that its rating system would be employed, many of the big companies in video games came together to establish a new organization: the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA).  On July 29, 1994, the IDSA went in front of congress with plans for its own unique rating system and the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which still exists today.  I must admit I find the ratings to simply be more dissective, complicated versions of Sega’s original concept, but they have been in use for more than 15 years now.  Additionally the ratings board has begun displaying highlights of what content a parent can expect in a game with full (and often hilarious) descriptions on the main website.

ESRB’s current ratings and descriptions

The battle over violence in video games continues even today, a simple Google search will net you endless amounts of articles, each trying to dissect what I believe is an unprovable case.  Nowadays video game journalists scour the pages of the ESRB more to find games that haven’t been announced but are submitted for rating rather than any arguments over validity.  It may not be perfect, but the self-governed video game industry has been able to keep back attempts at censorship as recently as this year.  Video games will probably never be seen as anything but a toy by some generations, much like rock music and television before them, however they have come a long way to legitimizing their place since a senator took issue with something he had never taken the time to play himself.

1: Although linked, all statements regarding the professor and NCTV’s statements are from Kohler’s Wired article:
2: Proof of the attacks and mud-slinging surprisingly showed in a Chicago Tribune article in early 1994:

Written by Fred Rojas

November 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm

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