PART 1: Creating the ESRB
Many gamers aren’t old enough to remember it, but there was a time when there was no need for a ratings system. The video game boom of the late 1980’s helped present gaming as a family-friendly activity. Parents could gather around in the living room and watch their kids play their favorite games with no thought as to how the content might affect the minds of their children. Similarly, they could purchase any game and leave the kids to play them, content with the knowledge that their Nintendo-approved game was as clean and wholesome as a Disney movie.
With family-friendly cartoon characters firmly entrenched as the faces of gaming, the video game industry entered 1992 with its squeaky-clean image intact. However, by the end of that year, all things gaming would be turned upside down.
Laugh all you want. Mario is just as important in creating the society that gave rise to the ESRB as any other title. And perhaps, even more so.
Gaming’s first true success story, Mario became a household name across the world. Before long, gamers and parents alike associated Mario with gaming. That is, a game a child could bring home and play in the living room while Mom and Dad watched. Many other game developers took notice of this and tried to reach the same crowd by creating lovable and adorable characters that would be welcome in any household.
Outside of a certain blue hedgehog named Sonic, nobody touched Mario for the duration of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Mario was gaming, and everyone else just fell in line. And then came gaming’s technology boom, which resulted in the creation of more life-like games. These games were quite a sharp contrast from the adventures of everyone’s cuddly plumber. These games were edgy. These games were graphic. These games were more real than anybody was ready for at the time. And they were ready to cause enough controversy to give video games a bad name to this day.
When Night Trap was first introduced to the world as a Sega CD launch title, it immediately became a hot-button issue for many. It could be said that Night Trap was an interactive slasher flick – but without the “R’ rating. The first “game-within-a-movie” of its kind, Night Trap generated a great deal of controversy.
Looking at the game today, it can be hard to see what the fuss was over. To a fan, or at least an educated gamer, the game involved keeping an eye on teenagers who are at the risk of serious bodily harm at the hands of vampires. To the uninformed, conservative, easily shocked politician, the game promotes voyeuristic tendencies, violence, a “less-is-more” approach to women and their clothing, and rape. Truly, this was a game ahead of its time!
Now, even with all of this information, your first tendency might be to say to yourself that kids shouldn’t be playing a game like this. And, of course, you’d be right. But where the conservatives were absolutely correct was where they questioned how exactly parents were supposed to know that this game would include this kind of content. Remember, parents were used to buying harmless games like Super Mario World and Ninja Gaiden – games that featured such homogenized violence that no mother would ever think twice about its effect on their children. And all of a sudden, Mom comes home to find Junior looking at these real girls in their underwear! While the picture quality of Night Trap wasn’t the greatest, the message was certainly clear – gaming wasn’t just child’s play anymore.
You have to remember that the climate of America was far different in 1992 than it is in 2004. “Full House” was a top sitcom in 1992. It was years before it was decided that everything on any form of media needed to be as raunchy as possible. You might see an episode of “Desperate Housewives” more shocking than Night Trap. Imagine seeing a 30-minute feature on Night Trap on TGIF between “Family Matters” and “Step By Step”, and maybe you’ll get the picture. The fact that this would shock viewers today is ample evidence of the significance of Night Trap.
Argue all you want that Street Fighter 2 paved the way for Mortal Kombat. From a gaming perspective, sure. But Mortal Kombat paved its own way into the collective subconscious of the entire country on its own.
Like Night Trap, Mortal Kombat became a household name in 1992. Rather than on home consoles, Mortal Kombat started out in the arcades. To say it made an impression on the arcade world is a gross understatement. Rather than taking its place as just another fighting game, Mortal Kombat became THE fighting game. The one you had to play. The one you had to show your friends. And, ultimately, the one you had to go play while Mom was grocery shopping.
The over-the-top violence showcased in Mortal Kombat (which actually fancied itself as a premier Martial Arts game at first) obviously could not be replicated in real life. However, that didn’t stop people from trying. And once Acclaim acquired the rights to home versions and announced their intentions of bringing Mortal Kombat to homes worldwide, parents and Congressmen alike flipped.
The obvious issue for those concerned was the gore of the game. While parents were still very much in the dark about most of gaming, they were familiar with Mortal Kombat from the arcades. They didn’t exactly like what they saw in the arcades, and many were concerned about the repercussions of their children playing this kind of game whenever they wanted. They had good reason to be concerned, too.
Knowing this, Sega and Nintendo agreed to tone down the violence in the home versions. Nintendo famously turned the blood into sweat and altered some of the game’s fatalities. Sega similarly took the blood out of the game’s main mode… but enabled players to access the blood and gore they knew so well via a not-so-secret code. Naturally, the Genesis version outsold the Super Nintendo version. This is where parents really started to flip. Now, there was concrete evidence that blood sold games to kids.
This one’s a little easier to understand than Night Trap, but what gets lost in a lot of the controversy is that Mortal Kombat was one of the finest fighting games of the 1990’s. Many would argue that the game’s quality sold as many copies as the violence did. However, as we all know, the only side that matters to politicians is the one side that they see.
Senator Joe Lieberman
Today, many people see Joe Lieberman as an uptight conservative who wants to take the fun out of people’s lives. But he sure had a heck of a point when he exposed the gaming industry in 1993. There might not be an ESRB today if not for the efforts of Joe Lieberman.
While it was one thing for parents to internally question whether or not their children to be playing games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, it was another thing entirely for a senator to take the initiative and spearhead the entire anti-violence movement. And, not surprisingly, many parents were very eager to hear what he had to say.
And what exactly did Mr. Lieberman have to say?
– To Congress: “We’re here today to talk about the nightmare before Christmas. Not the movie, but – unfortunately – the violent video games.”
– On Night Trap: … “(the game is) contributing to the unacceptable level of violence in our society.”
– On Night Trap and Mortal Kombat: “I really wish we could ban them constitutionally.”
Parents, who had no way to know what kinds of games their kids were playing outside of watching them every second, were solidly behind Lieberman. While the senator certainly could be accused of overstating his point and embellishing fact to be heard, the reality is that people DID listen. At the very least, parents knew that they needed more information.
However, parents weren’t going to read their kids’ copies of EGM to keep up on gaming content. Instead, they needed something simpler. Something that could educate but not bludgeon. Something that’s worked before, and something they could depend on.
Enter the ESRB.