These days, games are protected under the First Amendment. No matter how violent, sexual, or offensive a game might be, they're considered art. That wasn't always the case.
A pivotal moment took place in 1993, when Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl used Mortal Kombat and Night Trap's increasingly realistic depictions of violence to demand figures in the industry answer questions—or risk video games being regulated by the government.
Video games were big business by 1993, but they had largely avoided controversy. Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, however, were early signals of how technology would change video games. Blips, bloops, and pixels were suddenly capable of channeling reality. Granted, they were using forms of full motion video to achieve an effect that looks antiquated in 2016, but at the time, the cinematic quality was novel, and it turned heads.
"When you're called, you come," said Perrin Kaplan, former VP of marketing and corporate affairs for Nintendo of America. While she wasn't on the stand in 1993, she was central in preparing Nintendo for Capitol Hill. Kaplan was with the company for 16 years, all the way from the launch of the SNES to the Wii. She's since formed her own public relations company.
You can actually watch the full hearings here:
There wasn't a group like the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to rate games yet. This was largely because games didn't need to be rated; the violence was cartoonish.
"It sort of came in from left field a little bit," said Kaplan. "There were companies in a very quiet industry [where] millions of people were playing and it finally rose above ground and was noticed by people that don't understand it."
Politics are in Kaplan's blood; before she was marketing games, she was in DC. When it became clear games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were part of a growing trend, a family-friendly company like Nintendo rightly worried the government would notice them and forget what else was happening in games. Months before the hearings, she reached out to Lieberman to ask if the Senator would like to visit Nintendo. He agreed.
Dressed in a pressed white shirt and dark pants, Lieberman sat down in front of Nintendo executives and games like Super Mario Bros. Though he wasn't much of a game player, he took to Nintendo's games pretty quickly, apparently. "I think we had to stop him," she said.
"There were no hearings yet," said Kaplan. "Nobody knew that this was going to come down the line. Maybe he [Lieberman] hadn't even decided. It was mainly to educate him to what video games were about, and something as simple as a Mario game was such an easy way to communicate to him. It wasn't just about Nintendo, honestly. It was about the industry and saying 'Here's someone that's got power and he's asking the FTC [Federal Trade Commission, a group focusing on consumer protection] to take a look at all these different things. We really want to be a self-regulated industry. Let me show you what we do.'"
It was a weird time for Nintendo. Violent video games were becoming big sellers, and though Nintendo had little interest in producing one, other companies were more than willing. When Mortal Kombat was released on the SNES, Nintendo demanded the game's red blood be swapped out for bland-looking "sweat" and censored the characters' infamous fatality moves.
The original Mortal Kombat was a decent fighting game, but there's no doubt the violence, especially the gruesome fatalities, was part of its appeal. Sega, on the other hand, allowed Mortal Kombat to appear with the blood and guts intact on Genesis—with the use of a simple cheat code, anyway. It was a shrewd move, one that let played into Sega's edgy public image.
"I'll tell you that we definitely did not do well on on sales in comparison," said Kaplan. "People really wanted that kind of stuff in their games. [laughs]"
Though the ESRB wasn't assigning ratings until shortly after the release of Mortal Kombat 2 on SNES and Genesis, Nintendo didn't demand any changes to the sequel. The box art featured a warning for parents about the violent content featured in the game.
Though the ESRB didn't exist yet, there were several console-specific ratings systems. Sega had the Videogame Ratings Council (you might remember these tags on Genesis boxes), The 3DO Company had the 3DO Ratings System, and some PC games were classified by the Recreational Software Advisory Council. These ratings systems were fractured, voluntary, and didn't come with punishments if retailers sold mature-rated games to young kids. Without an industry-wide standard, Lieberman and others were threatening to step in and do it for them.
"The rating system must not be a fig leaf for the industry to hide behind," said Lieberman at the hearings. "They must also accept their responsibility to control themselves and simply stop producing the worst of this junk."
When comics was faced with the same question in the 1950s, it lead to the draconian Comics Code Authority, which effectively removed sex, violence, and other topics. The comics industry grossly overreacted to the threat of government intervention, impacting creativity for decades.
"I understand [the] concern about censorship" said Senator Herb Kohl, who co-chaired the hearing with Lieberman, in his opening remarks during the proceedings. "[...] I believe censoring what people say, or see or do or think is a trail that is a long, tortured, dangerous trail. [...] The access of those kinds of games to children is something that we cannot ignore."
Nintendo was willing to play hardball over its philosophical differences with rival Sega, however. When the hearings were announced, Nintendo made sure Lieberman and others were aware of Night Trap, hoping to draw a clear distinction between the two companies. Night Trap had become a lightning rod over its depictions of sex and violence. (Both were pretty tame, the equivalent of a cheesy horror movie, but player interaction and the larger assumption that video games were only for kids caused people to scrutinize Night Trap.)
"We actually leaked Night Trap to some press ahead of time," she said. ' [...] It was basically to get more attention off of us because we wanted to remain as that wholesome company."
Kaplan claims they weren't trying to use the hearing as a marketing tool, though it's hard to see how it didn't conveniently work out that way.
"We didn't arrive saying 'We're gonna get Sega,'" she said. "It's that we were the two companies, the two most prominent companies at that time in the industry, and our job was to really leave that room with the Senate having confidence that if we self-regulated, whether a company [was okay] with blood or not, that [games are] gonna have a rating and that campaigns are going to happen to educate parents. We just happened to be a company that's choosing no blood, which of course, at the time, would make us preferred by the Senate."
In the weeks leading up to the hearings, Kaplan worked with Nintendo of America chairman (and former lawyer) Howard Lincoln on what the Senate might ask and how Nintendo could use the situation to give the industry a chance to move forward. (Lincoln joined Nintendo in 1983, proving instrumental in the company's success outside Japan, and stayed until 1999.)
"You use it as an opportunity to educate those on the Senate panel because there's a lot that they don't know," said Kaplan. "You can't arrive assuming they know everything about your business or the content of games. They're not game players."
If you watch the hearings, though, it's clear there was no love lost between Sega and Nintendo. The companies lobbed cutthroat criticisms at one another throughout, whether it was Nintendo constantly pillorying Sega for its association with Night Trap or Sega bringing out a Super Scope to claim Nintendo freely associated itself with gun violence in games.
"I can't sit here and allow you to be told that somehow the video game business has been transformed today from children to adults," said Lincoln. "It hasn't been, and Mr. White [Bill White, Sega's director of advertising and public relations], who is a former Nintendo employee, knows the demographics as well as I do. Furthermore, I can't let you sit here and buy this nonsense that this Sega Night Trap game was somehow, only meant for adults. [...]
"Small children bought this at Toys 'R' Us, and he [White] knows that as well as I do. When they started getting heat about this game, then they adopted the ratings system and put ratings on it. But today, just as I'm sitting here, you can go into a Toys 'R' Us store, or a Walmart, or a K-Mart, and you know as well as I do that you can buy this product, and no one, certainly no sales clerk at retail, is going to challenge you."
Though White and Lincoln had knives out for one another, Nintendo's strategy ultimately worked. The hearings were deeply critical of violent video games and the hyperbolic marketing sometimes associated with them, but Lieberman and Kohl gave the industry three months to come up with a plan. In collaboration with several companies, the ESRB was quickly formed. Though media reports from the time suggest Lieberman still wanted to move forward with legislation regulating games, his plans never went anywhere, and the ESRB proved effective.
"All those big issues kind of went away," said Kaplan. "The lions went away."
The threats from Lieberman and Kohl forced the games industry to grow up in a hurry, and interestingly, the formation of the ESRB only gave creators new opportunities to make the violent games that caused the hearings in the first place. Now, buyers had more information.
While it'd be another 17 years before the Supreme Court granted games the full protection of the First Amendment, it's not likely the medium would've made it that far without these hearings. Games needed someone to light a fire under their ass. In 1993, that's what happened. Games weren't just playthings. If they were an art form, they needed to act like it.
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