“It has been revealed that the gunman read Dean Koontz novels regularly” – No one, ever.
Video games and the people who play them – much like the entire Rock & Roll music genre before them – have been the popular scapegoats for explaining violent behaviors for more than two decades, despite studies contradicting the claims that video games contribute to increased violence. The inability to prove a credible link between violent games and real life violence has not stopped people from asserting its existence however, and the industry has experienced numerous controversies as a result. Despite the ever present criticism surrounding video games, it has proven difficult to replicate the level of pure outrage that accompanied the 1992 release of the original Mortal Kombat.
Making a Killing
Mortal Kombat‘s arcade debut came during a time of evolution in the game industry. Once considered to be toys for children, developers were working to create more mature titles in an effort to expand beyond their existing audience. It was not the game’s plot that gripped players – and eventually, the U.S. government – with such a fierce might. It was the graphics, the moves, and the backgrounds.
Capitalizing on the growing interest in fighting games, Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat combined digitized sprites based on real people, as well as “oh shit” moments, in order to successfully deliver a next-level fighting game in a realistic and entertaining way. Blood sprays from the characters with each blow in best-of-three matches. Combinations at the end of the second win, egged on by the disembodied voice demanding you “FINISH HIM!” might result in your character ripping the heart from their opponent’s chest or tearing their head off, holding the opponent’s anatomy over their own head with the enthusiasm of a little league pitcher with his first trophy.
Amidst the more reserved scenery of temples and stadiums, you also find yourself fighting in a skeleton-strewn dungeon or atop bridge clad with stone gargoyles. Following the second win on this bridge, when delivering your final death blow via uppercut, your foe is launched into the air, off the bridge, and to the pit below, impaled by spikes already littered with the bloody heads and torsos of those who met a similar fate before him.
Mortal Kombat received widespread and instantaneous criticism alongside the survival horror game Night Trap, with its release gaining the attention of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. Assuming the role of the Twisted Sister of video games, Mortal Kombat inspired a series of Senate hearings, resulting in the implementation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) video game rating system we see today. While many see the introduction of this rating system as a smart move, the combination of political and media driven hype given to the game resulted in a very negative public view of video games, and the industry, as a whole.
Just under a year after its arcade release, Mortal Kombat was ported to nearly every available console of the time. The SNES port was heavily censored, receiving intense criticism as a result. Backgrounds and finishing moves were altered, and the blood changed to a combination of green slime and sweat, in Nintendo’s attempt to release a more “family friendly” product. Sega went the other way, introducing us to the Blood Code ABACABB, but otherwise staying mostly true to the arcade version. In addition to the original’s port censorship, several Mortal Kombat titles have been banned in countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Australia.
The Good Senator Goes Postal
In 1997, Senator Lieberman resurrected his campaign against violent video games, focusing largely on the Running With Scissors title Postal. Utilizing an unprecedented level of gore and indiscriminate, no holds barred, relatively low-resolution homicide, Postal delivered an unashamed glorification of murder geared towards mature consumers. The player assumes the role of the “Postal Dude,” a paranoid psychopath convinced that everyone around him intends to kill him. So, you know, he kills them first. Bits and pieces of the backstory can be gained in between levels, through excerpts from the Postal Dude’s diary.
For its time, Postal was considered an extremely violent, albeit graphically unremarkable, game. Using a top-down perspective, the player guides the character through multiple stages on a mission to take out a certain number of hostiles- basically anyone with a gun- without getting yourself killed first. Killing unarmed civilians is not a requirement for level progression, although it is most definitely an option.
Lieberman described the game as “digital poison” due to its unapologetically gruesome option of murdering innocents- from Sunday church-goers to a high school marching band, no one was safe. Despite the game being clearly labeled as Mature (ages 17 and up), Leiberman asserted “…parents cannot not do it alone. That is why we are again asking gamemakers to set some basic standards and limit the violence in the games they mass market. A good place to start would be for Panasonic, the distributor of Postal, to stamp this repugnant game return to sender.”
Those Who Don’t Learn From The Past …
Postal was banned in more than a dozen different countries following its release, with its successors meeting similar fates in locations like New Zealand and Brazil. Postal 2 was directly cited in a 2011 California Supreme Court hearing, with the game industry- and the First Amendment- coming out on top. In addition, Running With Scissors’ Postal application was recently suspended from Google Play for “gratuitous violence,” despite being clearly rated for Mature audiences. According to an email from Google Play, the title Postal was found to be in violation of the Content Policy, which reads:
Violence and Bullying: Depictions of gratuitous violence are not allowed. Apps should not contain materials that threaten, harass or bully other users.
While graphic violence is permitted on Google Play, “Gratuitous Real Violence” is not. There is no indication of what the difference between the two is, and it appears to be determined at Google’s discretion. Google Play does, however, still provide titles such as Carmageddon, The Walking Dead, Half-Life 2, and an assortment of Grand Theft Auto titles, along with every episode of Game of Thrones. In addition Ed Boon, co-creator of Mortal Kombat, revealed on his Twitter account that a mobile version of Mortal Kombat X will soon be available through the Google Play store. An attempted appeal of the suspension was rejected, with a representative of the Google Play Team stating:
“Please be advised that gratuitous violence does not only reflect a standard of blood and gore available within the app, but also how and who the violence is directed towards, (for example, if violence is incentivized or favorably presented in a manner which aligns with atrocities)”
A statement from Running With Scissors representatives was given via email on this topic:
“In 1997, it was convenient for a maturing industry to make POSTAL the scapegoat for violent games. Today, not much has changed-bias, hypocrisy and greed runs through the veins of internet companies just the same. Google clearly doesn’t have a problem with “gratuitous violence” as they sell GTA (1, 2, 3, Vice City, San Andreas, China Town Wars) and many other over the top violent games. POSTAL 1 is a retro pixel game that doesn’t stand up to any of these games in that department. Let’s not forget how the video game industry was completely on our side when the US Supreme Court case came up against violent video games and we won. Where are they now??”
One week after being rejected by the Google Play Store, Postal was also rejected by the Amazon Mobile App Distribution Program, despite digital copies of the game being available through, and directly distributed by, Amazon since November 2011. The rejection email from Amazon states “Your application contains content that violates our content guidelines or your Mobile App Distribution Agreement with us… Please do not resubmit this app or similar apps in the future.” No specifics were provided as to what game material specifically violated Amazon’s content guidelines. Less than 24 hours later, however, Amazon retracted their refusal and has agreed to allow the sale of Postal through their Mobile App Program.
The Unexpected Effects of Misplaced Blame
Despite the introduction of the video game rating system, many people were determined to force the video game industry to be held morally accountable for the subject matter that was made available, instead of placing the responsibility of monitoring content where it belonged- on parents. It is- and should be- the responsibility of a parent to supervise their own children and the media that they consume, be it film, video game, or literature. Rating systems are intended to be used as a guide tool for parents to oversee the things that their children are exposed to.
According to a 2014 study released by the Entertainment Software Association, the majority of those playing games in the United States are adults, with only an estimated 29% of consumers being under the age of 18. While the intention of the rating system was to protect impressionable children from potentially inappropriate content, the result was the growth of the primary consumer base, as well as the encouragement of developers to freely design material suited to new and older audiences.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding its release, Mortal Kombat came out victorious, establishing its individual value while simultaneously catapulting the game industry into a coming-of-age era, increasing the demand for more adult titles. In spite of the implementation of the ESRB rating system, future titles like Postal were still subject to intense criticism, censorship, and attempted government interference. Regardless of the continuing controversy, Mortal Kombat is largely responsible for video games becoming a major economic contributor, all because it made good friends, and better enemies.
“Discipline and self-restraint when practiced by an individual, family, or a company is an effective way to deal with the issue. The same thing when forced on a people by their government or, worse, by a self-appointed watchdog of public morals, is suppression and will not be tolerated in a democratic society.” – John Denver, 1985 PMRC Senate Hearing