In 1994, Richard D. Heffner, the chairman of the Motion Picture Ratings Association of America and the creator of PBS staple The Open Mind, wrote a column for The New York Times excoriating the rise of violence in video games, then an emerging entertainment product quickly colonizing the homes of families across America. He was very, very worried about where video games would lead us:
Every indication is that these newer technologies will bring ever more outrageous material into our homes—the kind of material Americans have tolerated until now only because it has been kept at a distance… Short of censorship, what then is the solution for the excesses of cable and the new interactive entertainment? It may be as simple as it is painful for those whose only concern is to maximize profits.
It is to just say no. Don’t produce degrading materials; don’t trade in them; don’t seek merely to rate them, passing them off on parents and children; don’t profit at all from them, at such an enormous cost to our national life.
To all those who dismiss such an approach as futile, reminiscent of Nancy Reagan’s appropriately maligned response to the drug problem, consider: Would these “entertainers” really choose instead to risk the biggest battle over free expression this nation has ever known?
The social and psychological impact of violence in video games, Heffner insisted, was uncontrollable by the same industry ratings systems that had worked for movies. The video game industry, if it continued down its current path, would impregnate the American spirit with the demon of censorship. This medium, and the terrors it brings into the home, was a threat to freedom of speech itself.
This was the game he was talking about, by the way:
Mortal Kombat II, a massive arcade hit that was released for consoles and immediately became public enemy number one among pearl-clutching moralizers worried that an extraordinarily stupid, nihilistic, tongue-in-cheek fighting game would mass-brainwash children into becoming bare-handed boxing, spine-extracting deviants. Our kids didn’t model their conduct after Raiden, and the terrors of video game violence didn’t transform us into Gilead. Strangely enough, Mortal Kombat is not even one of the more violent video games that springs to mind. In fact, this weekend, Warner Brothers and HBO will be releasing a new Mortal Kombat movie.
If you went back in time and told people that a gory Mortal Kombat movie would be made someday, they would be shocked. Because in 1993, Mortal Kombat seemed like it was going to destroy civilization. Just ask Joe Lieberman, who said on the floor of the Senate, “Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, these violent video games threaten to rob this particular holiday season of a spirit of goodwill.”
Lieberman, a hack senator who never found a censorship related crusade he couldn’t get behind, commissioned a Senate hearing on violence in video games around the time that Mortal Kombat II came to home consoles, after being the biggest coin-op arcade game for a year. But, in anticipation of Mortal Monday, Sega had already opted to self regulate and institute a ratings system, the bare bones of which remain in place to this day, while Nintendo was already known for the strict regulation of violence on their platform. This made the hearings an outlet for Lieberman and other senators to spew fearmongering, evening news-ready soundbites versus a constructive legislative exercise designed to craft policy.
During the hearing, Lieberman fixates on an ad for Mortal Kombat, rated MA-13 (for players ages 13 and up) under the new ratings system, wherein a nerd plays Mortal Kombat and becomes cool, insisting, against all reason, that this ad is actually aimed at children, since Lieberman is pretty sure that the kid in the ad is under 13. The kid doesn’t look a day under 13, and you can even hear in Lieberman’s cracking voice the acknowledgment that this is a stretch.
In one of the many discursions regarding Night Trap, a silly full-motion video game and slasher-movie satire that was released for the Sega CD, Lieberman asks Sega of America president Bill White, who comes in for most of the committee’s grilling, if he thought the game was suitable for children. White says no, but that adults also play video games. The senators don’t buy it. Also not buying it was Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln, who saw his company as family-friendly. When Night Trap came up, he insisted that the game would never be released on a Nintendo platform (whoops!), and accused White of ignoring demographic information he would have been made aware of as a former Nintendo employee. Nintendo took the middle road, as far as Mortal Kombat was concerned. They did release the game for Super Nintendo, but insisted that blood be removed and the fatality sequences be pared down. Customers were mad that they’d received an inferior product, but it let Lincoln and the company avoid blame when the Senate came knocking. (There’s a reason they demolished Sega.)
The Mortal Kombat moral panic didn’t take place in a vacuum. In the mid-’90s, there was a sense that the entire culture was irredeemably soaked in violence and nihilism. Writing for the Times in 1994, critic David Browne tied Mortal Kombat’s exploding frozen-body kills to Y2K fears, Beavis and Butt-Head, and the burgeoning career of Quentin Tarantino:
Some computer games, like “Mortal Kombat,” have grown so bloody that the videogame industry, after a few strong hints from the Government, has instituted a ratings system… From the mosh pit to “death metal” rock to the urban brawls of gangster rap, pop music has never sounded so aggressive and intense. Its clattering noise, using samples of grinding guitars, is the sound of civilization falling apart. The electronic dance music known as techno is nothing but a series of disconnected, computerized bleeps and groans -- the soundtrack for a world in which phone sex is taking the place of human interaction.
Mass shootings would become de rigueur in America, not because shooters were inspired by video games available all over the world. Some grifters, including our deeply stupid former president, have placed blame for mass shootings at the doorstep of video games. But really, America’s mass-shooting problem redounds upon the United States Senate, the same institution cynically moralizing at video game executives because they are pretty sure the kid in that commercial was supposed to be 12, not 13, being held in thrall to an American right wing that regards any regulation of gun ownership as a breach of their civil rights.
“The intent, with the Sega video game rating system, and the independent council, and the packaging guidelines we’ve established, Senator, is to take a first step,” White says to the committee. “And we’re proud of that step we’ve taken.”
But as it turned out, it was… the only step. Violence in video games was not reduced. Check out a clip from the latest Mortal Kombat:
This is significantly more violent than the 16-bit bone explosions Sub-Zero was working with back in 1993. And yet here we are, living in a world where no one from Warner Brothers Interactive, the studio that made Mortal Kombat 11, or Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft, the three major video game hardware manufacturers who host distribute MK11 on their platforms, is being dragged in front of Chuck Grassley and made to account for the horrors they’re exposing our children to.
What happened? Why doesn’t anyone care about violence in video games anymore? For one, it’s a matter of demographics. White was clearly stretching when he told a bunch of senators that video games were a product for adults in the early ‘90s. But the kids who grew up on 16-bit fantasias never really stopped, and the medium came to be seen less as “a toy” and more like another form of media, such as movies or books, that has products for kids and equally popular products aimed at teens and adults. This widening of audience has led to a widening of themes. With every successive leap in gaming technology, developers have continued to utilize violence, even unnervingly realistic violence, as a tool. But they have also integrated sophisticated narratives to accompany that violence, the kind that doubles back and forces the player to question the actions of the character they’re ostensibly controlling.
Or maybe, they even serve a political purpose. The monumentally popular Call of Duty series sticks the player in the seat of a military operator, doing dirty deeds on behalf of the U.S. military. Activision, who develops the game, has even consulted with the Pentagon in their quest to build a “realistic” vision of U.S. military might. Disgraced National Security Council staff member (and ex-NRA president) Oliver North featured in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, while Call of Duty’s online servers are used as a military recruiting ground. So, Call of Duty, a video game series with startlingly realistic violence, operates as a piece of propaganda for the military and its contractors—the same medium that blowhards like Joe Lieberman chastised in the ‘90s—while Mortal Kombat II was a lurid and stupid fighting game grounded in fantasy.
But Mortal Kombat also expanded the reach and perception of video gaming, leading the industry down a path where violence wasn’t just a Beavis and Butt-Head exaltation of nihilism, but an expressive tool of a multifaceted art form. Honestly not bad for a game where a snake man eats his enemies.