Hey buddy, if you kill yourself then who's going to play Vice City?
Almost from the beginning of the video game industry, there have been battles over the content of the games, particularly when it came to their appeal to children. Early on, however, the limited graphics gave the industry a certain amount of protection. There was always some form of conflict happening, but it required a fair bit of imagination to fill in the gaps left by the blocky style required by the hardware. With the release of the Super Nintendo and the Genesis, as well as the continuing evolution of arcade hardware, the graphics finally got to the point that senators decided to get involved. If the game was cartoony or unrealistic looking, it attracted far less attention. Because of this, games such as Street Fighter II
It's hard to believe that something like this is actually controversial!
and Time Killers (which featured dismemberment of your opponent) were often passed over in order to focus on more realistic depictions of violence, especially during the Congressional hearings of 1993.
The two games that led the way for the controversy were both amazingly mediocre games. The first, Mortal Kombat, used digitized graphics to present a one-on-one fighting game. Designed by Ed Boon and John Tobias, Mortal Kombat was a response to Street Fighter II. It featured multiple hidden moves and very similar design mechanics. What set it apart, however, were the moves one could make at the end of the game, called
I had an option, I could go with Dana Plato from Diff'rent Strokes or Dana Plato in softcore porn. I chose softcore porn!
fatalities. Using a fairly obscure variety of moves and good timing, a player could make their digital avatar rip the head and spine off their opponent's shoulders, turn into a dragon and bite the opponent in two, or pull the loser's heart out with their bare hand. They were hardly realistic and the blood was splashy and over-the-top, but it didn't take long before pulling off a fatality in the arcade was a sign of prestige. Even during the fights themselves, Mortal Kombat featured large splashes of blood and brutal moves, such as the uppercut.
The other game that put the industry in the national spotlight was Night Trap. Starring Diff'rent Strokes' Dana Plato, this was a horribly campy game with very limited game play that appeared on the Sega CD. I feel safe in saying that anyone who has played Night Trap would happily tell you what a steaming pile of manure the game actually is. If it weren't for the controversy stirred up by the hearings the game would have quickly and quietly flopped, but instead it became the leading game of the Sega CD, sometimes selling for double its suggested retail price. The game was actually created in 1986 by
This is probably the least excited I have ever been about opening a package!
Tom Zito and was designed to work off of VHS tapes. Originally, Zito planned to make the game based off of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but negotiations fell apart. Featuring giggling, obnoxious girls, the game was about trying to rescue them from fledgling vampires through the use of surveillance and booby traps. The vampires actually dressed up in black stocking over their heads and tried to get the girls' blood through the use of power drills. It was truly a painful, hideous game, but it caught the attention of all the wrong people and was instantly misrepresented.
Two aspects tied Mortal Kombat and Night Trap directly to Sega, leading to them leading the defense in the joint hearings. First was the fact that Night Trap was published on the Sega CD. It would eventually be ported, for some insane
Hey kid, sometimes it's important for you to let go of your joystick!
reason undoubtedly stemming directly from the controversy, to other systems but it began on the Sega CD. The other was that the version of Mortal Kombat that appears on the Sega Genesis was almost arcade perfect and included all of the blood and fatalities. The Super Nintendo version, on the other hand, was amazingly sanitized and had several of the fatalities removed. It cost Nintendo a small fortune in lost sales, but it served to make them look good in front of Congress. Sega, on the other hand, was blasted almost from the start.
I'll spare the reader the boring details of the hearings, and focus on a few of the highlights. There are probably few gamers today who remember Marilyn Droz, but at the time she was definitely the loud voice of protest. Think of her as the early nineties version of Jack Thompson or Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. She appeared on Donahue, made public pleas for safer, friendlier games, and complained that little girls didn't have any video
Despite the fact that it's a good fifteen years old, Doom still manages to get blamed for many of today's crimes!
games to play and felt left out. What? Games are evil, so make sure to include girls? Her testimony stated that "playing video games ha[d] become a macho boy thing" and that girls were offended by their lack of inclusion. She later stated, "In no time at all, children become winners and kill, and their kill ratio goes up. It tells them the secret codes and exactly what to do to become successful in murder." I'd love to explain to you what, exactly, Droz was getting at. The most I can say is that the double-talking video game crusaders that we have today are strictly owe a lot to the example set by Droz. Thanks to her, legal pursuits against video games have been amazingly inept ever since.
The other two "honored guests" at the hearings worthy of particular note were Howard Lincoln from Nintendo and Bill White from Sega. Howard Lincoln played the Nintendo "image" to the hilt. He began by stating the level of concern that Nintendo has over entertainment content and mentioned many times their censoring of Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo. He mentioned the security chip of their console and its ability to keep harmful material off of their system. In all, he was an absolute and complete kiss-ass, and even managed to get polite treatment from Senator Joe Lieberman, the head of the hearings. Bill White, appearing after
Senator Lieberman (shown here without his patented Joe-Mentum) just looks like the kind of guy you would want to play a game with!
Lincoln, was on the hot seat before he ever even appeared. Without naming them directly, Lincoln had managed to paint Sega as an anti-christ of the gaming world. White tried to point out that Sega used a rating system, that their customers were older, and that they were trying to get the rest of the industry to use their rating system. It ended badly for Sega, while Nintendo received Lieberman's thanks for "having been a damn sight better than the competition." Bill White and Howard Lincoln were really the highlights of the hearings, appearing on CNN, C-SPAN and other news channels. Bill White pulled out the bazooka-esque Super Scope marketed for the Super Nintendo, Howard Lincoln showed a commercial of a child who appeared younger then thirteen playing Mortal Kombat, and the viewers ate it up. Even Senator Lieberman stated that he thought "it looked awful."
In the end, we ended up with the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). The ESRB utilized a voluntary ratings system that borrowed heavily from the voluntary ratings system used by movies. No game was required to be rated, but any game sold at retail was. It has become a self-regulating system that rates hundreds of games each
Just once I would like to see a tabloid run a picture like this with the caption: "Daytime Soap Opera Killer!"
year, using information from the game publisher and a randomly selected group of volunteers who rate the games. The IDSA presented a unified voice for the industry, getting rid of the squabbling of competing companies and offering an educated, intelligent, and respectable voice for all members.
When the hearings were repeated in 1999 after a storm of school violence in 1997 and 1998 that culminated with the Columbine Massacre, the software industry came out of it looking much better than they had previously. Doug Lowenstein, head of the IDSA, managed to come out of the hearings surprisingly clean. Senator Brownback has made it clear that he wanted these hearings to publicly humiliate entertainment executives, but Lowenstein refused to be baited. He used IDSA statistics, ESRB statistics, and offered a concise plan for the future. He
I don't care how graphic Grand Theft Auto is, for my money there is nothing more brutally violent than this scene from Resident Evil 4!
wasn't a juvenile figure taking every chance to go after his competitor or point the finger: he showed how far the industry had come in just six years. Never again would they be caught flat-footed by Congress.
The battle between child safety and video games continues today, despite the influence of the ESRB and the IDSA. Controversies over the ratings of Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas have been extremely hard to miss. In both cases, the user's ability to access locked out content, or even just create their own content, has led to a game being re-rated at a higher level. San Andreas in particular had to re-edit the game in order to regain their "M" (Mature) rating, having been re-rated as "Adults Only." Some claimed
Manhunt 2, the Night Trap of the 21st Century!
that these re-ratings were unjustified and that the ESRB had been compromised by external pressures from the public, while other applauded the move. Either way, the software companies abided by the decisions made and adjusted accordingly.
Just in the past few weeks the game Manhunt 2 by Take Two Interactive has been classified as "AO" by the ESRB, and every game company and retailer imaginable is rushing to wash their hands of the title. It is, however, because of these two organizations that the game is allowed to exist at all. Due to the self-regulatory system and every company being answerable to every other company, it has been impossible to make any legal claims stick to the industry. Games are no more censored than movies or music, despite the efforts of many different parties to get them sanitized. Manhunt 2 might be modified to better fit with the role of the ESRB or it might stay the way it is and be sold through alternative channels, but the ESRB is doing its job: Heading off another hearing before it can happen. Without the industry having moved in the direction that it did, our days might be filled with Barbie Horse Adventures or even more Myst sequels. I can already hear Cyril crying out at the very thought of that possibility.