This piece originally appeared on in a slightly modified format. It has been included here to discuss how unintended consequences of legislation can radically change art, particularly new forms that are based on emerging technology. 

People decried the influence of video games on popular culture long before Mortal Kombat. Arcades were time- and money-wasters. Tetris rotted your brain. Portable gaming systems destroyed kids’ patience (or tried that of their parents, really). If you are a gamer who grew up in the 80’s, you know what I’m talking about.

These were just the typical technology-as-portents-of-doom and proved to be almost entirely without base. Most people knew it. How dangerous could dumping blocks on top of each other really be? Were Mario Mario and his brother, Luigi Mario, worse than the A-Team? Hadn’t people heard the same kind of arguments about film, television, and rock n’ roll? Despite a couple busts, video games got more and more popular every year with little-to-no outside intervention regarding their content.

…that is, until 1992, when a gamer could finally rip the still-beating heart out of an opponent’s chest.

To be fair, Mortal Kombat was just a bellwether for the rest of the industry. All the vices that had once been limited due to technological constraints were now much more easily implemented. You could have sexual overtures and imagery. You could have graphic demonic imagery. You could have a bit of the old ultra-violence. In Ed Boon and John Tobias’s 1992 fighting game, you could have all three, rendered in some of the most advanced graphics of the day (thanks to photo-capture technology). That, along with a bold, balanced mix of martial arts moves, chopsocky weirdness, and iconic characters made Mortal Kombat irresistible to teens.

This, naturally, horrified parents… and emboldened the politicians who pandered to them. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl launched an investigation into the affect of video game violence on the society largely because of Mortal Kombat’s popularity. This was mostly grandstanding, with little hard evidence given on either side. Even Dr. Craig A. Anderson, a noted psychologist and Lieberman/Kohl’s star witness, stated that “some studies have yielded non-significant video game effects,” before going on to compare the damage of the medium to second-hand smoke: hard to see but undeniably there. That statement would have been more impressive if “some studies” hadn’t actually meant every serious, unbiased study on the subject. Never ones to let the facts get in the way of good political spin, the senators continued to use much of the same pseudo-science and outright balderdashery that Frederic Wertham had used to attack comic books in the 1950s.

It also brought about the same end result: a threat of federal action that lead to the creation of a committee (the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB) that was to self-police the industry, complete with a ratings system. Gone were the halcyon days when video game companies preyed, lamprey-like, on the fragile form of Junior. The government had stepped in as it had or would with films and television, indirectly “proving” what some had worried about before: that video games were dangerous enough to require federal intervention. But no longer. Developers would be controlled. Parents could rest easy. Crisis was averted.

The hearings and committee were twin black eyes for an industry that had largely tried to steer clear of controversy. Nintendo, for instance, inspected every title that went onto its systems to make sure that there wasn’t anything of deviance that might tarnish its family-friendly image. Even when it ported content, such as Mortal Kombat, programmers were instructed to remove all but the most cartoonish blood and divisive content from a game. A few gaming companies produced more risqué titles, but the vast majority—including Sega, SNK, Atari, and Hudson—had similar ways of vetting content. It was not enough.

The parents (read: voters) got their way and everybody was happy. Kohl and Lieberman slapped each other on the backs and went back to doing what they did best (creating tax havens for the Kohl-owned Milwaukee Bucks and advocating for the warfare state, respectively), secure in the knowledge that they had righted the wrongs of the past and picked up a number of brownie points in Clinton-era America. The ESRB was there to stay.

Except that something happened that people did not expect: the ratings system completely and utterly failed to stem the tide of violent video games. Indeed, mainstream games got more violent than ever. A new generation of consoles had even more power than the systems that produced Mortal Kombat, allowing for polygon-based breasts and limb-destroying gunplay. Gamers were growing up, too (from an average age in the mid-teens in 1987 to the mid-20s in 1997), and desired more “mature” titles that appealed to their desires. Mario and Sonic stuck around, but Duke, Lara, and Snake soon joined their ranks. Even Nintendo got in on the act, selling Mortal Kombat II largely uncensored.

This process has continued on into the current generation of titles to an even further extent. Whereas the top-selling titles were once almost exclusively all-ages, it is now becoming odd when a non-mature title tops the charts. Just one among Nintendo’s top-ten-selling titles from the combined NES/SNES/Gameboy days would have been considered inappropriate for younger gamers (the later-“Teen”-rated Street Fighter II). The Genesis and Mega Drive had just two (before clicking, see if you can guess). By contrast, the Sony Playstation itself had three, the PS2 had five, and the PS3 (to the current date) has had seven. Out of twenty titles (top-ten each) for the Xbox and Xbox 360, just three are considered all-ages: Kinect Adventures, Project: Gotham Racing, and Need for Speed: Underground 2.

What has the ESRB done about this? Largely nothing. Oh, sure, they’ve rated every console game that has been released since 1994, from E for Everyone to AO for Adults Only, with a bunch of steps in between. In fact, they are known for over-rating many titles (giving a Mature rating to a title that was, in its home country, a Teen-rated equivalent). Yet, despite all the good it has done to inform parents as to what they are purchasing for their kids, it has not stemmed the tide of the increase in questionable content.

Why? The gaming companies were resistant at first but later welcomed the ratings. These “mature” games were big sellers, and publishers no longer needed to self-regulate in order to avoid scrutiny. They had a semi-independent board to do that for them. There was nobody to blame but the parents themselves: if you buy a mature-rated game for Junior, don’t come crying to us.

Had Lieberman and Kohl actually done their homework, they would have seen that something similar happened to film. Self-censorship led to largely controversy-free titles (with the exceptions of B-Movies and pornography), but a few nervous nellies insisted that a rating system be put in place. The MPAA Ratings Board was created, and with the protection of said board, mainstream films soon grew to be as violent and vice-ridden as the world itself. Television would follow with mandatory ratings and V-Chip installations in the late 90’s.

This was not correlation equaling causation, nor am I condoning the dissolution of the ESRB. It is fantastic that parents have an easy guide to content that they would feel would be appropriate for their kids. Of course ratings boards do not lead to violent video games.

What they do is codify what is acceptable to sell in the marketplace, and to whom. Junior can have Kirby; Chugz can have Halo. Nobody has to worry about anybody else’s business. Where once producers feared backlash for releasing “dirty” produce to the general populace, now they strut with heads high and chests out to the moral high ground while peeved parents desperately try to get others to do their actual parenting for them.When the producers of Mortal Kombat have the advantage in morals, you know you’ve lost the battle.

The ESRB didn’t do it’s job, then, but it did do something better. It simultaneously allowed for better selection of art and revealed the hypocrisy of those who couldn’t bear the thought of actually doing their jobs. Ratings didn’t fail; their creators did. It worked so well that one may think that it was all an elaborate ploy. Despite controversies that crop up every once in a while, video games have largely been accepted as mainstream entertainment. The fact that there are games that appeal to adults has a lot to do with it.

As for the heroes of our story?

Mortal Kombat became the first game to receive a “Mature” rating. It now appears quaint next to its dozen-plus sequels and spin-offs, which include fatalities and beatings hideous enough to make Jack the Ripper blush. It started one of the most popular video game franchises of all time, though it has lost some of its violence cred in recent years compared to other franchises such as Gears of War, God of War, and Call of Duty.

Senator Herbert Kohl largely ignored Nintendo, Sega, et al thereafter. He moved on to other means of social control, namely voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, supporting the strengthening of bankruptcy protection while whittling away at individual protection under the same laws, and backing the Patriot Act. He’s also a philanthropist who donates much of his personal income to charities (though it’s hard to call his biggest contribution a charity, really).

Senator Joe Lieberman, on the other hand, never gave up on video games. He once again led the Moral Crusade against video games when Rockstar Games, creators of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, got into hot water for its “Hot Coffee” mod, which allowed the main character to have simulated sex.* This was not his only moment of lunacy, however. Lieberman finished his term with the lowest approval ratings of any sitting U.S. Senator. Perhaps if he’d spent more time doing actual good for the world rather than trying to score cheap political points, he wouldn’t be the pariah that he is now.

Then again, some people never learn.

*Nevermind that the good Senator was silent about the game when it featured prostitution, drugs, gang violence, and crooked cops. This was consensual sex we were talking about here. Gotta protect Junior, after all.

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