Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
In the late eighties, videogame designers were looking for ways to make games look more realistic. Mario and Pac-Man were cute, sure, but most other games looked like muddy blocks moving around in front of other muddy blocks, and certain gamers were crying out for more—like maybe less-muddy blocks, or maybe recognizable buckets of blood flying around the screen, or something. Unfortunately, processors, memory, and displays weren’t capable of the realistic polygonal 3D we all take for granted from our XStations and PlayBoxes these days, and so creators were forced to look toward other technologies—like stuff that’s super cringe-worthy, but at the time seemed pretty cool.
The main one available was digitized photography, and one of the earliest games to make use of it was Mortal Kombat, which you may have heard of—seeing as it’s currently on its tenth sequel. Kombat, in case you don’t know, was mainly about filling the screen with blood by punching people (because apparently ninjas are actually blood-filled water balloons), along with performing “fatalities” that mainly involved ripping out people’s hearts, spines, and assorted other internal organs. To modern eyes, it looks like a silly cartoon unlikely to perturb even a toddler; to eyes used to seeing Donkey Kong when they visited the arcade, it was utterly shocking.
Perhaps more interesting was the now-infamous Night Trap, a game originally designed to run on an unreleased Hasbro console that stored its games on VHS cassettes (it….was a different time). Though eventually released on the Sega CD, Night Trap is considered a case study in the limits of digitized video: instead of controlling a character on screen directly, players were limited to pushing a button to spring traps at the right time, which would result in different video clips playing. If they succeeded, they would capture the vampires invading an all-female slumber party, because what games really needed (obviously) was all the class of drive-in exploitation cinema.
These games are both technically and morally unremarkable today—in the same way, say, that old Universal horror movies of the thirties might seem quaint—but they had the misfortune of coming out right as violent crime was hitting an all-time high and people were casting about, looking for something to blame. Violent movies or racy novels weren’t really an option, since old people enjoyed those too, so the solution came when Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman’s former chief of staff first encountered Mortal Kombat and voiced his concerns. Lieberman, for his part, had encountered Night Trap and—based on his comments—apparently misunderstood the game entirely, thinking that the player controlled the vampires and the goal was to attack the women. In any case, his solution was to drag console manufacturers Nintendo and Sega before Congress and demand that they explain the smut they were peddling to children.
Nintendo’s rep, Howard Lincoln, took the opportunity mainly to throw Sega under the bus—and, to an extent at least, understandably so. Nintendo had committed themselves to ensuring everything published on their systems was family-friendly, to the point of turning Mortal Kombat’s blood to grayish “sweat” when the game was ported to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Further, he added, Night Trap would never be available on any Nintendo system—a moot point, since no Nintendo system in existence at the time could handle its full motion video graphics, but technically true, until it wasn’t (click here to purchase Night Trap for your Nintendo Switch!). Sega’s VP Bill White was left with little to do besides shrug, smile, and point out that Sega was the only company who had instituted a game rating system, conveniently leaving out that, as things stood, they were the only company that needed to.
The end result of all of this was the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which rates games on a six-point scale somewhat analogous to the MPAA’s movie rating system. It’s also similar to the movie rating system in that only two or three of its ratings ever really get used because the others are all considered commercial kisses of death. And also in the sense that it’s technically “voluntary,” in that you can opt out as long as you’re fine with no one being willing to sell your game. And anyway, that’s how we solved the problem of violence in games and why violent crime isn’t a thing anymore.
Joking aside, though, I’m sure you’re wondering—do violent videogames cause violence? The answer, according to science, is “Well, mayb…no. Prolly not.” While no one is certain of the cause of crime’s precipitous rise in the latter half of the twentieth century, 1992 turned out to be the apex. Crime rates have since dropped just as dramatically, even as videogame sales have ballooned to tens of billions of dollars. (If anything, having a lot of games to play seems to be keeping would-be criminals off the streets.) Certain studies have found a slight increase in aggression following exposure to violent games, but only directly afterward, and only if you define “aggression” really loosely.Still, the idea that depicting violence—even grisly violence—in art is always inappropriate is clearly a wrongheaded one. If that were the case, that would discredit most books of the Bible.
Obviously, it’s absurd to suggest that entertainment has no effect at all on people—presumably people wouldn’t waste their time on entertainment if that were the case—and there are real concerns. See, for instance, this article on how animators who worked on the ultra-violent Mortal Kombat 11 are now exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (imagine the havoc Night Trap 11 would be wreaking right now, if it existed). And while I’m not big on violent videogames, I can confirm that every time I watch a few episodes of Gilmore Girls, I become so sarcastic that even I can’t stand to be around myself. So, y’know, entertainment can be dangerous.
Still, the idea that depicting violence—even grisly violence—in art is always inappropriate is clearly a wrongheaded one. If that were the case, that would discredit most books of the Bible. (For more fascinating info about the violence in the Bible, you should definitely buy my book.) As long as life has violence in it, depiction of violence has at least some value: It can interrogate the reasons and motivations for that violence. It can critique violence and offer solutions and alternatives to it. It can promote empathy with those who have suffered violence. Neither Mortal Kombat nor Night Trap did much of that, but some games have.
And now I’m gonna go kill some aliens. Don’t wait up.