While it's fun to talk about video games that have major anniversaries this month (both Donkey Kong Country and the Sega 32X turn twenty-five years old), it's seemingly less fun to reminisce about the anniversary of the creation of a regulatory body, but thanks to author of Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation and friend of the Power Button podcast Blake J. Harris, we're going to have a good time exploring the genesis of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary. Harris has written a seven-part oral history article that chronicles the ESRB's rise to ratings prominence, and each week the ESRB blog will publish an installment. Everything kicks off this week with the first part in which the United States Congress learns about a horrifying new video game called Mortal Kombat and then uses it to score political points with family-friendly constituents.
On October 20, 1993—mere weeks after the release of Mortal Kombat—California’s Attorney General, Dan Lungren, spoke to a group of police investigators at an event in Los Angeles:
“We’ve got impressionable young people dealing with interactive games that are very realistic and I wonder if that is what we should be teaching our kids. The message is: destroy your opponent. I would ask you if that is very different from some of the messages in gang culture.”
The following month, Lungren upped the ante asking game manufacturers to stop selling games that teach youngsters to “demean and destroy.”
It's easy to point the finger at Mortal Kombat with the benefit of hindsight, but if it hadn't been Scorpion and Sub-Zero raising government hackles, it would have been another game (most likely Night Trap which was also in the hot seat around the same time). Video games were becoming a major business, and whenever something becomes popular and successful, people take notice and put it under the microscope. The same kind of exaggerated political rhetoric we hear today in government over pet causes was used in 1994 to demonize video games. Was it all worth it? Well, Congress eventually left the gaming industry alone to regulate its own content, and while there was a renewed burst of censorship and "are games art?" discussions in the 2000s as Grand Theft Auto sparked the same reactions as Mortal Kombat did a decade earlier, we've largely come out on the other side with fantastic gaming experiences presented as their creators generally intend them. Just nobody show Congress the new Fatalities in Mortal Kombat 11. I don't think they could handle that.