Mortal Kombat - A Book Excerpt from Replay: The History of Video Games
June 10, 2010 Page 1 of 5
[Gamasutra is pleased to present an excerpt from Tristan Donovan's new and extremely comprehensive book, Replay: The History of Video Games, which is available now in the U.S. and UK. This extract covers the early '90s tumult in the U.S. caused by violent games -- with Senator Joe Lieberman going after Mortal Kombat and Night Trap.]
On Wednesday 1st December 1994, the Washington press corps gathered for a press conference called by Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat Senator for Connecticut. Next to Lieberman on the stage was Bob Keeshan, aka Captain Kangaroo -- the USA's favorite Saturday morning kids' TV presenter.
Once the assorted reporters had taken their seats, they were shown footage from two of the latest video games to reach the market. In one scene a digital image of an actor playing a martial arts fighter ripped the still-beating heart out of his opponent's chest.
The next scene showed film footage of a young woman in a nightdress being dragged off-camera by vampires before the sound of a high-pitched drill being used to extract the victim's blood is heard.
The games in question were Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, and, like many adults in the U.S. at the time, most of the people in the room were unaware of these games, let alone their gory content.
"We're not talking Pac-Man or Space Invaders anymore," Lieberman told the stunned journalists. "We're talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable."
Captain Kangaroo told reporters he could "not believe anybody could go that far" and said the nation's children were being exposed to such material in the name of greed. "Violent video games may become the Cabbage Patch dolls of the 1993 holiday season," Lieberman added. "But Cabbage Patch dolls never oozed blood and kids weren't taught to rip off their heads." Video game makers were in the dock facing charges of corrupting the nation's children.
The industry had, of course, been here before. There were the bomb threats that followed the hit-and-run driving game Death Race, the outrage over the pornographic Custer's Revenge, and the 1985 protests about the release of Raid Over Moscow in the UK.
"In Raid Over Moscow you had to break through and bomb the Kremlin," said Geoff Brown, founder of the game's UK publisher US Gold. "It was number one in the charts, hundreds of thousands of copies being sold to kids and CND took it upon themselves to picket our offices. I thought it was fantastic. I mean how could it get any better? It was in every newspaper. They were there every day. We used to give them coffee and they used to walk around with banners like 'ban the bomb'. I kept saying you'll be better off if you didn't keep coming here, it would actually sell less."
But in late 1994 the game industry wasn't laughing off the outrage. There had been a growing sense that the video game industry would eventually end up facing the wrath of Washington's politicians and the early 1990s had already seen some minor skirmishes with lawmakers.
In June 1990 a Democratic Party member of the California Assembly called Sally Tanner tabled a law to ban games that featured alcohol or tobacco. Among the games under threat of being outlawed was Roberta Williams' 1987 children's nursery rhyme-themed game Mixed-Up Mother Goose, which featured a pipe-smoking Old King Cole. The game industry managed to get the law dropped after pointing out that Tanner's application of the ban to video games and not other media was unfair.
Tobacco had also caused another headache for the game business in January 1990 when controversy erupted about Sega's arcade racing games Hang-On and Super Monaco GP. Unknown to tobacco manufacturers, both featured barely disguised adverts for cigarette brands such as Marlboro, which the game's developers had included because it was in keeping with the tobacco-dominated advertising boards that adorned racetracks at the time.
When the row broke, tobacco companies such as Philip Morris threatened to sue, conscious of being accused of trying to peddle cigarettes to children as a result. Sega agreed to remove them.
But the intervention of Lieberman and Captain Kangaroo took video game controversy to a whole new level. Lieberman openly declared that what he really wanted was an outright ban, although the US constitution would probably not allow it. Instead he, together with fellow Democrat Senator Herbert Kohl, organized a public inquiry to investigate the problem of violent games and called some of the leading lights of the game business to appear before it for questioning.
 CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, were a UK pressure group. Raid Over Moscow also caused controversy in Finland, where a member of the country's parliament prompted a debate about whether its sale should be allowed.
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