When Sega, Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association announced just before the Senate hearing of December 9, 1993, that they had agreed in principle to create a standardized rating system for videogames, the timing alone marked it as an obvious ploy to deflect some of the heat that was bound to come their way later that day. At the same time, though, it was also more than a ploy: it was in fact the culmination of an effort that had been underway in some quarters of the industry for months already, one which had begun well before the good Senators Lieberman and Kohl discovered the horrors of videogame violence and sex. As Bill White of Sega was at pains to point out throughout the hearing, Sega had been seriously engaged with the question of a rating system for quite some time, and had managed to secure promises of support from a considerable portion of the industry. But the one entity that had absolutely rejected the notion was the very one whose buy-in was most essential for any overarching initiative of this sort: Nintendo. “Howard [Lincoln] was not going to be part of any group created by Sega,” laughs Dr. Arthur Pober, one of the experts the latter consulted.
So, Sega decided to go it alone. Again as described by Bill White at the hearing, they rolled out a thoroughly worked-out rating system for any and all games on their platforms just in time for Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. It divided games into three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for those age thirteen or older, and MA-17 for those age seventeen or older. An independent board of experts was drafted to assign each new game its rating without interference from Sega’s corporate headquarters; its chairman was the aforementioned Arthur Pober, a distinguished educational psychologist with decades of research experience about the role of media in children’s lives on his CV. Under his stewardship, Mortal Kombat wound up with an MA-13 rating; Night Trap, which had already been in stores for the better part of a year by that point, was retroactively assigned a rating of MA-17.
Although one might certainly quibble that these ratings reflected the American media establishment’s terror of sex and relatively blasé attitude toward violence, Sega’s rating system bore all the outward signs of being a good-faith exercise. At the very least it was, as White repeatedly stated at the hearing, a good first step, one that was taken before any of the real controversy even began.
The second step was of course Nintendo’s grudging acquiescence to the concept of a universal rating system on the day of the hearing — a capitulation whose significance should not be underestimated in light of the company’s usual attitude toward intra-industry cooperation, which might be aptly summarized as “our way or the highway.” And the third step came less than a month later, at the 1994 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, which in accordance with long tradition took place over the first week of the new year in Las Vegas.
Anyone wandering the floor at this latest edition of CES would have seen a digital-games industry that was more fiercely competitive than ever. Sega, celebrating a recent report that gave them for the first time a slight edge over Nintendo in overall market share, had several attention-grabbing new products on offer, including the latest of their hugely popular Sonic the Hedgehog games; the Activator, an early attempt at a virtual-reality controller; the CDX, a portable CD player that could also be used as a game console; and, most presciently of all, a partnership with AT&T to bring online multiplayer gaming, including voice communication, to the Genesis. Meanwhile Nintendo gave the first hints about what would see the light of day some 30 months later as the Nintendo 64. And other companies were still trying to muscle their way into the bifurcated milieu of the living-room consoles. Among them were Atari, looking for a second shot at videogame glory with their Jaguar console; Philips, still flogging the dead horse known as CD-I; and a well-financed new company known as 3DO, with a console that bore the same name. Many traditional makers of business-oriented computers were suddenly trying to reach many of the same consumers, through products like Compaq’s new home-oriented Presario line; even stodgy old WordPerfect was introducing a line of entertainment and educational software. Little spirit of cooperation was in evidence amidst any of this. With “multimedia” the buzzword of the zeitgeist, the World Wide Web looming on the near horizon, and no clarity whatsoever about what direction digital technology in the home was likely to take over the next few years, the competition in the space was as cutthroat as it had ever been.
And yet in a far less glitzy back room of the conference center, all of these folks and more met to discuss the biggest cooperative initiative ever proposed for their industry, prompted by the ultimatum they had so recently been given by Senators Lieberman and Kohl: “Come up with a rating system for yourself, or we’ll do it for you.” The meeting was organized by the SPA, which had the virtue of not being any of the arch-rival console makers, and was thus presumably able to evince a degree of impartiality. “Companies such as 3DO, Atari, Acclaim, id Software, and Apogee already have rating systems,” said Ken Wasch, the longstanding head of the SPA, to open the proceedings. “But a proliferation of rating systems is confusing to retailers and consumers alike. Even before this became an issue in the halls of Congress or in the media, there was a growing belief that we needed a single, easily recognizable system to rate and label our products.”
But the SPA lost control of the meeting almost from the moment Wasch stepped down from the podium. The industry was extremely fortunate that neither Senator Lieberman nor Kohl took said organization up on an invitation to attend in person. One participant remembers the meeting consisting mostly of “people sitting around a table screaming and carrying on.” Cries of “Censorship!” and “Screw ’em! We’ll make the games we want to make!” dominated for long stretches. Many regarded the very notion of a rating system as an unacceptable intrusion by holier-than-thou bureaucrats; they wanted to call what they insisted was the senators’ bluff, to force them to put up actual government legislation — legislation whose constitutionality would be highly questionable — or to shut up about it.
Yet such advocates of the principle of free speech over all other concerns weren’t the sum total of the problem. Even many of those who felt that a rating system was probably necessary were thoroughly unimpressed with the hosts of the meeting, and not much disposed to fall meekly into line behind them.
The hard reality was that the SPA had never been viewed as a terribly effectual organization. Formed to be the voice of the computer-software industry in 1984 — i.e., just after the Great Videogame Crash — it had occupied itself mostly with anti-piracy campaigns and an annual awards banquet in the years since. The return of a viable console marketplace in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System and later the Sega Genesis had left it in an odd position. Most of the publishers of computer games who began moving some or all of their output to the consoles were members of the SPA, and through them the SPA itself got pulled into this brave new world. But there were certainly grounds to question whether the organization’s remit really ought to involve the console marketplace at all. Was the likes of Acclaim, the publisher of console-based videogames like Mortal Kombat, truly in the same business as such other SPA members as the business-software titans Microsoft and WordPerfect? Nintendo had always pointedly ignored the SPA; Sega had joined as a gesture of goodwill to their outside publishers who were also members, but hardly regarded it as a major part of their corporate strategy. In addition to being judged slow, bureaucratic, and uncreative, the SPA was regarded by everyone involved with the consoles as being much more invested in computer software of all stripes than console-based videogames. And what with computer games representing in the best case fifteen percent of the overall digital-games market, that alone struck them as a disqualifier for spearheading an initiative like this one.
Electronic Arts, the largest of all of the American game publishers, was in an interesting position here. Founded in 1983 to publish games exclusively for computers, EA had begun moving onto consoles in a big way at the dawn of the 1990s, scoring hits there with such games as the first installments in the evergreen John Madden Football series. By the beginning of 1994, console games made up over two-thirds of their total business.
A senior vice president at EA by the name of Jack Heistand felt that an industry-wide rating system was “the right thing to do. I really believed in my heart that we needed to communicate to parents what the content was inside games.” Yet he also felt convinced from long experience that the SPA was hopelessly ill-equipped for a project of this magnitude, and the disheartening meeting which the SPA tried to lead at CES only cemented that belief. So, immediately after the meeting was over, he approached EA’s CEO Larry Probst with a proposal: “Let’s get all the [other] CEOs together to form an industry association. I will chair it.” Probst readily agreed.
The SPA was not included in this other, secret meeting, even though it convened at that same CES. Its participants rather included a representative from each of the five manufacturers of currently or potentially viable consoles: Sega, Nintendo, Atari, Philips, and 3DO. Rounding out their numbers were two videogame-software publishers: Acclaim Entertainment of Mortal Kombat fame and of course Electronic Arts. With none of the console makers willing to accept one of their rivals as chairman of the new steering committee, they soon voted to bestow the role upon Jack Heistand, just as he had planned it.
Sega, convinced of the worthiness of their own rating system, would have happily brought the entirety of the industry under its broad tent and been done with it, but this Nintendo’s pride would never allow. It became clear as soon as talks began, if it hadn’t been already, that whatever came next would have to be built from scratch. With Senators Lieberman and Kohl breathing down their necks, they would all have to find a way to come together, and they would have to do so quickly. The conspirators agreed upon an audacious timetable indeed: they wanted to have a rating system in place for all games that shipped after October 31, 1994 — just in time, in other words, for the next Christmas buying season. It was a tall order, but they knew that they would be able to force wayward game publishers to comply if they could only get their own house in order, thanks to the fact all of the console makers in the group employed the walled-garden approach to software: all required licenses to publish on their platforms, meaning they could dictate which games would and would not appear there. They could thus force a rating system to become a ubiquitous reality simply by pledging not to allow any games on their consoles which didn’t include a rating.
On February 3, 1994, Senator Lieberman introduced the “Video Game Rating Act” to the United States Senate, stipulating that an “Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission” should be established, with five members appointed by President Bill Clinton himself; this temporary commission would be tasked with founding a new permanent governmental body to do what the industry had so far not been willing to do for itself. Shortly thereafter, Representative Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California, introduced parallel legislation in the House. Everyone involved made it clear, however, that they would be willing to scrap their legislation if the industry could demonstrate to their satisfaction that it was now addressing the problem itself. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos were all pleased when Sega dropped Night Trap from their product line as a sort of gesture of good faith; the controversial game had never been a particularly big seller, and had now become far more trouble than it was worth. (Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, was still posting sales that made it worth the controversy…)
On March 4, 1994, three representatives of the videogame industry appeared before Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos at a hearing that was billed as a “progress report.” The only participant in the fractious hearing of three months before who returned for this one was Howard Lincoln of Nintendo, who had established something of a rapport with Senator Lieberman on that earlier occasion. Sega kept Bill White, who most definitely had not, well away, sending instead a white-haired senior vice president named Edward Volkwein. But most of the talking was done by the industry’s third representative, Jack Heistand. His overriding goal was to convince the lawmakers that he and his colleagues were moving as rapidly as possible toward a consistent industry-wide rating system, and should be allowed the balance of the year to complete their work before any legislation went forward. He accordingly emphasized over and over that ratings would appear on the boxes of all new videogames released after October 31.
The shift in tone from the one hearing to the next was striking; this one was a much more relaxed, even collegial affair than last time out. Lieberman, Kohl, and Lantos all praised the industry’s efforts so far, and kept the “think of the children!” rhetoric to a minimum in favor of asking practical questions about how the rating system would be implemented. “I don’t need to get into that argument again,” said Senator Lieberman when disagreements over the probability of a linkage between videogame violence and real-world aggression briefly threatened to ruin the good vibe in the room.
“I think you’re doing great,” said Senator Kohl at the end of the hearing. “It’s a wonderful start. I really am very pleased.” Mission accomplished: Heistand had bought himself enough time to either succeed or fail before the heavy hand of government came back on the scene.
Heistand’s remit was rapidly growing into something much more all-encompassing than just a content-rating board. To view his progress was to witness nothing less than an industry waking up to its shared potential and its shared problems. As I’ve already noted, the videogame industry as a whole had long been dissatisfied with its degree of representation in the SPA, as well as with the latter’s overall competence as a trade organization. This, it suddenly realized, was a chance to remedy that. Why not harness the spirit of cooperation that was in the air to create an alternative to the SPA that would focus solely on the needs of videogame makers? Once that was done, this new trade organization could tackle the issue of a rating system as just the first of many missions.
The International Digital Software Association (IDSA) was officially founded in April of 1994. Its initial members included Acclaim, Atari, Capcom, Crystal Dynamics, Electronic Arts, Konami, Nintendo, Philips, Sega, Sony, Viacom, and Virgin, companies whose combined sales made up no less than 60 percent of the whole videogame industry. Its founding chairman was Jack Heistand, and its first assigned task was the creation of an independent Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
Heistand managed to convince Nintendo and the others to accept the man who had chaired Sega’s ratings board for the same role in the industry-wide system. Arthur Pober had a reputation for being, as Heistand puts it, “very honorable. A man of integrity.” “Arthur was the perfect guy,” says Tom Kalinske, then the president and CEO of Sega of America. “He had good relationships inside of the education world, inside of the child-development world, and knew the proper child psychologists and sociologists. Plus, we knew he could do it — because he had already done it for us!”
Neutral parties like Pober helped to ease some of the tension that inevitably sprang up any time so many fierce competitors were in the room together. Heistand extracted a promise from everyone not to talk publicly about their work here — a necessary measure given that Howard Lincoln and Tom Kalinske normally used each and every occasion that offered itself to advance their own company and disparage their rival. (Witness Lincoln’s performance at the hearing of December 9…)
Over the course of the next several months, the board hammered out a rating system that was more granular and detailed than the one Sega had been using. It divided games into five rather than three categories: “Early Childhood” (EC) for children as young as age three; “Kids to Adults” (K-A) for anyone six years of age or older; “Teen” (T) for those thirteen or older; “Mature” (M) for those seventeen or older; and “Adults Only” (AO) for those eighteen or older. It was not a coincidence that these ratings corresponded fairly closely to the movie industry’s ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17. A team of graphic artists came up with easily recognizable icons for each of the categories — icons which proved so well-designed for their purpose that most of them are still used to this day.
The ESRB itself was founded as a New York-based non-profit. Each game would be submitted to it in the form of a videotape of 30 to 40 minutes in length, which must contain the game’s most “extreme” content. The board would then assign the game to one of its teams of three reviewers, all of whom were trained and overseen by the ESRB under the close scrutiny of Arthur Pober. The reviewers were allowed to have no financial or personal ties to the videogame industry, and were hired with an eye to demographic diversity: an example which Heistand gave of an ideal panel consisted of a retired black male elementary-school principal, a 35-year-old white full-time mother of two, and a 22-year-old white male law student. A measure of checks and balances was built into the process: publishers would have the chance to appeal ratings with which they disagreed, and all rated games would have to pass a final audit a week before release to ensure that the videotape which had been submitted had been sufficiently representative of the overall experience. The ESRB aimed to begin accepting videotapes on September 1, 1994, in keeping with the promise that all games released after October 31 would have a rating on the box. Everything was coming together with impressive speed.
But as Heistand prepared to return to Washington to report all of this latest progress on July 29, 1994, there remained one part of the games industry which had not fallen into line. The SPA was not at all pleased by the creation of a competing trade association, nor by having the rug pulled out from under its own rating initiative. And the computer-game makers among its members didn’t face the same compulsion to accept the ESRB’s system, given that they published on open platforms with no gatekeepers.
The relationship between computer games and their console-based brethren had always been more complicated than outsiders such as Senators Lieberman and Kohl were wont to assume. While the degree of crossover between the two had always been considerable, computer gaming had been in many ways a distinct form of media in its own right since the late 1970s. Computer-game makers claimed that their works were more sophisticated forms of entertainment, with more variety in terms of theme and subject matter and, in many cases, more complex and cerebral forms of gameplay on offer. They had watched the resurrection of the console marketplace with as much dismay as joy, being unimpressed by what many of them saw as the dumbed-down “kiddie aesthetic” of Nintendo and the stultifying effect which the consoles’ walled gardens had on creativity; there was a real feeling that the success of Nintendo and its ilk had come at the cost of a more diverse and interesting future for interactive entertainment as a whole. Perhaps most of all, computer-game makers and their older-skewing demographic of players profoundly resented the wider culture’s view of digital games of any stripe as essentially children’s toys, to be regulated in the same way that one regulated Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars. These resentments had not disappeared even as many of the larger traditional computer-game publishers, such as EA, had been tempted by the booming market for console-based videogames into making products for those systems as well.
Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World magazine, voiced in an editorial the objections which many who made or played computer games had to the ESRB:
[The ESRB rating system] has been developed by videogame manufacturers and videogame publishers without significant input by computer-based publishers. The lone exception to this rule is Electronic Arts, which publishes personal-computer titles but nets more than two-thirds of its proceeds from videogame sales. The plan advocated by this group of videogame-oriented companies calls for every game to be viewed by an independent panel prior to release. This independent panel would consist of parents, child psychologists, and educators.
How does this hurt you? This panel is not going to understand that you are a largely adult audience. They are not going to perceive that there is a marketplace of mature gamers. Everything they evaluate will be examined under the rubric, “Is it good for children?” As a result, many of the games covered in Computer Gaming World will be rated as unsuitable for children, and many retailers will refuse to handle these games because they perceive themselves as family-oriented stores and cannot sell unsuitable merchandise.
The fate of Night Trap, an unusually “computer-like” console game, struck people like Wilson as an ominous example of how rating games could lead to censoring them.
Honestly held if debatable opinions like the above, combined perhaps with pettier resentments about the stratospheric sales of console games in comparison to those that ran on computers and its own sidelining by the IDSA, led the SPA to reject the ESRB, and to announce the formation of its own ratings board just for computer games. It was to be called the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), and its founding president was to be Robert Roden, the general counsel and director of business affairs for the computer-game publisher LucasArts. This choice of an industry insider rather than an outside expert like Arthur Pober reflected much of what was questionable about the alternative rating initiative.
Indeed, and although much of the reasoning used to justify a competing standard was cogent enough, the RSAC’s actual plan for its rating process was remarkable mostly for how comprehensively it failed to address the senators’ most frequently stated concerns about any self-imposed rating standard. Instead of asking publishers to submit videotapes of gameplay for review by an independent panel, the RSAC merely provided them with a highly subjective questionnaire to fill out; in effect, it allowed them to “self-rate” their own games. And, in a reflection of computer-game makers’ extreme sensitivity to any insinuation that their creations were just kids’ stuff, the RSAC rejected outright any form of age-based content rating. Age-based rating systems were “patronizing,” claimed the noted RSAC booster Johnny L. Wilson, because “different people of widely disparate ages have different perceptions of what is appropriate.” In lieu of sorting ratings by age groups, the RSAC would use descriptive labels stipulating the amount and type of violence, sex, and profanity, with each being ranked on a scale from zero to four.
The movie industry’s rating system was an obvious counterexample to this idea that age-based classification must necessarily entail the infantilization of art; certainly cinema still enjoyed vastly more cultural cachet than computer games, despite its own longstanding embrace of just such a system. But the computer-game makers were, it would seem, fairly blinded by their own insecurities and resentments.
A representative of the SPA named Mark Traphagen was invited to join Jack Heistand at the hearing of July 29 in order to make the case for the RSAC’s approach to rating computer games. The hearing began in an inauspicious fashion for him. Senator Lieberman, it emerged during opening statements, had discovered id Software’s hyper-violent computer game of DOOM in the interim between this hearing and the last. This occasion thus came to mark the game’s coming-out party on the national stage. For the first but by no means the last time, a politician showed a clip of it in action, then lit into what the audience had just seen.
What you see there is an individual with a successive round of weapons — a handgun, machine gun, chainsaw — just continuing to attack targets. The bloodshed, the gunfire, and the increasingly realistic imagery combine to create a game that I would not want my daughter or any other child to see or to play.
What you have not seen is some of the language that is displayed onscreen when the game is about to be played. “Act like a man!” the player is told. “Slap a few shells into your shotgun and let’s kick some demonic butt! You’ll probably end up in Hell eventually. Shouldn’t you know your way around before you make an extended visit?”
Well, some may say this is funny, but I think it sends the wrong message to our kids. The game’s skill levels include “I’m Too Young To Die” and “Hurt Me Plenty.” That obviously is not the message parents want their kids to hear.
Mark Traphagen received quite a grilling from Lieberman for the patent failings of the RSAC self-rating system. He did the best he could, whilst struggling to educate his interrogators on the differences between computer and console games. He stipulated that the two were in effect different industries entirely — despite the fact that many software publishers were, as we’ve seen, active in both. This was an interesting stand to take, not least in the way that it effectively ceded the ground of console-based software to the newly instituted IDSA, in the hope that the SPA could hang onto computer games.
Traphagen: Despite popular misconceptions and their admitted similarities to consumers, there are major differences between the personal-computer-software industry and the videogame industry. While personal-computer software and videogame software may be converging toward the compact disc as the preferred storage medium, those of us who develop and publish entertainment software see no signs of a convergence in either product development or marketing.
The personal-computer-software industry is primarily U.S.-based, small to medium in size, entrepreneurial, and highly innovative. Like our plan to rate software, it is based on openness. Its products run on open-platform computers and can be produced by any of thousands of companies of different sizes, without restrictive licensing agreements. There is intense competition between our industry and the videogame industry, marked by the great uncertainty about whether personal computers or some closed platform will prevail in the forthcoming “information superhighway.”
Senator Lieberman: Maybe you should define what a closed platform is in this regard.
Traphagen: A closed platform, Senator, is one in which the ability to create software that will run on that particular equipment is controlled by licensing agreements. In order to create software that will run on those platforms, one has to have the permission and consent of the equipment manufacturer.
Senator Lieberman: And give us an example of that.
Traphagen: A closed platform would be a videogame player.
Senator Lieberman: Such as a Sega or Nintendo?
Traphagen: That is right. In contrast, personal computers are an open platform in which any number of different companies can simply buy a development package at a retailer or a specialty store and then create software that will operate on the computer.
Traphagen explained the unwillingness of computer-game makers to fall under the thumb of the IDSA by comparing them to indie film studios attempting to negotiate the Hollywood machine. Yet he was able to offer little in defense of the RSAC’s chosen method of rating games. He made the dubious claim that creating a videotape for independent evaluation would be too technically burdensome on a small studio, and had even less to offer when asked what advantage accrued to not rating games by suitable age groups: “I do not believe there is an advantage, Senator. There was simply a decision that was taken that the ratings would be as informative as possible, without being judgmental.”
Some five weeks after this hearing, the RSAC would hold a press conference in Dallas, Texas, the home of id Software of DOOM fame. In fact, that game was used to illustrate how the rating system would work. Even some of the more sanguine members of the gaming press were surprised when it received a rating of just three out of four for violence. The difference maker, the RSAC representatives explained, was the fact that DOOM‘s violence wasn’t “gratuitous”; the monsters were trying to kill you, so you had no choice but to kill them. One has to presume that Senators Lieberman and Kohl would not have been impressed, and that Mark Traphagen was profoundly thankful that the press conference occurred after his appearance before them.
Even as it was, the senators’ skepticism toward the RSAC’s rating system at the hearing stood out all the more in contrast to their reception of the ESRB’s plan. The relationship between Senator Lieberman and Jack Heistand had now progressed from the cordial to the downright genial; the two men, now on a first-name basis, even made room for some banter on Heistand’s abortive youthful attempts to become a rock star. The specter of government legislation was never even raised to Heistand. It was, needless to say, a completely different atmosphere from the one of December 9. When the hearing was finished, both sides sent out press notices praising the wisdom and can-do spirit of the other in glowing terms.
But much of the rest of the games industry showed far less good grace. As the summer became the fall and it became clear that game ratings really were happening, the rants began, complete with overheated references to Fahrenheit 451 and all of the other usual suspects. Larry O’Brien, the editor of the new Game Developer magazine, made his position clear in the first line of his editorial: “Rating systems are crap.”
With the entire entertainment industry rolling over whenever Congress calls a hearing, it’s fallen on us to denounce these initiatives for what they are: cynical posturing and electioneering with no substance. Rating systems, whether for movies, television, videogames, or any other form of communication, don’t work, cost money, and impede creativity. Everyone at those hearings, politicians and witnesses alike, knows that. But there’s nothing politicians love more than “standing up for the family” and blaming America’s cultural violence on Hollywood. So the entertainment industry submissively pisses all over itself and proposes “voluntary” systems from the pathetic to the laughable.
Parents should decide. If parents don’t want their kids to play X-COM or see Terminator 2, they should say no and put up with the ensuing argument. They don’t need and shouldn’t get a rating system to supplement their authority. The government has no right to help parents say no at the video store if that governmental interference impedes your right to develop whatever content you feel appropriate.
We all have responsibilities. To create responsibly, to control the viewing and gaming habits of our own children, and to call the government’s ratings initiatives what they are: cynical, ineffective, and wrong-headed.
The libertarian-leaning Wired magazine, that voice of cyber-futurism, published a jeremiad from Rogier Van Bakel that was equally strident.
Violent games such as DOOM, Night Trap, and Mortal Kombat are corrupting the minds and morals of millions of American children. So what do you do? Easy.
You elect people like Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman to the US Senate. You applaud them when they tell the videogame industry that it’s made up of irrepressible purveyors of gratuitous gore and nefarious nudity. You nod contentedly when the senators give the industry an ultimatum: “Either you start rating and stickering your games real soon, or we, the government, will do it for you.”
You are pleasantly surprised by the industry’s immediate white flag: a rating system that is almost as detailed as the FDA-mandated nutrition information on a can of Campbell’s. You contend that that is, in fact, a perfect analogy: all you want, as a consumer, is honest product labeling. Campbell’s equals Sega equals Kraft equals 3DO.
Finally, you shrug when someone remarks that it may not be a good idea to equate soup with freedom of speech.
All that was needed now was a good conspiracy theory. This Karen Crowther, a spokesperson for makers of shareware computer games, helpfully provided when she said that the government had gotten “hoodwinked by a bunch of foreign billion-dollar corporations (such as Sony, Nintendo, and Sega) out to crush their US competition.”
Robert Peck, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, flirted with a legal challenge:
This [rating] system is a response to the threat of Senators Lieberman and Kohl that they would enact legislation requiring labels unless the industry did something to preempt them. The game manufacturers are being required to engage in speech that they would otherwise not engage in. These ratings have the government’s fingerprints all over them.
This present labeling system isn’t going to be the end of it. I think some games are going to be negatively affected, sales-wise, and the producers of those games will probably bring a lawsuit. We will then see that this system will be invalidated.
The above bears a distinct whiff of legalistic wishful thinking; none of it came to pass.
While voices like these ranted and raved, Jack Heistand, Arthur Pober, and their associates buckled down soberly to the non-trivial task of putting a rating on all new console-based videogames that holiday season, and succeeded in doing so with an efficiency that one has to admire, regardless of one’s position on the need for such a system. Once the initial shock to the media ecosystem subsided, even some of the naysayers began to see the value in the ESRB’s work.
Under the cover of the rating system, for example, Nintendo felt able to relax many of their strict “family-friendly” content policies. The second “Mortal Monday,” heralding the release of Mortal Kombat II on home consoles, came in September of 1994, before the ESRB’s icons had even started to appear on games. Nevertheless, Nintendo improvised a stopgap badge labeling the game unsuitable for those under the age of seventeen, and felt protected enough by it to allow the full version of the coin-op original on their platform this time, complete with even more blood and gore than its predecessor. It was an early sign that content ratings might, rather than leading game makers to censor themselves, give them a feeling of carte blanche to be more extreme.
By 1997, Game Developer was no longer railing against the very idea of a rating system, but was fretting instead over whether the ESRB’s existing approach was looking hard enough at the ever more lifelike violence made possible by the latest graphics hardware. The magazine worried about unscrupulous publishers submitting videotapes that did not contain their games’ most extreme content, and the ESRB failing to catch on to this as games continued to grow larger and larger: “The ESRB system uses three (count ’em, three) ‘demographically diverse’ people to rate a game. (And I thought television’s Nielsen rating system used a small sample set.) As the stakes go up in the ratings game, the threat of a publisher abusing our rating system grows larger and larger.”
Meanwhile the RSAC strolled along in a more shambolic manner, stickering games here and there, but never getting anything close to the complete buy-in from computer-game publishers that the ESRB received from console publishers. These respective patterns held throughout the five years in which the dueling standards existed.
In the end, in other words, the computer-game people got what they had really wanted all along: a continuing lack of any concerted examination of the content of their works. Some computer games did appear with the ESRB icons on their boxes, others with the RSAC schemas, but plenty more bothered to include no content guidance at all. Satisfied for the time being with the ESRB, Senators Lieberman and Kohl didn’t call any more hearings, allowing the less satisfying RSAC system to slip under the radar along with the distinct minority of digital games to which it was applied, even as computer games like Duke Nukem 3D raised the bar for violence far beyond the standard set by DOOM. The content of computer games wouldn’t suffer serious outside scrutiny again until 1999, the year that a pair of rabid DOOM and Duke Nukem fans shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado, killing thirteen teachers and students and injuring another 24. But that is a tragedy and a controversy for a much, much later article…
(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Game Developer of September 1994, December 1994, August/September 1995, September 1997, and January 1998; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, December 1994, May 1996, and July 1999; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Mac Addict of January 1996; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1994; Washington Post of July 29 1994; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1; the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s publication Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games; the 1994 episode of the television show Computer Chronicles entitled “Consumer Electronics Show.” Online sources include Blake J. Harris’s “Oral History of the ESRB” at VentureBeat and C-SPAN’s coverage of the Senate hearings of December 9 1993, March 4 1994, and July 29 1994.)
It’s widely known by those who are interested in the history of gaming that the videogame industry was hauled into a United States Senate hearing on December 9, 1993, to address concerns about the violence and sex to be found in its products. Yet the specifics of what was said on that occasion have been less widely disseminated. This, then, is my attempt to remedy that lack. What follows is a transcript of the hearing in question. It’s been rather heavily edited by me with an eye toward grammar, clarity, and concision, but always in good faith, making every effort to preserve the meaning behind the mangled dictions and pregnant pauses that are such an inevitable part of extemporaneous speech.
Being a snapshot of a very particular moment in time, the transcript below needs to be understood in the context of that time. I hope that my previous article has provided much of that context, and that the links, footnotes, and occasional in-line comments in the transcript itself will provide the rest. I cannot emphasize enough, however, the importance of the fact that the hearing took place during a major spate of violent crime. Many of the other “murder panics” of American history had little relationship to the true statistical levels of violent crime, having been drummed up by disingenuous leaders and accepted by their credulous followers for reasons of emotion and prejudice. But there was some justification for this one: 1993 was marked by just a shade under one murder or non-negligent manslaughter for every 10,000 American citizens, the culmination of more than a decade of steadily increasing violence. No one assembled at the hearing could know that violent crime would begin a precipitous plunge the following year, the start of a decline that has lasted almost all the way through to our present year of 2021.
For all that the hearing is of its time in this and countless other respects, there’s also a disappointing timelessness about the affair. Many of the arguments deployed for and against the idea of hyper-violent videogames as a negative social force are little changed from the ones we hear today. Even more dismayingly, the psychological research into the matter is hardly more clear-cut today than it was in 1993, being shot through with the same researcher biases and methodological weaknesses. Much has changed over the past-quarter century, but it seems we’ve made very little progress at all in our understanding of this issue.
But enough of my editorializing. Here’s the transcript so that you can decide for yourself.
As one of the two instigators of the proceedings, Senator Herbert Kohl delivered the opening remarks. A moderate Democrat from Wisconsin, he had made a fortune founding and running a chain of grocery stores and department stores that bore his name, and was currently the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. He was nearing the end of his first term in the Senate, facing an election the following November.
Senator Herbert Kohl: Today is the first day of Hanukkah, and we have already begun the Christmas season. It is a time when we think about peace on earth and goodwill toward all people, and about giving gifts to our friends and loved ones, but it is also a time when we need to take a close, hard look at just what it is we are actually buying for our kids. That is why we are holding this hearing on violent videogames at this time.
Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, had a more conventional political background than his colleague. A lawyer by education, he had first been elected to his state’s Senate in 1970, then gone on to to serve as its attorney general for six years in the 1980s. Like Kohl, he belonged to the more moderate — i.e., conservative — wing of his party, and like him was facing his first reelection campaign as a United States Senator the following November.
Senator Joseph Lieberman: Thank you very much, Senator Kohl. It’s a privilege to co-chair this joint hearing with you. You’ve been out front protecting our children, and occasionally protecting the rest of us from them, in terms of their ability to obtain guns.Kohl was a noted proponent of commonsense gun control, especially among minors.
Every day, the news brings more images of random violence, torture, and sexual aggression right into our living rooms. Just this week, we heard the dreadful story of a young girl abducted from a slumber party in her own home and then found dead. A man on a commuter train begins coldly and methodically to fire away at innocents on their way home, killing five people and injuring many others.
Violent images permeate more and more aspects of our lives, and I think it’s time to draw the line with violence in videogames. The new generation of videogames contains the most horrible depictions of graphic violence and sex, including particularly violence against women. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, these violent videogames threaten to rob this holiday season of its spirit of goodwill. Instead of enriching a child’s mind, these games teach a child to enjoy torture. For those who have not seen these so-called “games” before, I want to show you what we’re talking about. What you’re about to see are scenes from two of the most violent videogames.
First we have Mortal Kombat, which is a martial-arts contest involving digitized characters. When a players wins in the Sega version of the game, the so-called “death” sequence begins. The game narrator instructs the player to “finish” — I quote, “finish” — his opponent. The player may then choose a method of murder, ranging from ripping the heart out to pulling off the head of the opponent with spinal cord attached. A version made by Nintendo leaves out the blood and decapitation, but it is still a violent game.
First, the Sega version.
And this is a brief sequence from the Nintendo version.
This version does not have the death sequences, and instead of red blood spurting out there’s… well, there’s some other liquid.
The second game is Night Trap, a game set in a sorority house. The object is to keep hooded men from hanging young women from a hook or drilling their necks with a tool designed to drain their blood. Night Trap uses actual actors and attains an unprecedented level of realism. It contains graphic depictions of violence against women, with strong overtones of sexual violence. I find this game deeply offensive and believe that it simply should be taken off the market now.
But these games are just the beginning. Last Wednesday in fact, as we were announcing our intention to hold this hearing, a videogame maker was announcing the release of a brutal videogame called Lethal Enforcers.Konami’s Lethal Enforcers, a light-gun-based shooting-gallery game, was, like Mortal Kombat, one of the big arcade hits of 1992, and was likewise now coming home on consoles and computers.
This gun, called the “Justifier,” is the handheld implement with which you play the game by shooting at the screen. The more successful you are, the more powerful the gun becomes.
CD technology is also making sexually explicit videogames available. We have no way of keeping these games out of the hands of kids. Next on the horizon are videogames which are going to come to our TV screens over cable channels.The dream of streaming videogame content in the same way that one streams television programs was an old one already by this point, dating back at least to the beginning of the previous decade. Despite many bold predictions and more scattershot attempts at actual implementation, it’s never quite come to pass in the comprehensive way that seemed so well-nigh inevitable in 1993.
Just a short while ago, some members of the videogame industry announced their intention to create a voluntary rating or warning-label system.Sega had actually rolled out its own content-rating system just before the release of Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. Shortly thereafter, Sega and Nintendo, feeling the heat not only from Washington but from such powerful entities as California’s attorney general, did indeed agree to work together on a joint rating system — an unusual step for two companies whose relationship had heretofore been defined by their mutual loathing. On the very morning of this hearing, most of the rest of the video- and computer-game industry signed on to the initiative. I am pleased that the videogame industry recognizes there is a problem here. A credible rating system will help parents determine which videogames are appropriate for children of different ages. But I must say here that creating a rating system is, in my opinion, the very least the videogame industry can do, not the best they can do. It would be far better if the industry simply kept the worst violence and sex out of their games.
I have three major concerns as the industry develops a rating system. First, there are questions about the system itself. Who will do the rating? Will all manufacturers participate? How many age-specific ratings will there be? Will the industry spend money to inform parents about the meanings of the ratings? Second, a rating system must not be perverted into a cynical marketing ploy to attract children to more violent games. We must not allow the industry to trumpet a violent rating as a selling point. Third, the industry must work to enforce whatever rating system it creates. It should consider licensing agreements and contracts which specify that ratings will be clearly visible in any advertising and understandable by parents and consumers. Distributors, including video-rental stores and toy stores, should face some kind of penalty from manufacturers if they sell or rent to children below the minimum ages in the ratings.
Even if all of these concerns with a rating system are addressed, the videogame industry in my opinion will not have done as much as it should do to avoid creating more violence in our already too violent society. The rating system must not become a fig leaf for the industry to hide behind. They must also accept their responsibility to control themselves and simply stop producing the worst of this junk. The videogame industry has not lived up to their responsibility to America’s parents and children. I hope they will do so in the coming months, at worst by developing a credible and enforceable rating system, and at best by taking the worst games or the worst parts of those games off the market. If the violence and sex don’t come out of the games, parents should be able to keep the games out of their homes.
Senator Kohl: Thank you very much for that, Senator Lieberman. I’d like to briefly outline the major issues as I see them.
First, I believe the announcement by most of the videogame industry that they are committed to a rating system indicates that we’ve already changed the terms of the debate. Simply put, we are no longer asking whether violent videogames may cause harm to our children. Clearly they can, or the industry would not be willing to rate its own games so that young kids cannot obtain them.The body of psychological research on the subject was — and is — nowhere near as clear-cut as this formulation implies. And the industry was, of course, motivated to implement a voluntary rating system by fear of government action rather than a sudden conviction that its products could indeed be harmful to children. The question now is just what restrictions we need to put in place and who should do it. In a sense, then, this hearing represents a window of opportunity for the videogame industry. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life in business, and I know that if Nintendo and Sega, who together control 90 percent of the market, make the development and enforcement of a meaningful rating system a top priority, it will happen — quickly, voluntarily, and without chilling any First Amendment rights.
Second, let me say that I share Senator Lieberman’s outrage at the excerpts that we have just viewed. Mortal Kombat and Night Trap are not the kind of gifts that responsible parents give. Night Trap, which adds a new dimension of violence specifically targeted against women, is especially repugnant. It ought to be taken off the market entirely, or at the very least its most objectionable scenes should be removed.
But those games are only two examples. Senator Lieberman mentioned another videogame called Lethal Enforcers, which comes with an oversized handgun called the “Justifier.” This game teaches our kids that a gun can solve any problem with lethal force. Sometimes the player hits innocent bystanders. In that case, blood splatters to the ground, but what the heck, bystanders need to learn to get out of the way. Make no mistake: Lethal Enforcers is aimed at young kids. The lede of the ad says, “You won’t find a toy like this in any Cracker Jack box!” Well, I hope not.
What a cynical, irresponsible way to market a product. I find its glorification of guns to kids to be highly offensive, coming on the heels of our long battle to enact the Brady Bill and less than a month after Senator Lieberman and I passed a bill to take handguns away from minors.Passed on November 30, 1993, the Brady Bill was a landmark piece of gun-control legislation which mandated that all prospective purchasers of a gun must first pass a background check and then wait five days to take delivery of their weapon. At the very least, this game sends a tremendously reckless message, and turns any effort to discourage youth violence completely on its head.
We all know that there are many causes of the violence that plagues our cities and increasingly our suburbs and small towns: broken families, poor education, easy access to firearms, drugs, the lists goes on and on. Certainly violent videogames and TV violence have become a significant part. We cannot become paralyzed by the multiplicity of causes or the magnitude of the challenge. We need to make every effort to reduce this culture of carnage, and we need to make that effort now — because these games are going to become even more sophisticated and persuasive. Experts can debate whether entertainment violence causes brutality in society or merely reflects it, but there should be no dispute that the pervasive images of murder and mayhem encourage our kids to view violent activity as a normal part of life, and that interactive videogame violence desensitizes children to the real thing. Our children should not be told that to be a winner you need to be a killer. That subtle but menacing message pollutes our society.
I’d like to call now upon my esteemed colleague Senator Dorgan.
Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat from North Dakota, worked briefly in the aerospace industry before becoming tax commissioner of his state in 1968 at the age of just 26. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1980, going on to serve six terms there before being elected to the Senate in November of 1992.
Senator Byron Dorgan: I wanted very much to be here because I think this is a very important issue. It has been quite a leap from Pac-Man to Night Trap. Violence in videogames is a close cousin to violence on television. I know there are critics of these hearings; these critics are similar in my judgment to those who are still saying there’s no evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. There’s no evidence, they say, that violence in videogames affects our children. Have they lost all common sense? Of course it affects our children, and it affects our kids in a very negative way.
About two months ago, I saw the videogame Night Trap for the first time. It is a sick, disgusting videogame in my judgment. It’s an effort to trap and kill women.The player’s objective in Night Trap, of course, is not to trap and kill women but rather to protect them from others who seek to do so. Shame on the people who produce that trash. It’s child abuse in my judgment.
I know some people will say we are trying to become the thought police. That is not my intention, but we have to take some basic responsibility in this country to protect children. Those who have children understand that they deserve protection. Certain things are appropriate for them and certain things are not. An author once said that 100 years from now it won’t really matter how big your income was or how big your house was, but the world might be a different place because you were important in the life of a child. Maybe our efforts will be important in the lives of children, and will make improvements in this world. I hope so.
Senator Kohl: We’d like to call our first panel now, composed of representatives from academia and education, and also concerned citizens. You may each give a statement.
Parker Page was the head of the Children’s Television Resource and Education Center, an advocacy group whose concerns about violent content on children’s television had recently spread to videogames.
Parker Page: Parents and educators tell us that they are increasingly worried about the effects of violent videogames on children. But do their worries merit national attention? In a country which is grappling with an epidemic of real-life violence, should we bother ourselves with kids’ leisure-time activities like playing videogames? We think the answer is yes.
For, while the impact of violent videogames is still open to debate, early studies as well as decades of television research warn us of possible consequences, especially for young children. The TV research is conclusive: violent screen images have their own special effects. Children who watch a steady diet of violent programming increase their chances of becoming more aggressive toward other children, less cooperative and altruistic, more tolerant of real-life violence, and more afraid of the world outside their homes. The case against videogame violence is not nearly so clear-cut for one simple reason: there hasn’t been enough research.
In the last ten years, only a handful of published reports have explored the effects of videogames. Moreover, the few experimental studies that have been conducted relied on crude cartoon-like videogames produced in the early 1980s, archaic by today’s standards of technological wizardry. Even so, several of the initial videogames studies suggest that there is a link between violent videogames and children’s aggression. For example, research studies have shown that, at least in the short term, children who play violent videogames are significantly more aggressive afterward than children who play less violent videogames. All this research is limited and it’s dated. The overall trends, however, must give us cause for concern as we approach virtual reality.
Mortal Kombat is the latest in a new generation of videogames that allow software designers to combine high levels of violence with fully digitized human beings. While these lifelike characters may make the videogame more thrilling, TV research sends us a warning that the more realistic the images of violence, the more likely they are to influence young children’s behavior and attitudes. Unfortunately, there is no timeout for millions of American children who are daily immersed in videogame violence and bombarded by videogame advertising. Therefore we recommend the following:
We recommend that the federal government fund independent research projects and disseminate their findings in order to shed additional light on the effects of videogames and other emerging interactive media. We recommend that the videogame industry provide parents with more accurate and detailed product information than is currently available, make a commitment to advertising strategies and marketing that reinforce the rating system rather than undercut it, and pursue an industry-wide agreement to put a cap on violence. Videogames that allow young players to participate in heinous acts of cruelty and inhumanity should not exist, regardless of profits.
Having made these recommendations, it’s important to underscore that parents must still shoulder the major responsibility for guiding their children’s entertainment activities. We recommend strongly that parents become actively involved in helping their children make videogame choices that reflect each family’s values, that they take seriously the videogame warning labels and content descriptions that are available, and that they make videogame playing truly interactive by setting up time limits, by substituting less violent games, and by making game-playing a social rather than an isolating activity.
In conclusion, I believe that this national attention on videogame violence affords us a rare opportunity to avoid the enormous time lag between the TV-violence research findings and public awareness. We have a chance to lower the impact of videogame violence on children’s lives sooner rather than later. I hope that all of us will seize the moment.
Eugene Provenzo was (and is) a professor of pedagogy at the University of Miami. He had recently published the book Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo.
Eugene Provenzo: Most adults pay relatively little attention to videogames. Although I’ve been studying toys, games, and the culture of childhood for nearly twenty years, it wasn’t until a neighbor came up to me three years ago and asked me what I thought of videogames that I began to consider their implications. What I found shocked me.
During the past decade, the videogame industry has developed games whose social content has been overwhelmingly violent, sexist, and racist, issues that I’ve addressed extensively in my research. For example, in Video Kids I explored the 47 most popular videogames in America. I found that 40 had violence as their main theme, and thirteen included scenarios in which women were kidnapped and had to be rescued — i.e., the idea of women as victims. Although men were often rescued in games too, they were never rescued by women. Videogames have a marked tradition of extreme violence which is also combined with gender discrimination.
Some of my more recent research suggests that videogames are evolving into a new type of interactive medium — participatory or interactive television is what I’m calling it. This new CD-ROM-based videogame technology represents a major evolutionary step beyond the simple graphics of the classic Space Invaders arcade games so popular fifteen or twenty years ago, or even the tiny animated cartoon figures that we see in the Nintendo system. When you combine CD-ROM-based technology, which allows you to have digitized films in the computer, with virtual-reality technologies like Sega’s Activator, which allows you to literally have your movements sensed — punching, hitting, kicking, all translated into the computer — you have something remarkable — a remarkably new and different type of thing. I want to make it very clear that we are dealing with something different, a new type of television.
I believe that the remaining years of this decade will see the emergence and definition of this media form in the same way that the 1940s and 1950s saw television emerge as a powerful social and cultural force. If the videogame industry is going to provide the foundation for the development of interactive television, I think that citizens, parents, educators, and legislators have cause for considerable concern and alarm.
We are at the threshold of a new generation of interactive television. While I believe as an educator that this technology has wonderful potential, I’m also convinced that if we continue using it without addressing the full ramifications and significance of the social content of videogames, we’ll be doing a serious disservice to both our children and our culture.
Dr. Robert Chase was the vice-president of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the United States; its ranks included more than 2 million schoolteachers and other education professionals.
Robert Chase: I join Senator Lieberman in calling for the producers of electronic games to live up to their responsibilities in helping to raise a generation of children free from violence. It is disheartening that there is even a demand for games that are explicitly violent and graphically sexual.
The first line of defense against the wide distribution of such games remains the family. All parents must assume for themselves the responsibility to raise their children with values of respect and decency and a sense of limits about what is appropriate behavior. I don’t wish anyone to dictate to me what is appropriate for my daughters to see or to say or to do, any more than I would presume to tell you what is appropriate for your sons and daughters. However, I hope we share a commitment to providing parents with appropriate tools to make reasonable judgments for our children.
Electronic games, because they are active rather than passive, can do more than desensitize impressionable children to violence; they can actually encourage violence as the solution of first resort by rewarding participants for killing one’s opponents in the most grisly ways imaginable. The guidelines that now exist for films should be extended to electronic games. We can and must establish a system of parental notification about the graphic sexual or violent materials contained in some videogames.
Marilyn Droz represented the National Coalition Against Television Violence.
Marilyn Droz: I’ve been a parent for sixteen years, a wife for twenty years, a teacher for 23 years, and a woman since the day I was born. Let me tell you, in all of the hats I wear, I find the games we’ve seen today extremely offensive, and the only words I can say to the manufacturers and shareholders of the companies are, “Shame on you!” I think they really should stop and think about what they’re doing. I mean, how would you like to have a teenage daughter go out on a date with someone who’s just played three hours of one of those games?
The word “toy” comes from a Scandinavian word meaning “little tools.”This is, at best, an extremely dubious etymology. The Danish word “tøj,” which is pronounced like the English “toy,” actually means clothing. While “værktøjer” means tools, there is no single word for “little tools”: one would need to say “små værktøjer” to get that concept across. The Danish word for toy, on the other hand, is “legetøj.” If the English word descends from the Scandinavian languages at all, it is almost certainly an abbreviated version of this word. Even this, however, is by no means a firmly established etymology. That’s very appropriate because play is the work of children; it’s what prepares them for the future. The technology of today is phenomenal, and it’s going to have the power to prepare our children for a future that we are not able to understand ourselves, a future that’s well worth looking for — if we can get the videogame industry to change some of their values.
When computers first came out, videogames were played equally among boys and girls in the classroom; there was equal time.I have seen no evidence in my own research that there was ever a time when videogames were as popular among girls as boys. Now, it seems boys are comfortable with the technology. Videogames are geared to boys. Fifty percent of our children are losing the value of interactive technology. We are losing a generation of women. Our research indicates that girls are very offended by the lack of games for them. They feel inferior. It’s very easy to determine which are the girl games and which the boy games; girl games are the ones with the fluffy little bunnies. Playing videogames has become a boy thing. Girls are being trained to dress Barbie dolls, while boys are being trained in technology. This has to change. As a mother, as a parent, as a woman, and as an American citizen, I am stating that this needs to change.
Games have confused children’s desire for action with violence. Children want action, they want excitement; they do not need to see the insides of people splattered against the wall. We all work so hard to raise our children well, and our efforts are undermined by videogames, which teach them that the only way to solve problems — the quickest, most efficient way — is to kill ’em off. There are very few women characters with any control or power. Videogames tell our girls that they can be either sex objects or victims; that’s their choice. The very few women who have any kind of power are built with iron body parts, or they can blow a kiss of death. Once again, we’ve got sex and violence. This has to stop.
Almost everything we purchase nowadays has regulations. We have regulations saying that physical toys cannot contain parts that are easy to swallow. Well, I’m finding this violence difficult to swallow. Thank you for bringing this issue before the public.
Eugene Provenzo: I think another thing to point out here is that the psychological studies of the effects of videogames are all from the early 1980s. They’re based on arcade games like Space Invaders, which are highly depersonalized. There are four generations of videogames. There’s Pong, there’s Space Invaders, there’s Nintendo with its cartoon figures, and we’re into the next stage right now, which is Night Trap-type games. And there’s a new stage after this, which is the combining of this with virtual-reality devices. We’re beginning to move into that, where kids can physically participate in the violence. We need to do more studies; we don’t know yet what the results of playing a game like Night Trap are. But we can make some guesses.
Parker Page: Yes, there needs to be a body of upwards of 100 studies before the research on videogames will be as definitive as the research on television. However, given the similarities with television watching, I would be amazed if we don’t find either similar or stronger effects.
Eugene Provenzo: There’s a parallel issue that I think is relevant here in terms of violence against women. There is a new field emerging called cybersex; that’s not a joke. What it amounts to is pornography on CD-ROM. You can dial up what you want — a blonde, a redhead, a brunette, male or female — then do what you want to them. Imagine that getting into the hands of a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old who’s had no sexual experience. And they play these games for three or four years, then they finally meet a real woman on a date. That’s very scary. Look at the portrayal of the women in Night Trap. There are obvious sexual overtones there.
Parker Page: There are some folks who believe that violent videogames can drain away aggression — that they can have a cathartic effect, making kids less violent. That’s a great theory, but it makes for very lousy research. The research in the area of TV violence points in the exact opposite direction.
Senator Lieberman: Dr. Provenzo, you state in your book that videogames are not only violent and sexist but also racist. Can you give a few examples?
Eugene Provenzo: Sure. In interviews with children, they talked about the ninjas as being bad. And then you ask them who the ninjas are, and they said, “The Japs and the Chinese.” It turns out that they perceive Asians as being extremely violent, as being dangerous, as being evil. There is homophobia operating, in terms of how certain types of women are portrayed. It’s subtle and hard to get at sometimes, but I think it presents a relatively disturbing world.
I interviewed large numbers of girls. They said, “I don’t like videogames. I don’t like computers. I think I would like them, but I don’t like what they’re about.” The industry people often argue that videogames are children’s introduction into the culture of computing. We’re discriminating against girls by providing them with these consistent negative images. They get turned off of computers. We’re driving them away from these tools of the 21st century that they need to master. I think that’s very objectionable.
Senator Dorgan: Sega states in five mitigating points responding to the controversy over Night Trap that it was meant to be a satire of vampire films, and that the controversial scene we’ve just seen is displayed only when the player loses. Does that make you feel any better?
Marilyn Droz: Oh, it makes me feel a lot better that if you’re a loser you’re dead.
Eugene Provenzo: At the beginning of Night Trap, your commander looks you straight in the eye and says, “If you don’t have the brains or guts for this mission, then give control to someone who does.” A fascist military type looks at you and essentially says, “If you’re not man enough to do this, forget it! You don’t deserve to play this game!”
I’d like to make a suggestion that I don’t think is that difficult to implement: I’d like to see violence portrayed accurately. I would like to see a videogame where, if you punch someone viciously, they don’t get up and take another punch. Children don’t understand what guns and hitting do. They don’t get that communicated to them. They think that guns aren’t that serious. They don’t understand that when a bullet goes through your leg, you may not walk again, you may lose your leg.
Senator Lieberman: We thank all of you for coming. Let me now call the second panel.
Howard Lincoln is a legendary figure in the history of videogames. Along with Minoru Arakawa, he is widely and justly recognized for resurrecting the videogame console in North America in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System. At the time of this hearing, he had the title of senior vice president of Nintendo of America, but he effectively ran the multi-billion-dollar branch as a co-equal with Arakawa, its official founder and president. Famous or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, for his take-no-prisoners approach to business, his fingerprints were on every aspect of Nintendo’s American strategy.
Howard Lincoln: Nintendo is just as concerned about the issue of violence in videogames as anyone in this room. Of course, every entertainment executive tells Congress that. But Nintendo can back it up.
In the mid-1980s, when Nintendo entered the videogame business in this country, the issue of violence in videogames was not in the public’s eye. But just like today, there was a computer-software industry selling videogames, and some of these games contained excessive violence and pornographic material. We didn’t want Nintendo’s name associated with this kind of product. Even then, we were concerned about game content. So in 1985, when we launched our first Nintendo home-videogame system, we make a conscious decision not to allow excessively violent, sexually explicit, or otherwise offensive games on it. We incorporated a patented security chip in all Nintendo hardware and software; this enabled us to review and approve the content of all videogames played on Nintendo’s hardware, whether made directly by Nintendo or by one of our approximately 70 third-party licensees.This chip also allowed Nintendo to assure that they collected a royalty from each and every game that was sold for their console — something Atari wouldn’t or couldn’t do during the first videogame craze. Nintendo has guidelines which control game content, and we’ve applied these to every one of the more than 1200 games released to the marketplace by Nintendo and its licensees. These guidelines prohibit sexually suggestive or explicit content; random, gratuitous, or excessive violence; graphic illustration of death; excessive force in sports games; ethnic, racial, national, or sexual stereotypes; profanity or obscenity; and the use of illegal drugs. Over the last eight years, these guidelines have kept an enormous amount of offensive material out of American homes.
Of course, our guidelines are not perfect, and may not answer everyone’s concerns. After all, videogames are a form of entertainment covering everything from education to the martial arts. But I must say that we have made a good-faith effort to keep offensive material off our game systems, and we intend to continue applying our game guidelines in the future.
In the past year, some very violent and offensive games have reached the market. Of course, I’m speaking about Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Let me state for the record that Night Trap will never appear on a Nintendo system.It wouldn’t have been technically feasible to release a Nintendo version of Night Trap because the company had no CD drive in its product catalog. A game which promotes violence against women simply has no place in our society.
Let me turn to Mortal Kombat. To meet our game guidelines, we insisted that one of our largest licensees, Acclaim Entertainment, remove the blood and death sequences present in the arcade version before we would approve this game. We did this knowing that our competitor would leave these scenes in, and with full knowledge that we would make more money if we included the offensive material. We knew that we would lose money by sanitizing Mortal Kombat, but sanitize it we did. We have been criticized by thousands of young players for insisting that the death sequences be removed from this game.
Senator Lieberman: So, people actually complain that they can’t have the more violent game on the Nintendo system?
Howard Lincoln: That’s correct. Letters and phone calls say, “Leave in the violence! You’re censoring!”
We share the public’s growing concern with violence. Nintendo will do everything it can to develop a workable game-rating system. But a rating system is no substitute for corporate responsibility. Rating games will not make them less violent. Only manufacturers can do that by keeping outrageous games like Night Trap off the market.
Bill White was a vice-president of marketing and communications at Sega of America. He had left Nintendo to join what everyone there regarded as the enemy camp less than six months before. The bad blood between Lincoln and White — a proxy for the bad blood between the arch-rival corporate entities they represented — was palpable throughout the hearing.
Bill White: I want to address three key points. First, the fallacy that Sega and the rest of the digital interactive-media industry only sell games to children. In fact, our consumer base is much broader. Second, the efforts which Sega has already made to provide parents with the information they need to distinguish between interactive-media products which are appropriate for young people and those which are not. And third, the efforts which Sega is currently making to gain the cooperation of all interactive-media companies to develop an industry-wide rating system.
In recent days, the glare of the media spotlight on this issue has resulted in a number of distorted and inaccurate claims. The most damaging of these in my view is the notion that Sega and the rest of the digital-interactive industry are only in the business of selling games to children. This is not the case. Yes, many of Sega’s interactive-video titles are intended and purchased for young children. Many other Sega titles, however, are intended for and purchased by adults for their personal entertainment and education. The average Sega CD user is almost 22 years old, and only 5 percent are under the age of thirteen. The average Sega Genesis user is almost nineteen years old, and fewer than 30 percent are under the age of thirteen. There truly is something for everyone in our software catalog, and the variety of available software is multiplying each day. Interactive media should be treated no differently than the television, motion-picture, recorded-music, or publishing industries. Attempts to relegate digital interactive software to a media backwater are outdated and inappropriate. It makes no more sense to conclude today that digital interactive media is only for children than it would have, when the Gutenberg press was in its infancy, to conclude that the printed word was only for Bible readers.
Digital interactive media communicates increasingly diverse information to an increasingly diverse audience. Looking at our most recent data for 1993, action-adventure titles such as Sonic Spinball and Jurassic Park account for 40 percent of the revenue from our library. Sports titles such as NBA Action ’94, World Series Baseball, and Joe Montana Football account for 35 percent of our revenues. Fighting games such as X-Men and Eternal Champions comprise 13 percent of our revenues. Titles in the children-entertainment category such as Barney’s Hide and Seek, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and Fun ‘N Games produce 5 percent of our revenues. Role-playing games such as Landstalker make up 5 percent of revenues. And strategy and puzzle games such as Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine constitute 2 percent of revenues.
As you can see, evolving interactive technology reaches a huge market that goes well beyond the child-oriented titles that gave the industry its start. Anything Congress might do on this front would affect a large, diverse group of consumers, young and old, in a volatile industry still in its infancy. Information, not regulation, is the appropriate policy.
Last September, Sega completed its implementation of a comprehensive guidance program which we began developing over a year and a half ago. It is a three-pronged approach designed to help parents determine the age-appropriateness of different interactive-video software. It includes a rating system, a toll-free hotline, and an informational brochure. Building on the motion-picture industry’s model, the Sega rating system applies one of three classifications to each interactive program released by Sega: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for mature audiences age thirteen and over, and MA-17 for titles not suitable for those under age seventeen. A Videogame Rating Council, created by Sega and consisting of independent experts in the areas of child psychology, sociology, cinema, and education, is responsible for evaluating each game and giving it the appropriate rating classification. I want to emphasize that this is an independent council. Even though it takes considerable time to evaluate each product, individual council members are paid only a small honorarium for each game they rate.
And now we and others in this industry are prepared to take the next step. This morning, a number of interactive-video companies and some of the nation’s leading retailers announced their plan for creating an industry-wide rating system. The coalition committed to this effort includes Atari, 3DO, Wal-Mart, Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us, Blockbuster Video, and videogame publishers representing over 90 percent of the market. The goal is to develop and implement a rating system that enjoys widespread support and voluntary participation throughout the industry.
There is every reason to be optimistic about the industry’s ability to voluntarily provide parental guidance, but we ask that you treat digital interactive media as you have treated other media such as the motion-picture industry: give parents the power to choose what’s right for their kids, but don’t tell adults what’s right for them.
Ileen Rosenthal was the general counsel of the Software Publishers Association. Formed in 1984, when videogame consoles seemed to most to be a fad of the past and personal computers the exclusive future of interactive entertainment, the traditionally computer-focused SPA was not an overly prominent voice in the world of Nintendo and Sega, although the latter was a member. Indeed, their biggest concern for years was a problem that effectively didn’t exist on the consoles, thanks to the latter’s use of cartridge-based, read-only media: software piracy, which the SPA opposed with a long-running media campaign whose tagline was “Don’t Copy That Floppy!” The presence of a representative of the SPA at this landmark hearing is often overlooked — as, for that matter, Rosenthal’s presence apparently was to some extent by the people who called the hearing; in marked contrast to the sustained grilling delivered to Howard Lincoln and especially Bill White, she would receive just one perfunctory yes/no question from the senators after making her opening statement.
While they made up only about 10 percent of the digital-gaming market in 1993, computer games were hotbeds of innovation, being in many cases more complex and aesthetically ambitious than their console counterparts, with a customer demographic that skewed older even than that of Sega. The people holding the hearing would doubtless have found plenty on personal computers to be outraged about, had they only looked: CD-ROM-based “interactive movies” like Voyeur were far more sexually suggestive than the likes of Night Trap, while action games like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D, which were now regularly bubbling up from the rough-and-ready shareware underground, were at least as violent as Mortal Kombat. But, thanks to their smaller and older player base — and doubtless thanks to the fact that personal computers tended to be installed in private bedrooms and offices rather than public living rooms — the content of computer games would largely escape serious mainstream scrutiny for years to come. Not until the Columbine High School Massacre of 1999 was carried out by a pair of rabid DOOM fans would computer games find themselves the focal point of a controversy over violent media. (In one of those delicious concordances which history delivers from time to time, id Software would upload the first episode of DOOM to the shareware servers that were to host it about eight hours after this hearing wrapped up.)
Ileen Rosenthal: As the videogame industry has grown, we are finding that some products have begun to incorporate violent and explicit themes. It is inevitable that some of these products will find their way into the hands of children. However, in our attempt to protect our children from those games which contain violent and mature themes, we must not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of games are appropriate for children, and have the potential to develop many important and socially desirable skills. For example, it is a fact that children who are considered to have short attention spans can focus for hours on a videogame, discovering rules and patterns by an active and interactive process of trial and error. Surely the potential of this medium for bettering our children’s thinking skills is enormous. Even in the literature of Dr. Page’s organization, it asks, “Is there anything good about playing videogames?” The answer: “Sure there is. Like puzzles, board games, and other forms of interactive entertainment, playing videogames can help kids relax, learn new strategies, develop concentration skills, and achieve goals. If they are playing with others, it can also be a great time for socialization.”
Each month, SPA puts out a list of the top-selling software. In September of 1993, most of the games on it had nothing to do with violence: Microsoft Flight Simulator; Wing Commander: Privateer, an outer-space role-playing game; Front Page Sports: Football; X-Wing; Lands of Lore, a fantasy role-playing game; SimCity.Rosenthal doesn’t make it clear here that, in keeping with the computer focus of the SPA, this list includes only games for computers, not consoles. Further, only games that were sold as boxed products in retail stores are included; the list misses entirely the vibrant shareware scene, where games like id’s Wolfenstein 3D were already pushing the envelope on gore and violence at least as much as Sega. Thus it provides a somewhat distorted view of the overall state of gaming even on computers. I want to point out that computer-based games have traditionally been targeted to an older audience than the original videogames.
Dawn Wiener, president of the Video Software Dealers Association, and Craig Johnson, a past president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, also delivered prepared statements. But they largely echoed Bill White’s statement that the industry ought to be allowed to regulate itself — it’s clear that a degree of message coordination went on prior to the hearing — and they did so in fairly milquetoast fashion at that. So, I’ve chosen to omit their statements here.
Senator Lieberman: Mr. White, let me go right to the heart of the matter with you. Mr. Lincoln just said that Night Trap has no place in our society. Why don’t you agree? Why don’t you pull Night Trap off the market?
Bill White: The interactive-media industry has grown tremendously, and children represent only a portion of the audience that we serve. Night Trap was developed for an adult audience. Sega’s independent rating council labeled it MA-17: “not appropriate for children.”
Senator Lieberman: But do you think that stuff is appropriate even for an adult audience? A provocatively dressed woman is brutally attacked. A lot of the products your company produces are great. Why do you need to produce this stuff, whether for adults or kids?
Bill White: If you saw only the violent or gory scenes from Roots or Gone with the Wind out of context, you might conclude that they’re horrible films. In reality, they aren’t. You’ve picked out a particular segment of the game. A winning effort in Night Trap saves the women. Your job as the player is to identify the villains and to trap them. This game is appropriate for adults who choose to entertain themselves with it.
Senator Lieberman: And if you’re a bad player?
Bill White: If you’re a bad player, you will see that scene.
Senator Lieberman: You have a long way to go to convince me that you’re raising anyone’s values or reducing their aggression, particularly toward women.
Bill White: We agree with much of what the earlier panel said. We believe that more research is necessary to conclude what effect games can have on both adults and children.
Senator Lieberman: Then why don’t you wait until the research is done?
Bill White: Because we believe that adults can make the choice for themselves of whether that game is right or wrong for them.
Senator Lieberman: I have here a recent Sega brochure. You’ve got Night Trap alongside Joe Montana Football and Spider-Man Versus Kingpin and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Is this responsible advertising?
Bill White: We’ve taken the first step toward an industry-wide rating system. Just as the motion-picture industry produces films for adults as well as children, the interactive-entertainment industry will continue to produce products that are appropriate for both. We would like to see better enforcement at retail. We would like to see the ratings prominently displayed in advertising.
Senator Lieberman: You agree, then, that this brochure is irresponsible?
Bill White: That was developed prior to our full implementation of our rating system.
Senator Lieberman: If you’ve updated your rating system, I hope that you’ll also update your promotional system.
I want to show an advertisement for Mortal Kombat for Sega. This game is rated MA-13, not suitable for children under thirteen. But just watch this advertisement, and tell me whether it doesn’t encourage children under thirteen to buy Mortal Kombat.
The nerd that became a hero by buying Mortal Kombat looks to me to be under thirteen. What can you do to prevent boys under thirteen from seeing this ad and deciding that their masculinity and freedom from bullies will be determined by whether they can play this game?
Bill White: That advertisement is directed to teens, not to children. I can’t comment on the age of the cast because I just don’t know. The intent of our rating system is to take a first step. We’re proud of that step. We don’t believe it’s perfect, but we do believe that more information is the answer, not government regulation, and certainly not censorship.
Senator Lieberman: I agree with you. The rating system is only a first step. And it’s a fig leaf to cover a lot of transgressions if you don’t enforce it better and, I hope, apply a little bit of self-control to yourselves. Is that ad placed on children’s shows?
Bill White: No, that ad would not be placed on a children’s show. We buy television time directed toward teenagers and time directed toward children. That ad was not approved for children’s television.
Senator Lieberman: I have an ad here from GamePro magazine. At the top it says, “He’s back! Splatterhouse 3 is the kind of game ratings systems were invented for!” At the bottom, it says that it “includes deadly new weapons, six levels of monster-bashing mayhem, and killer special moves!” Doesn’t that kind of advertisement make a mockery of your rating system?
Bill White: I haven’t seen this advertisement. We have no control over what an independent publisher says about our rating system, any more than the motion-picture industry can control what an individual studio says about its rating system.
Senator Lieberman: But wouldn’t you agree, having seen it now, that that makes a mockery of your rating system? I can’t believe that’s what you want.
Bill White: We want to take the next step. That’s why we’ve worked around the clock for the past two weeks to establish an industry coalition that will develop an industry-wide rating system.
Senator Lieberman: Well, there’s a lot of work to do, to put it mildly.
Mr. Lincoln, I appreciate that you’ve been self-regulating to some degree, and I also appreciate that you’ve accepted the idea of a rating system. Even though your games are less violent and less graphically sexual, there is violence in them. Dr. Provenzo feels that there is a lot of violence in the Nintendo products. Can assure us that everyone involved with Nintendo is committed to the rating system?
Howard Lincoln: I can certainly do that. But the point I’m making is that a rating system just doesn’t go far enough. We have to get our hands on the game content. We’ve been doing that, although, like anything, it’s not perfect.
I can’t sit here and allow you to be told that somehow the videogame market has been transformed from children to adults. It hasn’t been — and Mr. White, who is a former Nintendo employee, knows the demographics as well as I do. Further, I can’t let you be subject to this nonsense that this Sega Night Trap game is only meant for adults. There was no rating on this game at all when it was introduced. Small children bought it as Toys “R” Us, and he knows that as well as I do. They adopted the rating system when they started getting heat about this game. But today, as sure as I’m sitting here, a child can go into a Toys “R” Us and buy this product, and no one will challenge him.
I agree that everything Nintendo has done hasn’t been perfect. As a matter of fact, when I came into this hearing this morning, I saw that you have an advertisement for one of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System games. It says, “They’ve got a bullet with your name on it!” I phoned our head office and found out that licensee put out that advertisement without our consent, without our review, and without our permission. If that advertisement is not withdrawn, that company is in breach of its license agreement. We do have the ability and the right to control advertising by our licensees, and we take that seriously. I’d like to apologize to this committee for the fact that we slipped up. But let me tell you, when I get back to Seattle, I will call that licensee.
Senator Lieberman: Thank you for your forthrightness. Thank you for taking responsibility. You’ve shown some leadership here. You’re not perfect, as you’ve said, but you’ve been a damn sight better than the competition.
Bill White: Senator, it’s all well and good for Nintendo to say it has content guidelines. Sega has content guidelines as well. I had the opportunity to meet with your staff and show them some Nintendo games, and to compare their level of violence to the same games on the Sega platform. I’d like to show some of that comparison in order to illustrate that the guidelines Mr. Lincoln speaks of continue to allow excessive violence — without the benefit of a rating system, without the benefit of packaging that clearly states this is for mature audiences.
Senator Lieberman: Mr. White, let me just say this to you. Today, Mr. Lincoln has accepted the idea of a rating system. Nintendo had previously been self-regulating more than you. They chose not to produce Night Trap, and they have a less violent version of Mortal Kombat. You have a rating system, but I still haven’t heard you accept responsibility for regulating the content of your games. That is what’s at issue, notwithstanding the tape you’ve just shown us, which doesn’t compare in my opinion to Mortal Kombat and Night Trap.
Senator Kohl: I’d like to ask both Mr. Lincoln and Mr. White the following question. As you expand your business into the adult market, can you guarantee that children won’t see this adult product?
Howard Lincoln: No.
Senator Kohl: Mr. White?
Bill White: No, we can’t, Senator. All we can do is work with the mechanisms that are available to us.
Senator Kohl: So, there’s no way we can feel comfortable that material which some of us might feel doesn’t belong on the market at all won’t get onto the market and then be viewed by children?
Bill White: There’s an interesting difference between Sega and Nintendo here, in that we’ve moved ahead with CD technology, while Nintendo has not. They continue to focus on children. We have recognized that the interactive-entertainment market is far larger. We would like to have a rating system that will allow us to develop games for that broad array of players.
Howard Lincoln: I didn’t realize the hearing was focused on market share. I thought we were talking about regulation and violence. My colleague must think differently. Certainly the industry is moving into new territory with new technology. Nintendo, for example, will soon be coming out with a 64-bit system. Graphics are going to become much better. Unless we can get everyone in the industry to put a stop to the kind of things you’re seeing in Night Trap, we’re just deceiving ourselves.
Senator Kohl: I think it’s encouraging that you find so much to disagree with each other about. It indicates that you’re not here in a lockstep way. You’re really concerned about what the others are doing, and are worried perhaps that you’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. I hope you walk away with one thought: if you don’t do something about it, we will. Senator Dorgan?
Senator Dorgan: Does anybody here have any notion how many babies will be born this year out of wedlock? No? Over 1 million, 800,000 of whom will never learn the identity of their father during their lifetime. Children are growing up without supervision, without the parents you so blithely say should supervise them. I agree that parents ought to be involved in their children’s viewing habits and so on, but the fact is, in many cases there are no parents! What do you do about those kids?
I understand that Night Trap was not rated when it was first released, and then it was rated at the MA-13 level. Is that correct?
Bill White: Once it was rated, it was rated MA-17, Senator.
Senator Dorgan: Do you consider those over the age of thirteen to be mature?
Bill White: MA-13 is appropriate for teenagers and older.
Senator Dorgan: Isn’t the word “mature” attached to that rating?
Bill White: Yes.
Senator Dorgan: So, the presumption is that those over thirteen years of age are mature?
Bill White: Yes, with parental discretion.
Senator Dorgan: Are you kidding me? What kind of rating system identifies kids of thirteen as mature?
Bill White: It’s similar to the motion-picture rating of PG-13.
Senator Dorgan: We have some responsibility to protect children. We protect them from access to alcohol. We protect them in a whole range of areas. With respect to a videogame in which a woman is grabbed by the neck with a hook, drilled in the neck with a tool, or someone grabs the heart out of a character… we ought to have just as much concern about protecting our children from that sort of trash.
Mr. White, I’ve read your written statement, and I honestly think you don’t understand what we’re talking about here. In your final point about Night Trap, you write this: “Finally, there is some research indicating a short-term, momentary increase in playful aggressive behavior after playing videogames or watching violent television programming. But there is no research indicating this has any lasting impact. In fact, quite the opposite is true.” My sense is that you just don’t get what this hearing is about. You say, “This is not for kids. This is adult entertainment.” But you and I both know that kids will have wide access to it. We need to exercise responsibility and protect those children. Profiting at the expense of America’s kids is not moral profit.
Senator Lieberman: Mr. White, in your rating system you have a category of “non-approved.” The latest version of your guidelines reads: “As always, Sega will not approve products which include material that encourages criminality of any kind.” Isn’t a game that requires kids to point a gun at the television set encouraging criminality? We’re all aware of the incredible outbreak of gun violence in this country.
Bill White: We rely on the independent rating council to make those decisions because we in corporate management are not psychologists or sociologists. They have rated that product MA-17: only appropriate for adults.
I’d also like to point out that Nintendo produces a “rapid-fire machine gun” that uses the same technology. They have no rating on that product to suggest it is for adults.
Senator Lieberman: Mr. Lincoln, what game is that for?
Howard Lincoln: This is something that can be purchased for the Super NES. It’s called the “Super Scope.” Sega’s gun is called the “Justifier.” Our gun is for target-shooting. [There is laughter in the room after Lincoln makes this statement, although it was apparently not intended in jest.]
Lethal Enforcer, the game you’re speaking of, was initially rejected by Nintendo. We told the licensee that they would have to remove the name “Justifier” and we wouldn’t approve their packaging. Because of this, that game is not yet out on Nintendo.
Senator Lieberman: I hope you’ll think again before it goes onto the market because this is about more than the name “Justifier.” That is a handgun, pure and simple. No matter what name is on it, putting it in the hands of kids gives them the wrong idea. And I must say that your Super Scope also looks like an assault weapon to me.
Pursuant to your commitment to have a rating system, would you commit to do everything in your power to ensure that the ratings are not only visible on your products but visible in their advertising?
Bill White: Yes. The ratings should be prominent in advertising. You have our commitment to that. I don’t believe that same commitment has been made by Nintendo.
Howard Lincoln: I don’t know what he’s talking about there. As you well know, we have made a commitment to the rating system. But we are concerned that a rating system by itself might just lead to an open season on more violent games. The commitment I’ll make is that we’ll be the first ones back here if what we see is just business as usual. If we’re going to have a rating system, let’s put some meat into it and enforce it.
Senator Lieberman: Ms. Rosenthal, will you make the same commitment?
Ileen Rosenthal: Absolutely. The software industry is sincerely interested in the well-being of children.
Senator Lieberman: A final question for Mr. White. In your guidelines, you say you won’t publish products which denigrate any ethnic, racial, sexual, or religious group. Obviously I think that Night Trap denigrates a sexual group, namely women. But there’s a Konami ad which talks about “fighting ninjas in Chinatown.” Obviously that’s culturally inaccurate since ninja are in the folklore of Japan, not China. But do you agree that that’s in violation of the spirit of your own guidelines?
Bill White: Senator, those guidelines refer to the games themselves, not to their advertising. And that’s not our advertisement.
Senator Lieberman: Would you include that kind of language — “fighting Ninjas in Chinatown” — in your own advertising?
Bill White: No. We strongly discourage that kind of language.
Senator Lieberman: Okay.
Senator Kohl and I are very serious about this, and intend to stay with it. I hope you’re able as an industry to come up with a rating system that addresses everyone’s concerns, but I think the best guarantee of that is for us to stick to the course we’ve set. I know there’s a tremendous market incentive here, but the best thing you can do — not only for the country but for yourselves — is to self-regulate. It will be important for the ultimate credibility and success of your business. And it’s important to the maintenance of our Constitutional freedoms. Because unless people start to self-regulate, the sense that we’re out of control is going to lead to genuine threats to our freedom. We’ve come a ways today, but we’ve got a long ways to go yet. I hope you’ll become the leaders in this, so we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Senator Kohl: We have an awful lot of freedom in America. But there’s always that tendency to use the system down to the last inch to maximize profit. We can push it too far, and do great damage to our country. We all hope very much that you take a step back and consider our common responsibilities as citizens. Thank you.
(The full hearing is available for viewing in the C-SPAN archives.)
|↑1||Kohl was a noted proponent of commonsense gun control, especially among minors.|
|↑2||Konami’s Lethal Enforcers, a light-gun-based shooting-gallery game, was, like Mortal Kombat, one of the big arcade hits of 1992, and was likewise now coming home on consoles and computers.|
|↑3||The dream of streaming videogame content in the same way that one streams television programs was an old one already by this point, dating back at least to the beginning of the previous decade. Despite many bold predictions and more scattershot attempts at actual implementation, it’s never quite come to pass in the comprehensive way that seemed so well-nigh inevitable in 1993.|
|↑4||Sega had actually rolled out its own content-rating system just before the release of Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. Shortly thereafter, Sega and Nintendo, feeling the heat not only from Washington but from such powerful entities as California’s attorney general, did indeed agree to work together on a joint rating system — an unusual step for two companies whose relationship had heretofore been defined by their mutual loathing. On the very morning of this hearing, most of the rest of the video- and computer-game industry signed on to the initiative.|
|↑5||The body of psychological research on the subject was — and is — nowhere near as clear-cut as this formulation implies. And the industry was, of course, motivated to implement a voluntary rating system by fear of government action rather than a sudden conviction that its products could indeed be harmful to children.|
|↑6||Passed on November 30, 1993, the Brady Bill was a landmark piece of gun-control legislation which mandated that all prospective purchasers of a gun must first pass a background check and then wait five days to take delivery of their weapon.|
|↑7||The player’s objective in Night Trap, of course, is not to trap and kill women but rather to protect them from others who seek to do so.|
|↑8||This is, at best, an extremely dubious etymology. The Danish word “tøj,” which is pronounced like the English “toy,” actually means clothing. While “værktøjer” means tools, there is no single word for “little tools”: one would need to say “små værktøjer” to get that concept across. The Danish word for toy, on the other hand, is “legetøj.” If the English word descends from the Scandinavian languages at all, it is almost certainly an abbreviated version of this word. Even this, however, is by no means a firmly established etymology.|
|↑9||I have seen no evidence in my own research that there was ever a time when videogames were as popular among girls as boys.|
|↑10||This chip also allowed Nintendo to assure that they collected a royalty from each and every game that was sold for their console — something Atari wouldn’t or couldn’t do during the first videogame craze.|
|↑11||It wouldn’t have been technically feasible to release a Nintendo version of Night Trap because the company had no CD drive in its product catalog.|
|↑12||Rosenthal doesn’t make it clear here that, in keeping with the computer focus of the SPA, this list includes only games for computers, not consoles. Further, only games that were sold as boxed products in retail stores are included; the list misses entirely the vibrant shareware scene, where games like id’s Wolfenstein 3D were already pushing the envelope on gore and violence at least as much as Sega. Thus it provides a somewhat distorted view of the overall state of gaming even on computers.|
Warning: this article contains images of pixelated male genitalia.
On December 9, 1993, members of the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information and its Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice held a joint hearing on the topic of violence and sex in videogames. Educators, social scientists, activists, and several prominent figures from the videogame industry itself spoke there for almost three hours. More heat than light was on display for much of that time: the middle-aged politicians often displayed a comprehensive ignorance of the subject at hand, the supposed experts often treated nuanced issues with stubborn stridency, and the industry figures often proved more interested in attacking each other than mounting a coordinated defense against the charge of being the corruptors of America’s youth.
But history sometimes moves in surprising ways. The hearing prompted far-reaching changes in gaming out of all proportion to its worthiness as a good-faith debate about a significant social concern. The first and to-date only industry-wide standard for rating the content in videogames — the same system that is still in use today — was one outcome. And another, much stranger result was the splashy trade show that has since come to dominate the industry’s public-relations calendar. One might say that December 9, 1993, was the day that the games industry began to wake up to a sense of itself as a distinct mass-media entity in its own right.
This is the story of how those things came to be.
Videogames have been causing intermittent moral panics for almost as long as they’ve existed. The first of them to ignite public ire dates all the way back to 1976 and a small company called Exidy. The year before, Exidy had made a standup-arcade game called Destruction Derby, about the time-honored American motorsports pastime of the demolition derby, a staple of county fairs and other rural gatherings. When Chicago Coin, the company who had agreed to distribute the game to arcades, failed to pay them their royalties, Exidy revamped it into something called Death Race and released it on their own. Instead of other cars, you were now expected to collide with stick figures, called “gremlins” or “monsters” in Exidy’s official terminology, in order to score points. When you hit one, it was replaced with a little gravestone.
As it happened, though, a recent B-movie called Death Race 2000 was generating enraged headlines at the very same time. Starring a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, it dealt with a cross-country road race of the dystopian future where the drivers were rewarded with bonus points for mowing down pedestrians en route. It’s very difficult to say what the connection between the film and the game actually was. The programmer who created the latter has insisted to this day that he was unaware of the movie at the time he did so. Still, the shared title remains quite a coincidence. Perhaps a marketer at Exidy belatedly elected to capitalize on the film’s notoriety by giving the already finished game the same name?
At any rate, the shared title certainly wasn’t lost on the media at the time. Several television-news programs, including the highly respected nationwide 60 Minutes, ran segments about the game after receiving a flood of complaints from parents and other concerned adults, and many or most arcade owners removed it from their floor. Nolan Bushnell, the founder and chief executive of industry leader Atari, was very displeased with the negative attention Death Race brought to a burgeoning new form of entertainment: “We had an internal rule that we wouldn’t allow violence against people. You could blow up a tank or you could blow up a flying saucer, but you couldn’t blow up people. We felt that was not good form.” But Pete Kaufman, the founder of Exidy, was unrepentant. Those arcade owners who weren’t scared away by the controversy, he noted, did a booming business with Death Race.
The young industry was already learning an important lesson: that extreme violence in a videogame is dangerous because of the unwanted attention it can attract, but that it also has the potential to be very, very profitable. The industry’s future would be marked by a delicate dance between these two realities, as it attempted to be outrageous enough to attract customers with a taste for violence without going so far as to bring the heavy hand of government down upon its head.
Atari and their American and Japanese competitors went from strength to strength in the years after Death Race. First arcades became centerpieces of adolescent social life, and then, thanks to the Atari VCS home console, videogames took over American living rooms as well. The elder generation reacted to these things in much the same way that their parents had to such youth phenomena as Elvis and the Beatles: with a shrug of complete incomprehension, followed in many cases by concerns about the influence of this strange new pop-culture development on their children’s mental and even moral well-being.
The city council of the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite went so far as to ban children from visiting arcades without an adult escort. A legal challenge raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in response made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck the law down as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Dr. C. Everett Koop, President Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent surgeon general, became a vocal critic of videogames and an advocate for laws to limit their pernicious influence, claiming that they were consciously engineered to addict children, “body and soul.”
It’s an odd truism of American culture that, while violence in media may upset various people at various times, nothing brings out the censors in the body politic like a little sex. In October of 1982, a company called Mystique, with ties to the pornography industry, proved this once again with an Atari VCS game called Custer’s Revenge, which combined violence and sex, then added a concluding flourish of racism. In it, you played a reincarnation of the benighted general. His most prominent onscreen feature was his outlandishly long penis, which he used to rape the Native American women he found scattered about the battlefield, already helpfully tied to stakes.
Controversy had clearly been the whole point of the game, and it was rewarded with its full measure, managing to unite the American Indian Community House, the National Organization for Women, and Women Against Pornography for a shared protest outside the New York City venue where it was shown to the press for the first time. Robin Quinn of the last-named organization proclaimed, accurately enough, that the game “says that rape is not only a legitimate form of revenge but a legitimate form of entertainment.” Even the aged George Armstrong Custer III came out of the woodwork to complain that his grandfather’s reputation was being “maligned,” while Atari filed a dubious lawsuit claiming that the very existence of the game on their console created a “wrongful association” in the minds of the public. Arnie Katz, the founding editor of Electronic Games magazine, remembers telling the leadership of the protest movement that “the best way to keep the game from selling is to ignore it.” In the absence of a willingness to heed that perhaps wise advice, Custer’s Revenge wound up selling about 80,000 copies, at $50 a pop. Two other, similarly tasteless “adult” games from Mystique attracted less attention from groups who largely spent their outrage on Custer’s Revenge, and, just as Katz had predicted, proved much less commercially successful.
Still, the arrival of games of this ilk would surely have led to more controversy and eventually to serious calls for legislation, if only what struck many as the passing fad for videogames hadn’t ended abruptly the following year, in the series of events that have gone down in history as the Great Videogame Crash. By the beginning of 1984, the arcade market was greatly diminished, the home-console market effectively destroyed. For the next few years, for the first and only time in the history of digital gaming, computers rather than consoles became the most popular way to play games in the home; the Commodore 64 home computer became the new heart of the gaming mass market.
But even that machine, ultra-popular though it was as a computer model, wasn’t a patch on what the Atari VCS had been. Likewise, the market for floppy-disk-based entertainment software was a small fraction of the size of the former market for console cartridges — so small that it existed out of the sights and minds of the sort of public agencies that had raised concerns about the videogames of the earlier era. Thus software publishers felt little or no compunction about including whatever content struck their fancy and seemed most likely to appeal to their primarily young and male audience. Strip-poker games, many featuring digitized photographs of real models, were a dime a dozen; casual profanity was everywhere; the CRPG Wasteland gave you the option of visiting a house of ill repute (and catching “Wasteland herpes” as a reward for your effort).
Sometimes the lack of condemnation from the fuddy-duddy set could be downright frustrating. When Steve Meretzky of the text-adventure maker Infocom failed to generate any controversy with A Mind Forever Voyaging, his brutal take-down of the Reagan administration’s conservative politics, he decided to make a sex comedy called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. He confidently expected that, as he wrote in the game’s self-congratulatory opening text, people would soon be “indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico.” The actual result? Crickets — and a bunch of other adventure games, such as Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, that were even naughtier, and included graphics to boot.
The return of concerns about videogame content to the public consciousness unsurprisingly coincided with the return of console systems, and the vastly greater number of players they’ve always tended to attract, to the center of the mass market. The Nintendo Entertainment System was first imported to North America from Japan in a rather quiet and cautious fashion in late 1985. But by 1987, it was gaining steam quickly, and by decade’s end its market penetration exceeded even that of the Atari VCS in its heyday.
The fact was, the executives at Nintendo, both those in Japan and in the United States, had made a careful study of what Atari had gotten right and wrong back in the day, and developed a plan for how they could do things in a better, more sustainable way. Nintendo exercised complete control over the NES and everything associated with it. They created an ironclad legal framework which allowed them to decide who was allowed to make NES games, what sort of games these were allowed to be down to the very last detail, and even how many cartridges their software “partners” were allowed to manufacture and sell. Then, as the icing on the cake, Nintendo took a cut of every NES game anyone sold. Not only did this approach make the company extraordinarily profitable, but it ensured that they wouldn’t have to contend with any examples of a Custer’s Revenge and the ensuing public-relations nightmare. Nintendo hewed to a firm “family-friendly” policy. Anecdotes about their censorship regime abound, from the swimsuit calendar which they forced LucasFilm Games to pull down from a wall inside Maniac Mansion to the gravestone crosses which Capcom had to remove from DuckTales — for, in Nintendo’s zeal not to offend, religious symbols of even the most understated stripe were strictly prohibited.
Nevertheless, plenty of Americans found plenty of room in their hearts to be offended by Nintendo’s success. In many cases, their concerns about the heavy-handed tactics which the company used to control both the medium and the message of the NES were perfectly reasonable. Still, a distinct whiff of xenophobia and/or outright racism clung to many of the criticisms, manifested in dark mutterings about the latest Pearl Harbor, couched in stereotypes about the shifty Oriental character. When Nintendo introduced the Game Boy handheld console in 1989 and saw it blow up as big as the NES, the mutterings threatened to become a chorus.
Believing that the winds of public opinion were at their back, Atari Games and Atari Corporation, the two halves into which the old king of American videogames had been split back in 1984, launched a series of legal challenges that attempted to tear down the barriers around Nintendo’s walled garden. These would drag on for years, but would never provide the decisive victory the deposed kings of gaming were looking for; they soon learned that Nintendo could afford good lawyers too. Ditto a probe by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission; the smoking gun these would-be trust busters were looking for either didn’t exist or was very well-hidden.
But there was also another reason that the government investigation fizzled out anticlimactically in 1992, two years after its beginning: Nintendo had some genuine competition in the console space by that point, making it hard for the agencies to stick them with the monopoly tag. The Sega Genesis console, another product of a Japanese company, had first reached American shores in August of 1989. It thoroughly outclassed the NES in technical terms, with a 16-bit rather than an 8-bit processor and far better graphics and sound. Justifiably alarmed, Nintendo did everything they could to snuff out Sega’s North American operation, pressuring everyone from game publishers to retail stores to shun the alternative platform or face the consequences. Their efforts kept Sega on the ropes for quite some time, but Nintendo never could completely finish the job. A turning point came when Electronic Arts, one of the largest American game publishers, chose to make Sega rather than Nintendo their platform of first choice.
By 1992, following years of dogged effort, Sega had brought their brand to a place of near commercial parity with Nintendo, despite the appearance in 1991 of a new Super NES which made up for most of the NES’s failings in comparison to the Genesis and then some. Sega owed their success at least partially to their willingness to embrace edgier and often more violent content, pitched to a slightly older adolescent demographic than the stereotypical Nintendo fanatic. The differences in corporate personality were vividly illustrated by the two companies’ de-facto mascots. Nintendo’s Mario was cute and sweet and harmless; Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was manic and a little unhinged — a little bit more dangerous than the cuddly Italian plumber. Sega didn’t hesitate to call out their target by name: “Sega Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” ran one of their most-used slogans. But it could just as easily have read, “Sega Genesis does what Nintendo won’t,” in terms of content. The two companies’ North American management absolutely loathed one another. Soon they would parade their antipathies before no less august a body than the United States Senate.
Although that landmark hearing would purport to examine questionable videogame content in general, its story is inextricably bound up with that of two games in particular, as different from one another as they could be in their genres, format, and to some extent even the audiences they attempted to reach. One was notable for its extreme level of violence, while the other was notable for its combination of sex and violence — or rather was made notable by politicians and others who convinced themselves that it contained far more of both than was actually the case. We’ll take the two suspects one at a time.
Arcades were still blundering along at this late date, sustained by the impressive audiovisuals that were made possible by their specialized hardware, which not even the likes of the SNES could match. By far the biggest arcade hit of 1992 was a game called Mortal Kombat, the latest in what was already a long line of so-called “fighting games.” (“Aren’t most videogames fighting games?” says the naïve observer…)
The premise was simplicity itself: you and an opponent — in the form of either the computer or, for maximum entertainment, your human buddy — controlled avatars who stood face to face on the screen and beat the ever-loving crap out of one another. Mortal Kombat won special favor in a crowded field for the variety of fighters you could choose to control, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses; for its many moves, counter-moves, and power-move combinations; for its rambunctiously over-the-top depiction of the action, including copious amounts of blood; and for the so-called “fatalities” that finished a match, where a fighter’s heart might get pulled right out of his chest or his head ripped off his shoulders. Jeff Greeson, a student of the game and its lore, notes that “Mortal Kombat not only shocked anyone who had ever played the game, but those who simply walked by the game were mesmerized by its gore.” No arcade game had ever been as extreme as this. How could it not become a hit?
The life cycle of a hit arcade game in those days was much like that of a hit movie: it would remain an arcade exclusive for nine to twelve months in order to maximize that revenue stream, then come home in a version for consoles and/or computers. Midway Games, the maker of the original Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet, placed its home ports in the hands of the software publisher Acclaim Entertainment, who had contracts with both Nintendo and Sega. True to form, Sega encouraged Acclaim to put in as much of the arcade edition’s lurid violence as would fit within the more limited audiovisual capabilities of the Genesis. But Nintendo was different: while they certainly wanted the game on the SNES, they insisted that Acclaim tone it down — for example, by replacing flying blood with flying sweat, and by removing the gory fatalities entirely. Howard Lincoln, a Nintendo of America executive who is widely and justly regarded as one of the two principal architects of the brand’s success, remembers an extended back-and-forth with Acclaim over the issue: “Look, we’re going to make the Sega version, and it’s going to be right in line with the coin-op game. Having a toned-down version for Nintendo… Do you guys really want us to do that? Does that really make sense?” But Nintendo held firm to the family-friendly standards that had gotten them this far.
Versions of Mortal Kombat for the SNES, the Game Boy, the Genesis, and the Game Gear — the last being Sega’s handheld competitor to the Game Boy — shipped simultaneously on September 13, 1993, on the back of a marketing budget that was higher than the combined cost of creating them. Just as Acclaim had intended, “Mortal Monday” became a major event in the lives of countless young fans, who greeted the game the way their parents might have a new Led Zeppelin album. The merchandising manager of Electronics Boutique, one of the country’s biggest videogame retailers, called it “the largest new release we’ve ever had.” Later that week, the New York Times could already report that the Sega versions were handily outselling the Nintendo versions.
Over the next two months, 1 million SNES Mortal Kombat cartridges were sold. This was an impressive showing – except that 2 million Genesis cartridges were sold over the same period. It was a triumphant moment for Sega, who had struggled so long and hard to reach this point, even as it struck Nintendo’s management as the most palpable sign yet that they were in danger of being dismissed as a kiddie company by the teenagers who were now flocking to Sega, bringing along with them their greater reserves of precious disposable income. The defeat had twice the sting in light of the fact that, missing gore aside, the SNES version was by far the better looking and better playing of the two, thanks to running on a newer and more capable console. For the first time, a serious internal debate began at Nintendo over the commercial sustainability of their family-friendly approach.
Despite or because of its outrageous violence, Mortal Kombat was and is a good game in the estimation of most connoisseurs of its genre. Even if it had never prompted a public controversy, it would probably still be fondly remembered by them today; it proved the starting point of a franchise that has encompassed thirteen more games to date. But the other game destined to take center stage before the United States Senate was not so good, and would almost certainly be completely forgotten today if not for its strange moment of infamy in the halls of government.
If nothing else, the game in question does have a fascinating origin story. It begins with Tom Zito, a journalist and music critic for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and the New Yorker, who in 1984 was assigned by the last of these to profile Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame. He parlayed that meeting into a job with the Sunnyvale, California-based Axlon, one of the legendary technologist’s several companies, marketing baby monitors and talking Teddy bears which were distributed by the toy giant Hasbro.
But Bushnell always encouraged his proteges to think expansively rather than narrowly. Thus early in his tenure with Axlon, Zito allowed himself to become intrigued by the new video technology of the laser disc, and by the possibility of overlaying conventional computer graphics onto its pre-recorded random-access imagery. In 1986, he stumbled upon the NES and the burgeoning excitement around it during a routine visit to a department store. Deciding that a laser-disc-powered videogame console was just the ticket, he hired a small team to cobble together a Rube Goldberg contraption they called the Nemo. When the limitations of laser discs began to bite — they could fit only 30 minutes of video onto a side, and the hardware was expensive to boot — they tried to make the concept work with the even blunter instrument of a videotape player under the control of an attached computer. “What I truly believed was that interactive television could be something akin to today’s casual gaming,” says Zito. “I really believed it could be something very, very big.” But Bushnell, alas, displayed more and more skepticism as the technical challenges to the concept became more and more clear. So, Zito secured support directly from Hasbro to develop the gadget further, and he and his team of programmers and engineers split from Bushnell to work on it independently.
They decided that the best way to proceed was to create a full-length, playable game to demonstrate the potential of the Nemo. But what kind of game could they hope to make, given all the limitation of their prototype hardware?
As it happened, a game destined to go down in history as one of the schlockiest of all time was inspired by a much more high-brow piece of artistry. An experimental theatrical play called Tamara was enjoying an extended run at the time in a grand old American Legion mansion in Hollywood. Instead of sitting in one place and watching the show unfold on one stage, the audience could move around the mansion’s three floors on the trail of equally mobile actors; each spectator was encouraged to decide for herself which of the play’s many characters and sub-plots were most interesting and to see them through for herself, as it were.
Two of Zito’s associates, by the names of Rob Fulop and Jim Riley, went to see the play in question one evening. Then they saw it again, and then again. This was not atypical in itself: with so much happening simultaneously, the only way to piece together anything like the complete picture was to attend multiple performances. Yet the precise nature of Fulop and Riley’s curiosity was unusual: rather than trying to piece together the full plot, they were trying to understand how the play really worked, and how its approach might be adapted to interactive video. When they thought they had an understanding of those things, they produced a design document for something called Night Trap.
Night Trap was a bizarre creation by any standard, being the (interactive) story of a group of vampires in training who attack a mansion full of college girls having a weekend sleepover party. Not yet having won their fangs, the vampires have to suck the girls’ blood with a weird contraption of plastic tubing. These are unusually diffident — not to say nerdy — vampires: instead of overpowering the girls bodily, they’ve installed a network of surveillance cameras in the house, along with traps which they can activate remotely to capture the girls for blood extraction. The player’s role is that of a good Samaritan who has hacked into the surveillance system, with the goal of turning the tables on the vampires and catching them in their own booby traps. While by no means completely bereft of a certain creepy voyeuristic vibe — how could it be when it combined college girls in their pajamas, vampires, and a secret surveillance system? — the final script was far from sexually explicit, and likewise more silly than violent. The developers did, after all, envision the game someday being sold by Hasbro, a maker of children’s toys. Indeed, they allowed that company’s management to review the script and remove or change anything they found objectionable.
Fulop, Riley, and Zito spent sixteen days in 1987 shooting the footage for the game with a Hollywood crew that included the future cinematographer of Forrest Gump and the former producer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The shoot wound up costing $1 million, several times the budget of even the most elaborate conventional videogames of the time.
For all the richly deserved schlocky reputation which it would later earn, Night Trap was a genuinely pioneering effort in its way. The combination of real-world footage featuring real actors with conventional graphics would become one of the dominant trends of computer gaming during the early- and mid-1990s. Many of the dubious hallmarks of this so-called “full-motion-video” era appeared for the first time in Night Trap. There was, for example, the way that it tried to make up for the cheesiness that was an inevitable result of its ultra-low cinematic budget by affecting a knowing, ironic attitude — i.e., it’s supposed to be terrible! That’s the joke? Get it? Well then, what are you complaining about? This sort of thing can work occasionally, but most of the time it just comes across as the cheaply disingenuous ploy it really is.
And then there was the use of actors who were vaguely recognizable, but not — or no longer — truly sought-after. “Interactive ‘moviegames’ were populated by performers either on their way up or on their way down the Hollywood ladder,” says Rob Fulop. “Nobody aspired to appear in a moviegame.” Night Trap‘s big catch was Dana Plato, a young actress who had had a prominent role in the hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes from 1978 until 1986, but whose struggles with alcohol and drugs, and the erratic behavior they brought on, had now all but derailed her career. “She’d come in late and never wanted to rehearse,” remembers Fulop. “Her doing this project was obviously a step down from her previous popularity, and she didn’t make a great deal of effort to hide this fact.” This sort of thing too would become all too typical of later interactive movies.
When the shoot was complete, the developers returned to Sunnyvale to try to figure out how to turn their pile of videotapes into a playable game on the Nemo. In the best spirit of Tamara, you were supposed to be able to switch between the video feeds from eight different cameras set up around the mansion; you would need to be in just the right place at just the right time to trigger a trap and catch each of the vampires. But making this random-access concept work using the fundamentally sequential medium of videotape was, needless to say, a tall order.
Amazingly, Hasbro allowed Zito and company to shoot the footage for a second interactive movie while they were still struggling to implement their first one. Zito conceived Sewer Shark as a visual-effects extravaganza, and therefore gave the director’s chair to John Dykstra, the effects supervisor for such films as Silent Running, Star Wars, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He spent most of his time setting up shots of the tunnels down which the player would fly a spacecraft; think of an interactive-movie version of the later 3D action game Descent, if your imagination can encompass such a thing. Any way you look at it, Sewer Shark is a well-nigh ludicrous technological stew. Just as Hollywood was beginning to embrace computer-generated imagery in place of many physically-constructed special effects, Sewer Shark flipped that formulation on its head; it was filmed using old-fashioned physical scale models, which were then digitized and displayed on a computer. Shot in exotic Hawaii for reasons no one can seem to explain, the Sewer Shark footage wound up costing $2 million.
When not supervising film shoots, Zito was spending a lot of time hobnobbing with the Hollywood set, trying to interest them in a concept that still had no practical delivery device. He talked to Jane Fonda about an interactive workout video; talked to Jerry Bruckheimer about an interactive Top Gun; talked to Paramount about an interactive Star Trek; talked to the rock band Yes about an interactive music video; talked to George Miller about an interactive Mad Max; talked to ESPN about interactive sports broadcasting. He even flew to London for a meeting with Stanley Kubrick. None of it went anywhere.
It isn’t clear how much progress his technical team made on the task of turning Night Trap and Sewer Shark into playable games on the Nemo while he was away. We can say for sure, however, that their progress wasn’t fast enough for Hasbro’s taste. The latter came to suspect, by no means entirely unreasonably, that Zito was more interested in enjoying his Hollywood jet-setter lifestyle than buckling down and delivering the finished product he had promised them. They finally pulled the plug on the Nemo in 1989 — ironically, just as the evolution of computer technology, especially the onset of CD-ROM, was beginning to make what Zito had first proposed to do some three years before seem at least potentially practical. But Zito, for his part, was well aware that the science-fictional was slowly moving into the realm of the possible. He convinced Hasbro to sell him the rights and all of the footage earmarked for Night Trap and Sewer Shark for a song.
Two years later, what had once seemed so pie-in-the-sky was now striking many people who weren’t named Tom Zito as gaming’s necessary future. That year, there appeared Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the first published game to make extensive use of filmed live-action footage. It did very, very well.
Suddenly afraid that his five-year-old brainstorm was about to take off without him, Zito founded a company called Digital Pictures. Its first objective would be to make a pair of interactive movies built around the live-action footage which he had carried away from the Nemo project. His rhetoric, once so bizarre, was now right in line with the emerging conventional wisdom: “Ultimately, I believe the [videogame] business will be more like traditional Hollywood stuff than what’s coming out of Silicon Valley today: some dinky animated guys running around the screen. We’ll be doing interactive game shows, talk shows, dramas, sitcoms.” “Why watch a movie where you can’t have any effect over it?” asked the Digital Pictures artist Josh Solomon. “Why not be able to put your own stamp on it?”
There was one important difference to separate Digital Pictures from most of the others jumping on the full-motion-video bandwagon. These others tended to focus on the high-end personal-computer marketplace, where CD-ROM drives were slowly but steadily winning acceptance, and where the hardware in general dramatically outclassed that of the consoles. But Zito was a mass-media populist by instinct; he wanted to bring his interactive movies to the living rooms of everyone, not just to the dens, offices, and bedrooms of a privileged few.
Both Nintendo and Sega were also aware of CD-ROM, and both were contemplating whether and how they could use the technology. But the former, after first partnering with Sony to make a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, abruptly pulled out of the deal; an optical drive wouldn’t finally make it to a Nintendo console until the release of the GameCube in 2001. Nintendo’s abandonment of the field left only Sega, who planned to make a CD add-on of their own for the Genesis. So, Zito signed on with them.
Re-purposing the aged footage wasn’t easy. First it had to be digitized, then downgraded dramatically to fit a venerable console that in all truth was thoroughly unsuited to the task it had been assigned: it could display just 61 colors at a time from a palette of just 512. Compared to the full-motion-video productions on personal computers — not exactly marvels of high-fidelity in themselves — Sewer Shark on the Genesis was a bad joke. Digital Pictures programmer Ken Melville:
All our video had to be tortured, kicking and screaming, into the most horrifying, blurry, reduced-color-palette mess imaginable. I shudder to think about it. The audio, the video, the accessing of data on the sloooow-crawling 10 K per second bandwidth CD was all torturous and disastrous. The limitations presented were enormous.
The actual gameplay that was shoehorned in on top of the video was as simplistic as could be, consisting of little more than cross-hair and some grainy targets to shoot at.
Sega’s CD add-on shipped on September 15, 1992; the two-and-a-half minute television advertisement that was rolled out to mark the occasion had cost more to make than three or four typical videogames. The gadget had sold 1.5 million units by the time anyone managed to complete the first tally. As one of the first games to be made available for Sega CD, Sewer Shark did very well. In 1993, it was bundled with the add-on for a period of time, thereby making a lot more money for Digital Pictures.
Night Trap appeared soon after Sewer Shark. It was more formally ambitious than the simple rail shooter that was Sewer Shark — the original, Tamara-inspired gameplay concept had traveled the long and winding road to the Genesis intact — but it was no more attractive to look at and no more fun to play, being in the end an exercise in trial and error and rote timing. Predictably enough, the magazine reviews fixated on the novelty of its use of video and the nubile girls it featured so prominently, and especially on Dana Plato’s starring role. Over the five years since the footage had been shot, she had become one of Hollywood’s most infamous burnouts, having recently been arrested twice: once for robbing a liquor store (“I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes,” said the clerk when he phoned the police), then again for forging a drug prescription. But even her involvement constituted a paltry — not to mention rather mean-spirited — ground for playing a game, as some of the more perceptive or less beholden reviewers reluctantly acknowledged.
Night Trap didn’t sell in particularly big numbers in comparison to its predecessor. Had it never come to a certain senator’s attention, it would doubtless have become no more than a minor footnote to gaming history, like the rest of Digital Pictures’s underwhelming output. As it was, though, it got to join Mortal Kombat as the public face of videogame depravity.
According to his own account, Joseph A. Lieberman, a United States Senator for the Democratic Party from the state of Connecticut, first heard about Mortal Kombat when his chief of staff Bill Andresen told the senator in casual conversation how his nine-year-old son had asked for a copy, and how he had refused because he had read in the newspaper that the game was “incredibly violent.” His curiosity kindled, Lieberman suggested that the two of them have a look at the game themselves. Lieberman:
I was startled. It was very violent, and rewarded violence. At the end, if you really did well, you’d get to decide how to kill the other guy, how to pull his head off. And there was all sorts of blood flying around.
Then we started to look into it, and I forget how I heard about Night Trap. I looked at that game too, and there was a classic. It ends with this attack scene on this woman in lingerie, in her bathroom. I know that the creator of the game said it was all meant to be a satire of Dracula, but nonetheless, I thought it sent out the wrong message.
Of course, the player’s objective in Night Trap was to protect the girls rather than attack them, and the nerdy trainee vampires were unusually non-violent by the traditional standards of their kind. Yet Lieberman would continue to spout misleading statements like these for months to come — before, during, and after the Senate hearing on videogame content which he instituted and oversaw.
In light of his manifest ignorance, many have questioned the senator’s own professed origin story of his investigation; did he and his chief of staff really have the wherewithal to go out and buy Mortal Kombat, buy or otherwise procure a Sega Genesis to play it on, and then get far enough into it to see its trademark fatalities? Tom Zito, for his part, claims that the investigation began in a very different way: that Nintendo, or one of their Washington lobbyists, arranged to show the good senator what sorts of filth their rival Sega was peddling. And indeed, the bad blood between the two companies was so pronounced that this conspiracy theory sounds more plausible than it perhaps ought to. We can say for sure only that, if Nintendo did touch off the affair in an attempt to stick it to their arch-rival, it would soon snowball hopelessly out of their control as well.
Naturally, we cannot hope to know what was really in Senator Lieberman’s mind in the midst of all this — whether he simply saw it as an easy way to win favor with his constituents (videogame players were not a large voting bloc in comparison to nervous parents and grandparents), or whether he really, truly felt the deep-seated concern he expressed on numerous occasions. In Lieberman’s defense, however, it should be noted that violent crime in the real world and its causes constituted a big part of Washington’s agenda that year and the next, in the midst of a spate of well-publicized incidents. For example, on October 1, 1993, a twelve-year-old girl named Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in rural California at knife point, then murdered and buried in a shallow grave. Although the connection was never explicitly made during the Senate hearings, it isn’t a huge leap to presume that the slumber-party aspect of Night Trap may have been what tipped the balance and singled it out for so much overheated condemnation.
Whatever his motivation or combination thereof, Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information, reached out to his friend Herbert Kohl, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. The two announced a joint hearing on the subject of videogame content and its effects on the psychology of children and adolescents, advertising it as the first step toward an eventual law that would require videogame publishers to mark any of their products which contained violent and/or sexual content on their boxes.
The videogame industry was about to get its day in a decidedly hostile court, with Mortal Kombat and Night Trap in the role of its two most flagrant offenders. The games made for quite the odd couple. Mortal Kombat was, for all its envelope-pushing violence, traditionalist in spirit, engineered to appeal to the teenage boys who had always been the biggest market for videogames; Night Trap, despite its manifestly clumsy execution, was an attempt to do something genuinely new in games, with the potential to appeal to new types of players. Mortal Kombat would later be remembered as a very good game; Night Trap as a very, very bad one. Mortal Kombat was a game whose content a reasonable person could reasonably object to in at least some contexts; Night Trap was most offensive in its sheer ineptness, and was hardly the grisly interactive slasher flick which Lieberman apparently believed it to be. Nevertheless, here they both were. December 9, 1993, would change the games industry forever.
(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood by Jamie Russell, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Edge of February 1994; New York Times of October 15 1982 and September 16 1993; Retro Gamer 54; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1. Online sources include Kevin D. Impellizeri’s look back at the videogame hearings, “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy” at GameSpot, “The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming” at GameSpy, and Shannon Symonds’s blog post about Death Race at the Strong Museum of Play’s website.)
We approached games as immersive simulations. We wanted to build game environments that reacted to player’s decisions, that behaved in natural ways, and where players had more verbs than simply “shoot.” DOOM was not an influence on System Shock. We were trying something more difficult and nuanced, [although] we still had a lot of respect for the simplicity and focus of [the id] games. There was, to my recollection, a vague sense of fatalism about the parallel tracks the two companies were taking, since it was clear early on that id’s approach, which needed much less player education and which ran on adrenaline rather than planning and immersion, was more likely to be commercially successful. But we all believed very strongly in Looking Glass’s direction, and were proud that we were taking games to a more cerebral and story-rich place.
— Dorian Hart
We hope that our toiling now to make things work when it is still very hard to do effectively will mean that when it is easier to do, we can concentrate on the parts of the game that are less ephemeral than polygons per second, and distinguish ourselves by designing detailed and immersive environments which are about more than just the technology.
— Doug Church
In late 1992, two separate studios began working on two separate games whose descriptions sound weirdly identical to one another. Each was to make you the last human survivor on a besieged space station. You would roam its corridors in real time in an embodied first-person view; both studios prided themselves on their cutting-edge 3D graphics technology. As you explored, you would have to kill or be killed by the monsters swarming the complex. Yet wresting back control of the station would demand more than raw firepower: in the end, you would have to outwit the malevolent intelligence behind it all. Both games were envisioned as unprecedentedly rich interactive experiences, as a visceral new way of living through an interactive story.
But in the months that followed, these two projects that had started out so conceptually similar diverged dramatically. The team that was working on DOOM at id Software down in Dallas, Texas, decided that all of the elaborate plotting and puzzles were just getting in the way of the simpler, purer joys of blowing away demons with a shotgun. Lead programmer John Carmack summed up id’s attitude: “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” id discovered that they weren’t really interested in making an immersive virtual world; they were interested in making an exciting game, one whose “gameyness” they felt no shame in foregrounding.
Meanwhile the folks at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based studio Looking Glass Technologies stuck obstinately to their original vision. They made exactly the uncompromising experience they had first discussed, refusing to trade psychological horror in for cheaper thrills. System Shock would demand far more of its players than DOOM, but would prove in its way an even more rewarding game for those willing to follow it down the moody, disturbing path it unfolded.
It was in this moment, then, that the differences between id and Looking Glass, the yin and the yang of 1990s 3D-graphics pioneers, became abundantly clear.
Looking Glass arrived at their crossroads moment just as they were completing their second game, Ultima Underworld II. Both it and its predecessor were first-person fantasy dungeon crawls set in and around Britannia, the venerable world of the Ultima CRPG series to which their games served as spinoffs. And both were very successful, so much so that they almost overshadowed Ultima VII, the latest entry in the mainline series. Looking Glass’s publisher Origin Systems would have been happy to let them continue making games in this vein for as long as their customers kept buying them.
But Looking Glass, evincing the creative restlessness that would define them throughout their existence, was ready to move on to other challenges. In the months immediately after Ultima Underworld II was completed, the studio’s head Paul Neurath allowed his charges to start three wildly diverse projects on the back of the proceeds from the Underworld games, projects which were unified only by their heavy reliance on 3D graphics. One was a game of squad-level tactical combat called Terra Nova, another a civilian flight simulator called Flight Unlimited. And the third — actually, the first of the trio to be officially initiated — was System Shock.
Doug Church, the driving creative force behind Ultima Underworld, longed to create seamless interactive experiences, where you didn’t so much play a game as enter into its world. The Underworld games had been a big step in that direction within the constraints of the CRPG form, thanks to their first-person, free-scrolling perspective, their real-time gameplay, and, not least, the way they cast you in the role of a single embodied dungeon delver rather than that of the disembodied manager of a whole party of them. But Church believed that there was still too much that pulled you out of their worlds. Although the games were played entirely from a single screen, which itself put them far ahead of most CRPGs in terms of immediacy, you were still switching constantly from mode to mode within that screen. “I felt that Underworld was sort of [four] different games that you played in parallel,” says Church. “There was the stats-based game with the experience points, the inventory-collecting-and-managing game, the 3D-moving-around game, and there was the talking game — the conversation-branch game.” What had seemed so fresh and innovative a couple of years earlier now struck Church as clunky.
Ironically, much of what he was objecting to is inherent to the CRPG form itself. Aficionados of the genre find it endlessly enjoyable to pore over their characters’ statistics at level-up time, to min-max their equipment and skills. And this is fine: the genre is as legitimate as any other. Yet Church himself found its cool intellectual appeal, derived from its antecedents on the tabletop which had no choice but to reveal all of their numbers to their players, to be antithetical to the sort of game that he wanted to make next:
In Underworld, there was all this dice rolling going on off-screen basically, and I’ve always felt it was kind of silly. Dice were invented as a way to simulate swinging your sword to see if you hit or miss. So everyone builds computer games where you move around in 3D and swing your sword and hit or miss, and then if you hit you roll some dice to simulate swinging a sword to decide if you hit or miss. How is anyone supposed to understand unless you print the numbers? Which is why, I think, most of the games that really try to be hardcore RPGs actually print out, “You rolled a 17!” In [the tabletop game of] Warhammer when you get a five-percent increase and the next time you roll your attack you make it by three percent, you’re all excited because you know that five-percent increase is why you hit. In a computer game you have absolutely no idea. And so we really wanted to get rid of all that super opaque, “I have no idea what’s going on” stuff. We wanted to make it so you can watch and play and it’s all happening.
So, there would be no numbers in his next game — no character levels, no character statistics, not even quantifiable hit points. There would just be you, right there in the world, without any intervening layers of abstraction.
Over the course of extensive discussions involving Doug Church himself, Paul Neurath, Looking Glass designer and writer Austin Grossman, and their Origin Systems producer Warren Spector, it was decided to make a first-person science-fiction game with distinct cyberpunk overtones, pitting you against an insane computer known as SHODAN. Cyberpunk was anything but a novelty in the games of the 1990s, a time when authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson all occupied prominent places on the genre-fiction bestseller charts and the game developers who read their novels rushed to bring their visions to life on monitor screens. Still, cyberpunk would suit Looking Glass’s purposes unusually perfectly by presenting a credible explanation for the diegetic interface Church was envisioning. You would play a character with a neural implant that let you “see” a heads-up display sporting a life bar for yourself, an energy bar for your weapons and other hardware, etc. — all of it a part of the virtual world rather than external to it. When you switched between “modes,” such as when bringing up the auto-map or your inventory display, it would be the embodied you who did so in the virtual world, not that other you who sat in front of the computer telling a puppet what to do next.
Dissatisfied with what he saw as the immersion-killing conversation trees of Ultima Underworld, Church decided to get rid of two-way conversation altogether. When the game began, there would be enticing signs that other humans were still alive somewhere on the space station, but you would be consistently too late to reach them; you would encounter them only as the zombies SHODAN turned them into after death. Of course, all of this too was highly derivative, and on multiple levels at that. Science-fiction fans had been watching their heroes take down out-of-control computers since the original Star Trek television series if not before; “I don’t think if you wrote the novel [of System Shock] it would fly off the shelves,” admits Church. Likewise, computer games had been contriving ways to place you in deserted worlds, or in worlds inhabited only by simple-minded creatures out for your blood, for as long as said games had existed, always in order to avoid the complications of character interaction; the stately isolation of the mega-hit adventure game Myst was only the most recent notable example of the longstanding tradition at the time System Shock was in development.
But often it’s not what you do in any form of media, it’s how well you do it. And System Shock does what it sets out to do very, very well indeed. It tells a story of considerable complexity and nuance through the artifacts you find lying about as you explore the station and the emails you receive from time to time, allowing you to piece it all together for yourself in nonlinear fashion. “We wanted to make the plot and story development of System Shock be an exploration as well,” says Church, “and that’s why it’s all in the logs and data, so then it’s very tied into movement through the spaces.”
Moving through said spaces, picking up bits and pieces of the horrible events which have unfolded there, quickly becomes highly unnerving. The sense of embodied realism that clings to every aspect of the game is key to the sense of genuine, oppressive fear it creates in its player. Tellingly, Looking Glass liked to call System Shock a “simulation,” even though it simulates nothing that has ever existed in the real world. The word is rather shorthand for its absolute commitment to the truth — fictional truth, yes, but truth nevertheless — of the world it drops you into.
Story is very important to System Shock — and yet, in marked contrast to works in the more traditionally narrative-oriented genre of the adventure game, its engine also offers heaps and heaps of emergent possibility as you move through the station discovering what has gone wrong here and, finally, how you might be able to fix it. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go do this sequence of four things,'” says Church. “It was, ‘Well, there are going to be twelve cameras here and you gotta take out eight of them. Figure it out.’ We [also] gave you the option [of saying], ‘I don’t want to fight that guy. Okay, maybe I can find another way…'”
Thus System Shock manages the neat trick of combining a compelling narrative with a completely coherent environment that never reduces you to choosing from a menu of options, one where just about any solution for any given problem that seems like it ought to work really does work. Just how did Looking Glass achieve this when so many others before and since have failed, or been so daunted by the challenges involved that they never even bothered to try? They did so by combining technical excellence with an aesthetic sophistication to which few of their peers could even imagine aspiring.
Just as the 3D engine that powers Ultima Underworld is more advanced than the pseudo-3D of id’s contemporaneous Wolfenstein 3D, the System Shock engine outdoes DOOM in a number of important respects. The enormous environments of System Shock curve over and under and around one another, complete with sloping floors everywhere; lighting is realistically simulated; you can jump and crouch and look up and down and lean around corners; you can take advantage of its surprisingly advanced level of physics simulation in countless ingenious ways. System Shock even boasts perspective-correct texture mapping, a huge advance over Ultima Underworld, and no easy thing to combine with the aforementioned slopes.
That said, it’s also abundantly true that a more advanced engine doesn’t automatically make for a better game. Any such comparison must always carry an implied addendum: better for whom? Certainly DOOM succeeded beautifully in realizing its makers’ ambitions, even as its more streamlined engine could run well on many more of the typical computers of the mid-1990s than System Shock‘s could. By no means do the engines’ respective advantages all run one way: in addition to being much faster than the System Shock engine, the DOOM engine allows rooms of arbitrary sizes and non-orthogonal walls, neither of which is true of its counterpart from Looking Glass.
In the end, System Shock wants to be a very different experience than DOOM, catering to a different style of play, and its own engine is designed to allow it to realize its own ambitions. It demands a more careful approach from its player, where you must constantly use light and shadow, walls and obstacles, to aid you in your desperate struggle. For you are not a superhuman outer-space marine in System Shock; you’re just, well, you, scared and alone in a space station filled with rampaging monsters.
A fine example of the lengths to which Looking Glass’s technologists were willing to go in the service of immersion is provided by the mini-games you can play. Inspired by, of all things, the similarly plot-irrelevant mini-games found in the LucasArts graphic adventure Sam and Max Hit the Road, they contribute much more to the fiction in this case than in that other one. As with everything in System Shock, the mini-games are not external to the world of the main game. It’s rather you playing them through your neural implant right there in the world; it’s you who cowers in a safe corner somewhere, trying to soothe your soul with a quick session of Breakout or Missile Command. You get the chance to collect more and better games as you infiltrate the station’s computer network using the cyberspace jacks you find scattered about — a reward of sorts for a forlorn hacker trying to survive against an all-powerful entity and her horrifying minions.
Sean Barret, a programmer who came to Looking Glass and to the System Shock project well into the game’s development, implemented the most elaborate by far of the mini-games, a gentle satire of Origin Systems’s Wing Commander that goes under the name of Wing 0. The story of its creation is a classic tale of Looking Glass, a demonstration both of the employees’ technical brilliance and their insane levels of commitment to the premises of their games. Newly arrived on the team and wishing to make a good impression, Barrett saw a list of mini-game ideas on a whiteboard; a “Wing Commander clone” was among them. So, he set to work, and some days later presented his creation to his colleagues. They were as shocked as they were delighted; it turned out that the Wing Commander clone had been a joke rather than a serious proposal. In the end, however, System Shock got its very own Wing Commander after all.
Still, there were many other technically excellent and crazily dedicated games studios in the 1990s, just as there are today. What truly set Looking Glass apart was their interest in combining the one sort of intelligence with another kind that has not always been in quite so great a supply in the games industry.
As Looking Glass grew, Paul Neurath brought some very atypical characters into the fold. Already in late 1991, he placed an advertisement in the Boston Globe for a writer with an English degree. He eventually hired Austin Grossman, who would do a masterful job of scattering the puzzle pieces of Doug Church’s story outline around the System Shock space station. There soon followed another writer with an English degree, this one by the name of Dorian Hart, who would construct some of the station’s more devious internal spaces using the flair for drama which he had picked up from all of the books he had read. He was, as he puts it, “a liberal-arts nobody with no coding skills or direct industry experience, thrown onto arguably the most accomplished and leading-edge videogame production team ever assembled. It’s hard to explain how unlikely that was, and how fish-out-of-water I felt.” Nevertheless, there he was — and System Shock was all the better for his presence.
Another, even more unlikely set of game developers arrived in the persons of Greg LoPiccolo and Eric and Terri Brosius, all members of a popular Boston rock band known as Tribe, who had been signed to a major label amidst the Nirvana-fueled indie-rock boom of the early 1990s, only to see the two albums they recorded fail to duplicate their local success on a national scale. They were facing a decidedly uncertain future when Doug Church and Dan Schmidt — the latter being another Looking Glass programmer, designer, and writer — showed up in the audience at a Tribe show. They loved the band’s angular, foreboding songs and arrangements, they explained afterward, and wanted to know if they’d be interested in doing the music for a science-fiction computer game that would have much the same atmosphere. Three members of the band quickly agreed, despite knowing next to nothing about computers or the games they played. “Being young, not knowing what would happen next, that was part of the magic,” remembers Eric Brosius. “We were willing to learn because it was just an exciting time.”
Terri Brosius became the voice of SHODAN, a role that fell to her by default: artificial intelligences in science fiction typically spoke in a female voice, and she was the only woman to be found among the Looking Glass creative staff. But however she got the part, she most definitely made it her own. She laughs that “people tend to get freaked out” when they hear her speak today in real life. And small wonder: her glitchy voice ringing through the empty corridors of the station, dripping with sarcastic malice, is one of the indelible memories that every player of System Shock takes away with her. Simply put, SHODAN creeps you the hell out. “You had a recurring, consistent, palpable enemy who mattered to you,” notes Doug Church — all thanks to Austin Grossman’s SHODAN script and Terri Brosius’s unforgettable portrayal of her.
As I think about the combination of technical excellence and aesthetic sophistication that was Looking Glass, I find one metaphor all but unavoidable: that of Looking Glass as the Infocom of the 1990s. Certainly Infocom, their predecessors of the previous decade on the Boston-area game-development scene, evinced much the same combination — the same thoroughgoing commitment to excellence and innovation in all of their forms — during their own heyday. If the 3D-graphics engines of Looking Glass seem a long way from the text and parsers of Infocom, let that merely be a sign of just how much gaming itself had changed in a short span of time. Even when we turn to more plebeian matters, there are connections to be found beyond a shared zip code. Both studios were intimately bound up with MIT, sharing in the ideas, personnel, and, perhaps most of all, the culture of the university; both had their offices on the same block of CambridgePark Drive; two of Looking Glass’s programmers, Dan Schmidt and Sean Barrett, later wrote well-received textual interactive fictions of their own. The metaphor isn’t ironclad by any means; Legend Entertainment, founded as it was by former Infocom author Bob Bates and employing the talents of Steve Meretzky, is another, more traditionalist answer to the question of the Infocom of the 1990s. Still, the metaphor does do much to highlight the nature of Looking Glass’s achievements, and their importance to the emerging art form of interactive narrative. Few if any studios were as determined to advance that art form as these two were.
But Looking Glass’s ambitions could occasionally outrun even their impressive abilities to implement them, just as could Infocom’s at times. In System Shock, this overreach comes in the form of the sequences that begin when you utilize one of those aforementioned cyberspace jacks that you find scattered about the station. System Shock‘s cyberspace is an unattractive, unwelcoming place — and not in a good way. It’s plagued by clunky controls and graphics that manage to be both too minimalist and too garish, that are in fact almost impossible to make head or tail of. The whole thing is more frustrating than fun, not a patch on the cyberspace sequences to be found in Interplay’s much earlier computer-game adaption of William Gibson’s breakthrough novel Neuromancer. So, it turns out that even the collection of brilliant talent that was assembled at Looking Glass could have one idea too many. Doug Church:
We thought [that] it fit from a conceptual standpoint. You’re a hacker; shouldn’t you hack something? We thought it would be fun to throw in a different movement mode that was more free-form, more action. In retrospect, we probably should have either cut it or spent more time on it. There is some fun stuff in it, but it’s not as polished as it should be. But even so, it was nice because it at least reinforced the idea that you were the hacker, in a totally random, arcadey, broken kind of way. But at least it suggested that you’re something other than a guy with a gun. We were looking at ourselves and saying, “Oh, of course we should have cyberspace! We’re a cyberpunk game, we gotta have cyberspace! Well, what can we do without too much time? What if we do this crazy thing?” Off we went…
By way of compounding the problem, the final confrontation with SHODAN takes place… in cyberspace. This tortuously difficult and thoroughly unfun finale has proven to be too much for many a player, leaving her to walk away on the verge of victory with a terrible last taste of the game lingering in her mouth.
Luckily, it’s possible to work around even this weakness to a large extent, thanks to another of the generous affordances which Looking Glass built into the game. You can decide for yourself how complex and thus how difficult you wish the game to be along four different axes: Combat (the part of the game that is most like DOOM); Mission (the non-combat tasks you have to accomplish to free the station from SHODAN’s grip); Puzzle (the occasional spatial puzzles that crop up when you try to jigger a lock or the like); and Cyber (the cyberspace implementation). All of these can be set to a value between zero and three, allowing you to play System Shock as anything from a straight-up shooter where all you have to do is run and gun to an unusually immersive and emergent pure adventure game populated only by “feeble” enemies who “never attack first.” The default experience sees all of these values set at two, and this is indeed the optimal choice in my opinion for those who don’t have a complete aversion to any one of the game’s aspects — with one exception: I would recommend setting Cyber to one or even zero in order to save yourself at lot of pain, especially at the very end. (The ultimate challenge for System Shock veterans, on the other hand, comes by setting the Mission value to three; this imposes a time limit on the whole game of about seven hours.)
System Shock was released in late 1994, almost two full years after Ultima Underworld II, Looking Glass’s last game. It sold acceptably but not spectacularly well for a studio that was already becoming well-acquainted with the financial worries that would continue to dog them for the rest of their existence. Reviews were quite positive, yet many of the authors of same seemed barely to have noticed the game’s subtler qualities, choosing to lump it in instead with the so-called “DOOM clones” that were beginning to flood the market by this point, almost a year after the original DOOM‘s release. (One advantage of id Software’s more limited ambitions for their game was the fact that it was finished much, much quicker than System Shock; in fact, a DOOM II was already on store shelves by the time System Shock made it there.)
Although everyone at Looking Glass took the high road when asked about the DOOM connection, the press and public’s tendency to diminish their own accomplishment in 3D virtual-world-building had to rankle at some level; former employees insist to this day that DOOM had no influence whatsoever on their own creation, that System Shock would have turned out the same even had DOOM never existed. The fact is, Looking Glass’s own claim to the title of 3D-graphics pioneers is every bit as valid as that of id, and their System Shock engine actually was, as we’ve seen, more advanced than that of DOOM in a number of ways. No games studio in history has ever deserved less to be treated as imitators rather than innovators.
Alas, mainstream appreciation would be tough to come by throughout the remaining years of Looking Glass’s existence, just as it had sometimes been for Infocom before them. A market that favored the direct, visceral pleasures of id’s DOOM and, soon, Quake didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Looking Glass’s more nuanced 3D worlds. And so, yet again as with Infocom, it would not be until after Looking Glass was no more that the world of gaming would come to fully appreciate everything they had achieved. When asked pointedly about the sales charts which his games so consistently failed to top, Doug Church showed wisdom beyond his years in insisting that the important thing was just to earn enough back to make the next game.
id did a great job with [DOOM]. And more power to them. I think you want to do things that connect with the market and you want to do things that people like and you want to do things that get seen. But you also want to do things you actually believe in and you personally want to do. Hey, if you’re going to work twenty hours a day and not get paid much money, you might as well do something you like. We were building the games we were interested in; we had that luxury. We didn’t have spectacular success and a huge win, but we had enough success that we got to do some more. And at some level, at least for me, sure, I’d love to have huge, huge success. But if I get to do another game, that’s pretty hard to complain about.
Today, free of the vicissitudes of an inhospitable marketplace, System Shock more than speaks for itself. Few games, past or present, combine so many diverse ideas into such a worthy whole, and few demonstrate such uncompromising commitment to their premise and their fiction. In a catalog filled with remarkable achievements, System Shock still stands out as one of Looking Glass’s most remarkable games of all, an example of what magical things can happen when technical wizardry is placed in the service of real aesthetic sophistication. By all means, go play it now if you haven’t already. Or, perhaps better said, go live it now.
(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice, second edition, by Richard Rouse III and System Shock: Strategies and Secrets by Bernie Yee; Origin’s official System Shock hint book; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 3 1994, November 23 1994, January 13 1995, February 10 1995, March 14 1995, and May 5 1995; Electronic Entertainment of December 1994; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Next Generation of February 1995; Game Developer of April/May 1995. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: The History of Looking Glass” and “From Looking Glass to Harmonix: The Tribe,” both by Mike Mahardy of Polygon. Most of all, huge thanks to Dorian Hart, Sean Barrett, and Dan Schmidt for talking with me about their time at Looking Glass.
System Shock is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)