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Category Archives: Interactive Fiction

The Best of Voyager, Part 1

This article contains capsule reviews of ten of the discs that I most appreciate from the early years of The Voyager Company, along with some additional notes on their origins, courtesy of Bob Stein. As the “Part 1” in the article’s title would imply, I’ll be reviewing more of the Voyager standouts later, although not right away; I’m still making my slow way through a rather large catalog. I anticipate that there will come at least two more articles of this sort over the course of the next few years.

Before starting in earnest on this first one, however, some explanations are in order:

I’ve always envisioned this history of digital interactivity as something of an interactive experience in its own right for its readers. I’ve always hoped that some percentage of you will be inspired to check out some of the artifacts I write about for yourself, inspired to go on your own journey through digital history and form your own judgments about what you find there. I’ve always done my best to facilitate that.

In the early years, that sometimes meant rolling up my sleeves and getting down in the weeds with the often-cranky emulators of now-obscure old computers, sharing ROM files and the like and even on one occasion packaging up a whole obsolete computer system in a (virtual) box. In the middle years, things got a bit easier, as I could generally just share disk images of the software I wrote about for you to try out on the more mature emulators of slightly later computers. And still more recently things have gotten easier yet, as most of the stuff I write about these days can be purchased as ready-to-run downloads from digital storefronts like GOG.com. (Indeed, the emergence of a permanent back catalog in a games industry that used to make a policy of forgetting its past is one of the most welcome developments I’ve had the pleasure to witness since I started this site.)

But when it comes to exploring the fascinating catalog of The Voyager Company, we’re kind of back to square one. The sad fact is that classic Macintosh emulation is far less mature than that of MS-DOS, early incarnations of Microsoft Windows, or even the Commodore 64 or Amiga. This isn’t, I rush to add, because the people who work on the three most prominent classic Mac emulators — each focusing on a distinct era of the long-lived platform — are any less capable than those working on other emulators, but just because it’s a big job and there aren’t a lot of people doing it in comparison to those endeavoring to preserve the more popular retro-gaming platforms.

The Voyager oeuvre has a particular knack for finding the weaknesses in the current generation of Mac emulators. Many of Voyager’s early releases are what’s known as “mixed-mode” CD-ROMs: CDs which combine a computer-specific “data track” with multiple other tracks of sound and/or music, readable by any audio-CD player. All of the extant emulators tend to choke horribly on these. Even the later Voyager releases, which generally aren’t mixed-mode, are often a tall order for the emulators, having been built using fiddly middleware like HyperCard or The Director, and being loaded to the gills with multimedia content to be played back using equally fiddly libraries like QuickTime. One usually can get them to work in the emulators, after a fashion, but they’re all too often glitchy and crash-prone.

I’m therefore going to recommend a radical solution to anyone interested in experiencing the Voyager discs I highlight below: don’t try to do it on an emulator. Get yourself a real vintage Macintosh instead.

Specifically, I recommend picking up a G3 iMac of the turn-of-the-millennium era. Apple sold 5 million of these little machines in the two and a half years after their introduction in August of 1998, and they can still be found all over the place in North America and Europe: on online marketplaces, at swap meets, in charity shops, in your neighbors’ attic — or perhaps in your own. I bought one here in Denmark — not exactly the cheapest country in the world — for the equivalent of $100 US a year and a half ago. I suspect that most of you can do much better than that if you’re willing to look around a bit.

The first-generation iMac has several other advantages beyond its ubiquity and cheapness. Its compact, all-in-one design makes it easy to set up and take down — perfect for an evening or three of multimedia hypertexting on a spare desk or even a kitchen table (assuming you have a patient spouse like I do). And it’s just new enough to sport some very useful modern conveniences, like an Ethernet port and a USB port that can handle thumb drives, both a godsend for transferring files. Most importantly, it will run the entire Voyager product line more or less flawlessly. You just need to be sure you have some incarnation of MacOS 8 or 9 installed — the exact version really doesn’t matter — rather than OS X.

With your trusty iMac running MacOS 8 or 9 and a stack of blank CDs for burning to hand, there are only a couple of other things you need to know in order to dive into the Voyager catalog. All of the discs I describe below are hosted by The Macintosh Garden, a site which performs an invaluable service but which does have its idiosyncrasies. One of these is the use of the Mac favorite Stuff-It rather than a more universal standard as its compression tool of choice. If you use a modern Mac, you probably already have this software; if not, you’ll need to download it and install it on your everyday computer.

The files you’ll find inside the archives will be either ISO disc images, Toast images, or bin/cue images. The first can be burned to a physical CD-ROM for use on your vintage Mac directly from most modern operating systems. The second can be renamed with the extension “.iso” and burned the same way, if you don’t happen to own a modern Macintosh with Roxio Toast installed. The third is the most complicated, as it generally indicates one of the aforementioned mixed-mode CDs; you’ll need to have or acquire third-party software capable of burning these types of discs.

I must say that I’ve been immensely enjoying the tactility of using real hardware to explore the Voyager catalog. Perhaps you’ll feel the same. But the diehards among you can of course still try your luck with emulators; feel free to describe any information or solutions you discover in the process in the comments below. Note as well that a minority of the Voyager discs were also released in versions for Microsoft Windows, or as dual-platform discs that can run on either Mac or Windows. So, that might be another direction of inquiry for some of you in some cases.

And now on to what I really want to tell you about today…

 

AmandaStories (1991)



AmandaStories is one of those quietly influential works that can sometimes make my job so interesting. It’s the creation of a woman named Amanda Goodenough, who was the wife of HyperCard creator Bill Atkinson’s marriage counselor circa 1987. When the latter brought home a pre-release version of HyperCard, courtesy of his client, his wife started to use it to chronicle the adventures of her little black cat Inigo in the form of an interactive picture book.

Amanda Goodenough’s personal story — that of a thoroughly non-technical housewife who was able to create something remarkable thanks to the magic of HyperCard — made her a minor celebrity in the Macintosh world, a living symbol of HyperCard’s ethos of egalitarian creative empowerment. Bob Stein and his colleagues from Voyager first met her at the January 1988 Macworld show, where she was demonstrating her latest stories at the same time that they were demonstrating their HyperCard-and-laser-disc-driven exploration of the National Gallery of Art. They soon inked a deal to release her first four stories on floppy disk under the Voyager imprint. A second collection of stories followed a little later, this time starring a good-natured camel known simply as My Faithful Camel. The CD-ROM version featured here adds two more Inigo stories and supplements the silent black-and-white originals with colorized versions featuring occasional sound effects and music swells.

Yet what these AmandaStories led to is ultimately more important in the context of history than what they were. Among the people who admired them in those heady early days of HyperCard was a professional programmer and amateur Macintosh enthusiast named Rand Miller. They became a profound influence on The Manhole, the interactive picture book he created with his brother Robyn Miller; both works employ the same literally transparent interface, where everything happens as a result of clicking directly on the pictures on the screen rather than on buttons, menus, or other widgets. Voyager came very close to publishing The Manhole as well — “It was clear these guys were going somewhere,” says Stein — but was outbid in the end by Mediagenic.

After making a few more children’s titles, the Miller brothers decided to bring the same minimalist approach to an adventure game for adults. The result was 1993’s Myst, which sold at least 6 million boxed copies during the remaining years of the decade and created a whole sub-genre of adventures in its image. “We might have gotten Myst, and the world might have been very different,” muses Stein today of what is perhaps Voyager’s most obvious missed opportunity.

But they did at least get these stories which did so much to inspire Myst, and we can feel fortunate for that. AmandaStories remains as sweet and clever as ever, suitable for children and adults of any age.

 

I Photograph to Remember (1991)



I Photograph to Remember by the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer tells the story in pictures of the last three years of his parents’ lives, a period during which both were diagnosed with cancer and died of the disease. It engages with the essentials of human life and death in a way that very few digital works dare to do. Meyer’s photographs of his parents’ decline are not always easy to look at, but the unflinching honesty of the presentation makes it a necessary antidote to the escapist entertainments that usually dominate our monitor screens. Anyone who has been a caregiver or even just a witness to someone approaching the end of all ends will recognize the story that unspools here, so unique to Meyer’s family but also so universal.

Once one looks beyond the sadness at its core, the origin story of I Photograph to Remember turns out to be rather amusing. Bob Stein:

I’m at a party talking to a guy I don’t know, and he’s telling me about this amazing CD-ROM he’s gotten, about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. When I tell him that I had a hand in making it, he invites me to his home and he shows me these 90 photographs that he took during this period of his parents’ lives. I realize that what’s he just done in effect is to give me a narrated slideshow, and that, because we can now show a high-resolution photograph on a computer screen with audio, we could publish that. It’s completely different from showing it on a television set, which just doesn’t have the resolution. And Pedro says, “Of course we should publish it on CD-ROM.” In retrospect, having known Pedro for years, I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what was going to come out of that meeting; he’s very sly.

There was no question about which photographs we were going to show. And Pedro has this beautiful voice. All of that was a no-brainer. He hired a young man named Manuel Rocha to write the music. The first version was the most god-awful European synth-pop. I heard Pedro literally screaming at Manuel about this, telling him how terrible it was. I thought to myself, you can’t treat somebody like that; there’s no way that’s going to get the intended result. But he comes back a week or two later with a gorgeous soundtrack: minimalist and perfect. Who knows how you motivate people?

This is 1991. Up until that moment, as far as I know, nobody has used a computer to present deep emotional content. We showed it for the first time at this fancy conference that took place every year in Los Angeles. There were 500 people in the room, probably 95 percent men, all executives in suits. You could have heard a pin drop. People were stunned: “Oh, my God! This is what we can do with a computer?” That was exciting.

If there’s a complaint to be made about I Photograph to Remember today, it must be that the piece is hardly interactive at all, and could work just as well as a short film presented on a high-definition screen; once you’ve chosen whether you wish to hear Meyer’s narration in Spanish or English, it quite literally plays itself. But no matter: while I might quibble with Bob Stein’s claim that no computer-based work prior to this one attempted “to present deep emotional content,” there is no question that this one positively trembles with the ineffable joys and pains of our feeble mortal existences. If you’ve come to Voyager’s catalog looking for Art, you will most definitely find it here.

 

Last Chance to See (1992)



In the late 1980s, the BBC sent the humorist and novelist Douglas Adams and a zoologist named Mark Carwardine on a series of journeys to remote regions of the world in order to seek out some of our planet’s most unusual and endangered forms of wildlife. The 1989 television series which resulted became a book the following year, and finally this CD-ROM production two years after that. Bob Stein doesn’t think that highly of it, for perfectly coherent reasons: it’s little more than the raw text of the book read aloud by Adams, with occasional embedded sidebars to click on. It is, in other words, more of an ebook than an electronic book of the sort Stein was always trying to create.

Personally, though, I find that its formal limitations do little to diminish its impact. Douglas Adams was a unique mind who left us far too soon and wrote far too little even while he was with us. The Last Chance to See project was particularly welcome for giving him a chance to set aside silly two-headed aliens and towels in space in favor of things that really matter to our world. It’s poignant to hear him read his own words here, knowing that, although he would live for almost nine years after the release of this CD-ROM, he would never complete another book. Listening to his wit and wisdom, dealing not only with the ofttimes bizarre natural world but with the equally bizarre human foibles of the countries the two men visited, one can’t help but lament that fact.

But equally poignant are the fates of some of the strange animals Adams and Carwardine pursue. Few things can better bring home to you what we are losing than the act of listening to this CD-ROM and then looking up the current status of its subjects. The Yangtze river dolphin is probably extinct now; the northern white rhinoceros soon will be, given that the only two specimens that are left are both female. The title of Last Chance to See proved prophetic in those two cases at least, making it all the more precious for us today and those who will follow us as a document of wondrous creatures that used to be.

 

Poetry in Motion (1992)



Poetry in Motion repurposes footage captured for a 1982 documentary film of the same name, itself a work that occupies a special place in the history of Voyager: it was in fact the company’s very first product, published as a videotape in the short interim between Bob and Aleen Stein’s split with their Criterion Collection co-founder Roger Smith and their subsequent re-acquisition of the Criterion name. Bob Stein believes the film is better than the CD-ROM, but the latter does feature performances and interviews that the former lacks. Whichever format you choose to view it in, it’s a riotously good time, capturing the elder statesmen of the Beat Generation in a dialog of sorts with literary and musical up-and-comers, all set against the backdrop of the New York City and Toronto New Wave and No Wave scenes. Here you can see Allen Ginsberg belting out a spirited if harmonically challenged reading with a punk-rock backing band, and Tom Waits captured just as he is making the transition from his 1970s boozy-troubadour persona to the raucous cacophony of his 1980s records.

The Achilles heel of the CD-ROM Poetry in Motion, the primary source of Bob Stein’s dislike for it, is the usual one for Voyager products of this ilk: poor video quality. The film footage is a grainy postage stamp, so much so that it’s often difficult to determine exactly what it is you’re actually looking at. And yet the performances themselves are so bracing that they manage to carry you away anyway. Poetry in Motion is an indispensable snapshot of an instant in literary and musical history.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1993)



The CD-ROM version of the classic 1964 Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night was Voyager’s most successful single product after the CD Companion to Beethoven, selling 100,000 copies in all — i.e., at least an order of magnitude more than the typical Voyager disc. And indeed, I can remember seeing it in software stores regularly during the mid-1990s, a memory I don’t have of any other Voyager product. This disc’s lodging in my brain may have something to do with my personal predilections; I’ve been a rabid Beatles fan ever since my cool big sister introduced them to me while my age was still in the single digits. But I do think that it also reflects the unusual reach of this particular Voyager CD-ROM, which was widely reviewed in such mainstream-media bastions as Entertainment Weekly magazine.

I won’t say too much about the film itself here, other than to note that it’s brilliant, the sights and sounds and excitement of a cultural revolution — thankfully not the kind advocated by Chairman Mao! — distilled into 87 potent minutes. More relevant for our purposes is Voyager’s approach to adapting the movie to this new medium of CD-ROM — if, that is, “adaptation” is even the right word. This is far from the ideal way to view A Hard Day’s Night for pleasure, whether for the first or hundredth time, given the absolutely awful video quality. But by way of compensation, it’s an innovative new way of studying the film. “Nobody was going to take this seriously as film,” Bob Stein says of the Voyager disc, “but we could do something fun with it.”

At first glance, the CD-ROM of A Hard Day’s Night might seem to have much in common with the laser-disc version of the film which Criterion had released earlier: the movie accompanied by a host of extras meant to deepen one’s understanding of it and to lend it context. Look closer, however, and differences quickly emerge. The CD-ROM’s approach is fundamentally textual, making it closer to an electronic book than the notion of a film on CD-ROM might initially imply: its core features are an extended essay by the respected Australian pop-culture journalist Bruce Elder and a complete copy of the shooting script. The latter is especially interesting, offering up the unique opportunity to watch the film in a window as one follows along in the script.

So, rather than being an early, technologically unsatisfactory example of what DVDs would later become, as one might be tempted to assume, the Voyager A Hard Day’s Night is in fact an example of a road not taken in film studies. DVDs and Blu-ray discs are able to combine what Voyager does here with superb video quality, and yet this capability has gone almost entirely unexplored. “To this day, it drives me crazy that Criterion has never tried to merge what we did with A Hard Day’s Night into their usual approach,” says Bob Stein. “Given that all the Criterion stuff is digital at this point, why can’t they associate the script of a movie with the movie itself?” Chalk it up as just one more symptom of our increasingly post-textual culture.

 

Who Built America? (1993)



Who Built America? is a CD-ROM adaption of a paper book of the same name by Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier: a history of the United States from 1876 to 1914. Bob Stein explains how one of Voyager’s most earnest attempts to realize the ideal of the electronic book came to be:

I was browsing the history section of the Harvard bookstore one day and this book popped out at me. It was from Knopf, so I figured it was somewhat credible, and the authors had a point of view which I liked. So, I got on the train to New York the next day and found the authors at Hunter College. I showed them the Beethoven CD-ROM, and said, “Let’s do something together.” They were techie kinds of guys; they were excited about it. We spent a year just talking, trying to figure out what the sweet spots were and what we could add to the equation by making their book electronic.

The breakthrough came for me when I realized that all history books are syntheses of the authors’ readings of documents, conversations they have, etc. Wouldn’t it be interesting to publish a history book including not just the synthesis that the book itself represents, but also with the documents that the synthesis was based on? In effect, let the readers participate as historians, reading the documents for themselves. That’s how we came up with these things we called “excursions”: at most points in the book, you can click on a link and see the original associated documents.

It’s not hard to grasp why Stein would find this particular history book so compelling, what with his own background as an activist for the workers of the world. Both its authored text and the many primary sources that branch off of it emphasize, almost to the exclusion of all else, the experiences of those marginalized and less empowered souls who do not tend to garner much attention in traditional narrative histories: immigrants, ex-slaves, racial and ethnic minorities, the working poor, etc. This determination to focus on the stories that are not usually told prevents the book from being a truly complete chronicle of Gilded Age America; the assassinations of two separate presidents are only a couple of the earthshaking events that it barely even bothers to mention.

And yet, if you go into it understanding the limitations imposed by the authors’ philosophy and perhaps ideology of history, you may just find what is present here extraordinarily compelling. I read literally every word over the course of many evenings, clicking on every link to read the primary-source documents, to view photographs and newspaper cartoons, to watch film clips and listen to songs, interviews, and other audio snippets. So very much of what you find in these excursions is, dare I say it, heartrending. A priceless cache of letters from Polish immigrants to the United States, writing to family members back in the Old World whom they will almost certainly never see in person again, is just one example. Who Built America? is a deeply empathetic social history of a fraught era whose legacy is still an inescapable reality of modern American life.

 

Baseball’s Greatest Hits (1994)



Voyager’s one foray into the world of sports was prompted to a large extent by the rediscovery of an artifact that’s sometimes been called “baseball’s Zapruder film”: a piece of 16mm footage shot by a fan during the 1932 World Series. It shows Babe Ruth hitting what is arguably the most famous home run in baseball history: his “called shot” home run, which receives its name from the tale that he pointed to exactly what corner of the park he planned to hit it to before taking the pitch. While the film is ultimately inconclusive — it appears to show Ruth making some sort of gesture, but it’s impossible to say more than that — it’s tremendous fun to watch it and to speculate about what one might be seeing.

But Baseball’s Greatest Hits has much more than one film clip to offer. It serves as a fine example of what made Voyager different from most of the others rushing to put content onto CD-ROM during the 1990s. Baseball fans’ love of statistics is famous; this made the sport a natural subject for any number of unimaginative encyclopedic CD-ROM data dumps from companies such as Microsoft.

Baseball’s Greatest Hits, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Rather than focusing on the numbers, it’s interested in the legends and lore of America’s Pastime, making it as legitimate a form of social history as the likes of Who Built America?. The heart of this curated collection is a timeline of “Great Moments,” stretching from the 1932 called-shot game to the 1993 World Series. Each great moment is introduced by the unmistakable voice of Mel Allen, the longstanding announcer for the New York Yankees, who died just a few years after this disc appeared. The great moment then goes on to feature radio and/or television clips from the day in question, excerpts from newspaper accounts, and score cards and the like for the stats-heads. The end result is not only a wonderful celebration of baseball, that most lore-rich of all American sports, but also a window into the 60 years of American history that’s reflected by these fields of dreams. Bob Stein:

It’s a fantastic disc.  I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I loved that disc. How come there’s nothing that good now on the Internet, 25 years later? It’s one of the things we did that you look at and wonder… it was great then, how come nobody’s done it since?

I don’t know, Bob. I can say only that Baseball’s Greatest Hits is one of my favorites too of all the Voyager discs, and one I’d encourage everyone to try, baseball fan or no.

 

People: 20 Years of Pop Culture (1994)



“We wanted to experiment with something that you could theoretically sell at a supermarket check-out,” says Bob Stein of what appears at first glance to be the cheesiest disc Voyager ever published. “I wasn’t embarrassed that we did it, but I wasn’t particularly proud of it.” Certainly no one would ever accuse People magazine of being any bastion of hard-hitting journalism, nor of reflecting anything but the most conventional of mainstream conventional wisdom.

And yet this archive of the magazine’s cover stories between 1974 and 1994 is by turns nostalgic, funny, surprising, and informative when revisited today. The magazine’s very ethos of hewing so firmly to the middle of the road in all matters makes it a telling barometer of which way the cultural winds were blowing on any given week. Often this archive serves to illustrate how much the world has changed, as when it treats the virulent white suprematism and segregationism of the former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace as little more than a minor personal foible. For people of a certain age like your humble writer here, it’s constantly bringing on a burst of remembrance, of some actor or television show from your childhood that you haven’t thought of in ages. Flipping through the pages reveals a cornucopia of the petty scandals that once kept people talking in those supermarket-checkout lines — Gary Hart and Donna Rice, Vanessa Williams — and the equally inescapable, “heart-warming” human-interest stories of the moment — the boy in the bubble, the girl down the well — all chronicled in delightfully awful purple prose. From time to time amidst it all, the magazine manages to transcend itself, as in a 1987 piece on the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, describing the lives and deaths of some of the disease’s victims with compassion and a notable lack of judgment. (Of course, that same lack could be taken as an indicator of American society’s glacially shifting attitudes toward homosexuality in general. Again, People magazine is nothing if not a faultless barometer of the mainstream.)

This disc may be the closest thing to a guilty pleasure in Voyager’s catalog. If so, I plead guilty as charged: I love it unashamedly.

 

Ephemeral Films: 1931 to 1960 (1994)



Ephemeral Films collects 38 pieces of celluloid flotsam and jetsam, the sort of movies that will most definitely never be considered for the Criterion Collection: promotional films, corporate training films, educational films for the classroom, etc. They come from the collection of Rick Prelinger, a tireless archiver of pop-culture ephemera who was toiling in obscurity when Bob Stein first met him. “When I saw what he was doing,” says Stein, “which was basically dumpster diving outside some of the most important producers of educational and inspirational films, I started calling him a media archaeologist. I convinced him to work with me to publish some of the films. We chose them and edited them so they would be more compact and interesting.” Prelinger would go on to an important career, working with organizations like the Internet Archive and his and his wife’s own Prelinger Library.

The highlights (lowlights?) here are legion: an Oldsmobile advertisement from 1931 that’s stuffed from top to bottom with sexual innuendo; the 1940 film where a creepy male doctor teaches women how to “relax”; the 1946 promo reel pushing mass-produced homes made out of steel of all building materials on the country’s returning GIs; the 1956 celebration of consumerism known as “Two-Ford Freedom,” which promises that housewives never again will need to feel like “prisoners in their own homes.” (It seems the 1950s were not big on public transport, cycling, or even walking…)

But my personal favorite is the timeless classic A Date with Your Family, a stultifying “social-guidance film” made for the classrooms of 1950. “The women of this family feel that they owe it to the men of the family to look relaxed, rested, and attractive at dinnertime,” says the narrator approvingly; tellingly, the sons have spent their time before dinner doing homework while the daughter spent hers with her mother in the kitchen. “The boys greet their dad as though they were genuinely glad to see him, as though they really missed him and are eager to talk to him,” the narrator continues without a trace of irony. “Pleasant, unemotional conversation helps digestion,” we learn. “Let Father and Mother guide the conversational trend. After all, they made all this possible.”

Films like these are as hilarious as they are horrifying; The Stepford Wives has nothing on them. Taken as a whole, Ephemeral Films explains in the course of an evening or two why the country needed Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

 

The Complete Maus (1994)



Maus by Art Spiegelman is a landmark in the history of the comic as an art form, being the first graphic novel to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. It’s based upon many hours of interviews which Spiegelman conducted with his father, a survivor of Auschwitz who immigrated to the United States from his native Poland after the war. In translating his father’s harrowing stories to the comics medium, Spiegelman turned the Jews into mice — thus the title, which is German for “mouse” — and the Nazis into cats. It took him some twenty years in all to complete the work, which was published in its final form in 1991, long after the death of the man whose travails it chronicled. Bob Stein:

The Museum of Modern Art in New York did an exhibit on Maus. I went to see it. It had a lot of audio of his father and sketches. I said, “This should be a CD-ROM.” Then one day out of the blue we got a phone call from Art’s agent, saying, “Art wants to make a CD-ROM out of Maus.” Obviously, we said yes.

But it turned out that Art did not give a flying fuck about CD-ROM. He wanted somebody who was stupid enough to take on the task of digitizing the 20,000 sketches he had made when he was creating Maus. That was what he wanted, to preserve the sketches. We did that, of course, in return for the right to make the Maus CD-ROM.

The CD-ROM contains the graphic novel in its entirety, supplemented by many of those concept sketches, by film clips and photographs of the places mentioned in the novel, by interviews with Art Spiegelman, and, most intriguingly of all in my opinion, by some of the recordings he made of his father telling the stories that later became the comic. I’ve heard it said that this is not the ideal way to read Maus for the first time, that the work was designed for the paper page and is best experienced there. That may very well be, but this CD-ROM was my own first encounter with it, and I found it a very affecting experience indeed. Real aficionados of comics — I’m afraid I’m not one of these; my wife is the reader of graphic novels in our family — will doubtless find deeper layers of interest than I did, what with all of the insight on process to be discovered here. One might go so far as to say that this CD-ROM is what the Criterion Collection might have been if it had focused on books rather than movies.

 

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Bob Stein and Voyager

Voyager tends to be overlooked in almost every survey because we didn’t really fit into anybody’s category. Librarians didn’t really pay much attention. The computer world never cared. Hollywood never really cared. We touched all these industries, but because we weren’t central to any of them and didn’t really ally with any of them in particular, we were in fact always an outlier.

— Bob Stein

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, an advisor to the American government on the subjects of engineering and technology, published his landmark essay “As We May Think,” which proposed using a hypothetical machine called the memex for navigating through an information space using trails of association. In the decades that followed, visionaries like Ted Nelson adapted Bush’s analog memex to digital computers, and researchers at Xerox PARC developed point-and-click interfaces that were ideal for the things that were by now being calling “hypertexts.” Finally, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, created the World Wide Web, which moved hypertext onto the globe-spanning computer network known as the Internet. By the mid-1990s, a revolution in the way that all of us access and understand information was underway.

So runs a condensed history of the most life-changing invention in the realm of information transmission and retrieval since Gutenberg’s printing press. But, like any broad overview, it leaves out the many nooks and crannies where some of the interesting stories and artifacts can be found.

Tim Berners-Lee himself has told how the creation of the World Wide Web was more of a process of assembly than invention from whole cloth: “Most of the technologies involved in the Web had been designed already. I just had to put them together.” To wit: a very workable implementation of hypertext, eminently usable by everyday people, debuted on the Apple Macintosh in 1987, two and a half years before the first website went live. Over the course of that period of time, Apple’s HyperCard was used weekly by millions of people. When combined with the first CD-ROM drives, it gave those lucky people their first heady taste of what computing’s future was to hold for everyone. Even long after the Web had started to hum in earnest, locally hosted experiences, created in HyperCard and similar middleware environments like The Director, were able to combine hypertext with the sort of rich multimedia content that wouldn’t be practical over an Internet connection until after the millennium. This was the brief heyday of the CD as a publishing medium in its own right, a potential rival to the venerable paper-based book.

These CD-based hypertexts were different from the Web in some other, more fundamental or even philosophical ways than that of mere audiovisual fidelity. The Web was and is a hyper-social environment, where everyone links to everyone else — where, indeed, links and clicks are the very currency of the realm. This makes it an exciting, dynamic place to explore, but it also has its drawbacks, as our current struggles with online information bubbles and conscious disinformation campaigns illustrate all too well. Hypertextual, multimedia CD-ROMs, on the other hand, could offer closed but curated experiences, where a single strong authorial voice could be preserved. They were perhaps as close as we’ve ever come to non-fiction electronic books: not paper books which have simply been copied onto an electronic device, like ebooks on the Amazon Kindle and its ilk, but books which could not possibly exist on paper — books which supplement their text whenever necessary with sound and video, books consciously designed to be navigated by association. How strange and sad it is to think that they only existed during a relatively brief interstitial period in the history of information technology, when computers could already deliver hypertext and rich multimedia content but before the World Wide Web was widely enough available and fast enough to do everything we might ask of it.

The gold standard for electronic books on CD-ROM were the ones published by the Voyager Company. These productions ooze personality and quality, boasting innovative presentations and a touching faith in the intelligence of their readers. I would go so far as to say that there’s been no other collection of works quite like them in the entire history of electronic media. They stand out for me as some of my most exciting discoveries in all the years I’ve been writing these chronicles of our recent digital past for you. I’m delighted to bring you their story today.



The founder and head of Voyager was one Bob Stein. He was surely one of the most unlikely chief executives in the annals of American business, a man immortalized by Wired magazine as both “the most far-out publishing visionary in the new world” and “the least effective businessman alive.”

Stein was born in New York City in 1946, the son of a wealthy jewelry importer. His upbringing was, as he described it to me, “extremely privileged,” with all the best schools and opportunities that his parents’ money could buy. In high school, he imagined becoming an accountant or a lawyer. But he wound up going to Columbia University as a psychology undergraduate instead, and there he was swept up in the radical politics of the hippie generation. He found a home in the Revolutionary Communist Party, a group which hewed to the China of Chairman Mao in the internecine split that marked the international communist movement. Stein:

I was a revolutionary. I am not a revolutionary anymore, but, although my ideology has shifted, it hasn’t changed. I think we’re still many, many years away from making a judgment about the [Chinese] Cultural Revolution. Anything that is that broad, that encompasses a billion people over a ten-year period, is going to have so many facets to it. I will go to my grave saying that, from one perspective, the Cultural Revolution was the high point of humanity at the point when it happened. We’d never seen a society that was so good for so many of its people. That doesn’t mean it was good for everybody; intellectuals in particular suffered if they were not onboard with what was happening. And intellectuals are the ones who tell the story. So, a lot of the stories are told by intellectuals who didn’t do well during the Cultural Revolution. It was a hard time in China for a lot of people — but I don’t fault the Chinese for trying. Whether they failed is not as interesting to me as whether they tried.

Stein spent the late 1960s and most of the 1970s as a committed communist revolutionary, even as he was also earning a graduate degree in education from Harvard and working as a teacher and grass-roots community activist. Over the years, however, he grew more and more frustrated as the worldwide communist revolution he had been promised failed to materialize.

By the time I was in my early thirties, it became clear that revolution was much, much further away than I had thought when I signed up, as it were. So I made the extremely selfish decision to go do something else with my life. I did that because I could. With degrees from Columbia and Harvard, the world was my oyster. If a white guy like me wanted to come in from the cold, nobody looked askance. I remember walking down the street in New York with my daughter just after I left the Party, heading to some meeting I had set up with the president of CBS, whom I didn’t know, but I knew how to write a letter. She turned to me and said, “You know, you couldn’t be doing this transition if you didn’t have the background you have.”  And that was right. It wasn’t that I had any illusion that I was suddenly doing from the inside what I couldn’t do from the outside, it was that I was going to do something interesting and of value to humanity. I wasn’t making revolution anymore, but I would do things that had social value.

The question, of course, was just what those things should be. To the extent that he was aware of it at all, Stein had been unimpressed by the technological utopianism of organizations like Silicon Valley’s People’s Computer Company and Homebrew Computer Club. As a thoroughgoing Maoist, he had believed that society needed to be remade from top to bottom, and found such thinking as theirs naïve: “I didn’t think you could liberate humanity by doing cool shit on computers.”

Stein’s eureka moment came in the bathroom of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s Propaganda Headquarters in Chicago. (Yes, a place by that name really existed.) Someone had left a copy of BusinessWeek there, presumably to help the party faithful keep tabs on the enemy. In it was an article about MCA’s work on what would become known as the laser disc, the first form of optical media to hit the consumer market; each of the record-album-sized discs was capable of storing up to one hour of video and its accompanying audio on each of its sides. Unlike the later audio-only compact disc, the laser disc was an analog rather than digital storage medium, meaning it couldn’t practically be used to store forms of data other than still and moving images and audio. Nevertheless, it could be controlled by an attached computer and made to play back arbitrary snippets of same. “It just seemed cool to me,” says Stein.

Shortly afterward, he and his wife Aleen Stein left the Party and moved to Los Angeles, where he spent his afternoons in the library, trying to make a plan for his future, and his nights working as a waiter. The potential of random-access optical media continued to intrigue him, leading him in the end into a project for Encyclopedia Britannica.

I failed Physics for Poets; I’ve never been technically oriented. I read an article where the chief scientist for Encyclopedia Britannica talked about putting the entire encyclopedia on a disc. I didn’t realize he meant that you could just do a digital dump; I thought he meant you could put it on there in a way that was interesting. So I wrote a letter to Random House asking if I could buy the rights to the Random House encyclopedia, which I quite liked; it was much less stodgy than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

A friend of mine asked me what I was into these days, and I sent her a copy of the letter, forgetting that her father was on the board of Encyclopedia Britannica. A few weeks later, I got a call from Chuck Swanson, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica. “If you know so much,” he said, “why don’t you come and talk to us?” I didn’t know anything!

I found this guy at the University of Nebraska who had made a bunch of videodiscs for the CIA, and I convinced him to come with me to Chicago to provide the gravitas for the meeting. We did a demo for Chuck Swanson and Charlie Van Doren, who was the head of editorial; he was like a kid in a candy store, he fell in love with this shit. They hired me to go away for a year and write a paper.

Stein was fortunate in having made his pitch at just the right time. Traditional print publishers like Encyclopedia Britannica were just beginning to reckon with the impact that the nascent personal-computer revolution was likely to have on their businesses; at almost the same instant that Stein was having his meeting, no less staid a publishing entity than the Reader’s Digest Corporation was investing $3 million in The Source, one of the first nationwide telecommunications services for everyday computer users. In time, when such things proved to catch on slower than their most wide-eyed boosters had predicted, print publishing’s ardor for electronic media would cool again, or be channeled into such other outlets as the equally short-lived bookware boom in computer games.

Stein’s final paper, which he sent to Encyclopedia Britannica in November of 1981, bore the dizzyingly idealistic title of “Encyclopedia Britannica and the Intellectual Tools of the Future.” He still considers it the blueprint of everything he would do in later years. Indeed, the products which he imagined Encyclopedia Britannica publishing would have fit in very well with the later Voyager CD-ROM catalog: Great Moments in History: A Motion Picture Archive; Please Explain with Isaac Asimov; Space Exploration: Past, Present, and Future; Invention and Discovery: The History of Technology; Everyday Life in the American Past; Origins: Milestones in Archaeological Discovery; Computers: The Mystery Unraveled; A Cultural History of the United States; Britannica Goes to London; The Grand Canyon: A Work in Progress. He pleaded with the company to think in the long term. From the report:

The existing [laser-disc] market is so small that immediate returns can only be minimal. To put this another way, if only the next couple of years are considered, more money can be made by investing in bonds than in videodiscs. On the other hand, the application of a carefully designed program now can minimize risks and put Encyclopedia Britannica in a position to realize impressive profits in a few years when the market matures. Three years from now, when other publishers are scrambling to develop video programs, Encyclopedia Britannica will already have a reputation for excellence and enjoy wide sales as a result. Furthermore, the individual programs we have described are designed to be classics that would be sold for many years.

As we’ll see, this ethic of getting in on the ground floor right now, even though profits might be nonexistent for the nonce, would also become a core part of Voyager’s corporate DNA; it would be a company perpetually waiting for a fondly predicted future when the financial floodgates would open. Encyclopedia Britannica, however, wasn’t interested in chasing unicorns at this time. Stein was paid for his efforts and his report was filed away in a drawer somewhere, never to be heard of again.

But Stein himself no longer had any doubts about what sorts of socially valuable things he wanted to work on. His journey next took him to, of all places, the videogame giant Atari.

At the time, the first wave of videogame mania was in full swing in the United States, with Atari at its epicenter, thanks to their Atari VCS home console and their many hit standup-arcade games. They quite literally had more money than they knew what to do with, and were splashing it around in some surprising ways. One of these was the formation of a blue-sky research group that ranged well beyond games to concern itself with the future of computing and information technology in the abstract. Its star — in fact, the man with the title of Atari’s “Chief Scientist” — was Alan Kay, a famous name already among digital futurists: while at Xerox PARC during the previous decade, he had developed Smalltalk, an object- and network-oriented programming language whose syntax was simple enough for children to use, and had envisioned something he called the Dynabook, a handheld computing device that today smacks distinctly of the Apple iPad. Reading about the Dynabook in particular, Stein decided that Alan Kay was just the person he needed to talk to. Stein:

I screwed up my courage one day and contacted him, and he invited me to come meet him. Alan read the [Encyclopedia Britannica] paper — all 120 pages of it — while we were sitting together. He said, “This is great. This is just what I want to do. Come work with me.”

Stein was joining a rarefied collection of thinkers. About half of Kay’s group consisted of refugees from Xerox PARC, while the other half was drawn from the brightest lights at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Architecture Machine Group, another hotbed of practical and theoretical innovation in computing.

Atari’s corporate offices were located in Silicon Valley, while both Stein and Kay lived in Los Angeles. In a telling testimony to the sheer amount of money at Atari’s disposal, they allowed the two to commute to work every day by airplane. Kay would sit next to Stein on the plane and “talk at me about two things I didn’t really know much about: music and computers. But I knew how to nod, so he thought I was understanding, and kept talking.”

Amidst this new breed of revolutionary dreamers, Stein found himself embracing the unwonted role of the practical man; he realized that he wanted to launch actual products rather than being content to lay the groundwork for the products of others, as most of his colleagues were. He took to flying regularly to New York, where he attempted to interest the executives at Warner Communications, Atari’s parent company, in the ideas being batted around on the other coast. But, while he secured many meetings, nothing tangible came out of them. After some eighteen months, he made the hard decision to move on. Once again, his timing was perfect: he left Atari just as the Great Videogame Crash was about to wreck their business. Less than a year later, Warner would sell the remnants of the company off in two chunks for pennies on the dollar, and Alan Kay’s research group would be no more.

Working independently now, Stein continued to try to interest someone — anyone — in pursuing the directions he had roughed out in his paper for Encyclopedia Britannica and refined at Atari. He got nowhere — until a spontaneous outburst set him on a new course: “At a boring meeting with RKO Home Video, I said off the top of my head, ‘How about selling me a very narrow right to Citizen Kane and King Kong? They said, ‘Sure.'” For the princely sum of $10,000, Stein walked away with the laser-disc rights to those two classic films.

Now all those hours spent hobnobbing with Warner executives paid off. Being idea-rich but cash-poor, Stein convinced a former Warner senior vice president named Roger Smith, who had been laid off in the wake of the Atari implosion, to put up his severance package as the capital for the venture. Thus was formed the Criterion Collection as a partnership between Bob and Aleen Stein and Roger Smith. The name is far better known today than that of Voyager — for, unlike Voyager, Criterion is still going as strong as ever.

The Criterion Citizen Kane and King Kong hit the market in November of 1984, causing quite the stir. For all that our main interest in this article is the later CD-ROMs of Voyager, it’s impossible to deny that, of all the projects Stein has been involved with, these early Criterion releases had the most direct and undeniable influence on the future of media consumption. Among many other innovations, Criterion took advantage of a heretofore little-remarked feature of the laser disc, the ability to give the viewer a choice of audio tracks to go with the video; this let them deploy the first-ever commentary track on the King Kong release, courtesy of film historian and preservationist Ron Haver. Stein describes how it came about:

At that time, and I don’t think it’s all that different today, transferring an old film to video meant sitting in a dark room (which cost hundreds of dollars per hour) making decisions about the correct color values for each individual shot. That was Ron’s job, and somewhat coincidentally, King Kong was his favorite film, and he kept us entertained by telling countless stories about the history of the film’s production. Someone said, “Hey, we’ve got extra sound tracks… why don’t we have Ron tell these stories while the film is playing?” Ron’s immediate reaction was “Are you kidding, NO WAY!”  The idea seemed too perfect to pass up, though, so I asked Ron if being stoned might help. He thought for a moment and said, “Hmmm! That might work.”  And so the next day we recorded Ron telling stories while the film played.


Criterion also included deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and other materials in addition to the commentary. In doing so, they laid out what would become standard operating procedure for everyone selling movies for the home once the DVD era arrived twelve years later.

Still, Stein himself believes that the real bedrock of Criterion’s reputation was the quality of the video transfer itself. The Criterion name became a byword for quality, the brand of choice for serious aficionados of film — a status it would never relinquish amidst all the changes in media-consumption habits during the ensuing decades.

So, when Bob Stein dies, his obituary is almost certain to describe him first and foremost as a co-founder of the Criterion Collection, the propagator of a modest revolution in the way we all view, study, and interact with film. Yet Criterion was never the entirety of what Stein dreamed of doing, nor perhaps quite what he might have wished his principal legacy to be. Although he had an appreciation for film, he didn’t burn for it with the same passion evinced by Criterion’s most loyal customers. That description better fit his wife Aleen, who would come to do most of the practical, everyday work of managing Criterion. “I’m a book guy,” he says. “I love books.” The Criterion Collection made quality products of which he was justifiably proud, but it would also become a means to another end, the funding engine that let him pursue his elusive dream of true electronic books.

The company known as Voyager was formed already in 1985, the result of a series of negotiations, transactions, and fallings-out which followed the release of the first two Criterion laser discs. The shakeup began when Roger Smith left the venture, having found its free-wheeling hippie culture not to his taste, and announced his determination to take the Criterion name with him. This prompted the Steins to seek out a new partner in Janus Films, a hallowed name among cineastes, a decades-old art-film distributor responsible for importing countless international classics to American shores. Together they formed the Voyager Company — named after the pair of space probes — to continue what Criterion had begun. Soon, however, it emerged that Smith was willing to sell them back the Criterion name for a not-unreasonable price. So, the logic of branding dictated that the already established Criterion Collection continue as an imprint of the larger Voyager Company.

Stein’s dreams for electronic books remained on hold for a couple of years, while the Criterion Collection continued to build a fine reputation for itself. Then, in August of 1987, Apple premiered a new piece of software called HyperCard, a multimedia hypertext authoring tool that was to be given away free with every new Macintosh computer. Within weeks of HyperCard’s release, enterprising programmers had developed ways of using it to control an attached laser-disc player. This was the moment, says Stein, that truly changed everything.

I should note at this juncture that the idea of doing neat things with an ordinary personal computer and an attached laser-disc player was not really a new one in the broad strokes. As far back as 1980, the American Heart Association deployed a CPR-training course built around an Apple II and a laser-disc player. Other such setups were used for pilot training, for early-childhood education, and for high-school economics courses. In January of 1982, Creative Computing magazine published a type-in listing for what was billed as the world’s first laser-disc game, which required a degree of hardware-hacking aptitude and a copy of the laser-disc release of the 1977 movie Rollercoaster to get working. Eighteen months later, laser-disc technology reached arcades in the form of Dragon’s Lair, which was built around 22 minutes of original cartoon footage from the former Disney animator Don Bluth. When the Commodore Amiga personal computer shipped in 1985, it included the ability to overlay its graphics onto other video sources, a feature originally designed with interactive laser-disc applications in mind.

Nevertheless, the addition of HyperCard to the equation did make a major difference for people like Bob Stein. On the one hand, it made controlling the laser-disc player easier than ever before — easy enough even for an avowed non-programmer like him. And on the other hand, hypertexts rather than conventional computer programs were exactly what he had been wanting to create all these years.

Voyager’s first ever product for computers began with an extant laser disc published by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which included still images of the entirety of the museum’s collection along with scattered video snippets. From this raw material, Stein and two colleagues created the National Gallery of Art Laserguide, a tool for navigating and exploring the collection in a multitude of ways. It caused a big stir at the Macworld Expo in January of 1988: “We became stars! It was fucking magic!” Shortly thereafter, Stein demonstrated it on the television show The Computer Chronicles.


Exciting as experiments like this one were, they couldn’t overcome the inherent drawbacks of the laser disc. As I noted earlier, it was an analog medium, capable of storing only still or moving images and audio. And, as can be seen in the segment above, using it in tandem with a computer meant dealing with two screens — one connected to the computer, the other to the laser-disc player itself. The obvious alternative was the compact disc, a format which, although originally developed for music, was digital rather than analog, and thus could be adapted to store any kind of data and to display it right on a computer’s monitor.

After a tortuously protracted evolution, CD-ROM was slowly sputtering to life as at least a potential proposition for the commercial marketplace. Microsoft was a big booster, having sponsored a CD-ROM conference every year since 1985. The first CD-based software products could already be purchased, although they were mostly uninspiring data dumps targeted at big business and academia rather than the polished, consumer-oriented works Stein aspired to make.

Moving from laser discs to CDs was not an unmitigated positive. The video that an attached laser-disc player could unspool so effortlessly had to be encoded digitally in order to go onto a CD, then decoded and pushed to a monitor in real time by the computer attached to the CD-ROM drive. It was important to keep the file size down; the 650 MB that could be packed onto a CD sounded impressive enough, but weren’t really that much at all when one started using them for raw video. At the same time, the compression techniques that one could practically employ were sharply limited by the computing horsepower available to decompress the video on the fly. The only way to wriggle between this rock and a hard place was to compromise — to compromise dramatically — on the fidelity of the video itself. Grainy, sometimes jerky video, often displayed in a window little larger than a postage stamp, would be the norm with CD-ROM for some time to come. This was more than a little ironic in the context of Voyager, a company whose other arm was so famed for the quality of its movie transfers to laser disc. Suffice to say that no Voyager CD-ROM would ever look quite as good as that National Gallery of Art Laserguide, much less the Criterion King Kong.

Still, it was clear that the necessary future of Voyager were CDs rather than laser discs. Looking for a proof of concept for an electronic book, Stein started to imagine a CD-ROM that would examine a piece of music in detail. He chose that theme, he likes to say only half jokingly, so that he could finally figure out what it was Alan Kay had been going on about in the seat next to his during all those airplane rides of theirs. But there was also another, more practical consideration: it was possible to create what was known as a “mixed mode” CDs, in which music and sound were stored in standard audio-CD format alongside other forms of data. These music tracks could be played back at full home-stereo fidelity by the CD-ROM drive itself, with minimal intervention from the attached computer. This usage scenario was, in other words, analogous to that of controlling an attached laser disc, albeit in this case it was only sound that could be played back so effortlessly at such glorious fidelity.

Thus it came to pass that on January 1, 1989, one Robert Winter, a 42-year-old music professor at UCLA, received a visitor at his Santa Monica bungalow: it was Bob Stein, toting an Apple CD-ROM drive at his side. “I thought it was the strangest-looking thing,” Winter says. He had known Stein for some seven years, ever since the latter had sat in on one of his classes, and had often complained to him about the difficulty of writing about music using only printed words on the page; it was akin to “dancing about architecture,” as a famous bit of folk wisdom put it. These complaints had caused Stein to tag him as “a multimedia kind of guy”; “I had no idea what he meant,” admits Winter. But now, Stein showed Winter how an Apple Macintosh equipped with HyperCard and a CD-ROM drive could provide a new, vastly better way of writing about music — by adding to the text the music itself for the reader to listen along with, plus graphics wherever they seemed necessary, with the whole topped off by that special sauce of hypertextual, associative interactivity. The professor took the bait: “I knew then and there that this was my medium.”

Robert Winter became such a star that he was hired by a company called Chinon to pitch their CD-ROM drives.

The two agreed to create a meticulous deconstruction of a towering masterpiece of classical music, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Winter:

I simply asked myself, “What is it I would like to know?” It occurred to me that I would like to know what is happening as the piece is playing. I start [my users] at the bubble-bath level, then the score, then the commentary, and a more detailed commentary.

The heart of the program was the “Close Reading,” where one could read a description of each passage, then listen to it from the same screen — or flip to the score to see what it looked like in musical notation, or flip to a more detailed, technical explanation, always with the chance to listen just a button-click away. Lest the whole experience become too dry, Winter sprinkled it with the wit that had made him a favorite lecturer at his university and a frequent guest commentator on National Public Radio. He equated stability in music with “an apartment you can make the rent on”; conflict in music was “sparring with a boss who doesn’t know how to give strokes.” When it came time for that section of the symphony, the one which absolutely everyone can hum — i..e, the famous “Ode to Joy” — “We’ve arrived!” flashed in big letters on the screen. The text of the poem by Friedrich Schiller which Beethoven set to music for the choir to sing was naturally also included, in the original German and in an English translation. Winter even added a trivia game; answer a question correctly, and Beethoven would wink at you and say, “Sehr gut!” aloud.


“I don’t think anything is any good if it doesn’t have a point of view,” said Bob Stein on one occasion. In being so richly imbued with its maker Robert Winter’s personality and point of view, the CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a model for all of the Voyager CDs to come. “You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks,” wrote Wired magazine of Winter’s interactive works years later. “You keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter – more substance – to uncover.” This too would be case for Voyager’s CDs in general. They would really, earnestly engage with their subject matter, rather than being content to coast on the novelty of their medium like most of their peers. “It is one of the few producers to offer actual ideas on CD-ROM,” wrote Wired of Voyager itself.

Stein and Winter brought their finished product to the Macworld Expo of August of 1989, where it caused just as much of a sensation as had the National Gallery of Art laser disc nineteen months before. “People stood there for thirty minutes as if they were deer in front of headlights,” says Winter. He claims that many at the show bought CD-ROM drives just in order to run the CD Companion to Beethoven. If it was not quite the first consumer-oriented CD-ROM, it was among the most prominent during the format’s infancy. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for!” said Bill Gates upon his first viewing of the program. Like all of its ilk, its initial sales were limited by the expensive hardware needed to run it, but it was written about again and again as an aspirational sign of the times that were soon to arrive. “It takes us up to Beethoven’s worktable and lays bare the whole creative process,” enthused the Los Angeles Herald. Voyager was off and running at last as a maker of electronic books.

Their products would never entirely escape from the aspirational ghetto for a variety of reasons, beginning with their esoteric, unabashedly intellectual subject matter, continuing with the availability of most of them only on the Macintosh (a computer with less than 10 percent of the overall market share), and concluding with the World Wide Web waiting there in the wings with a whole different interpretation of hypertext’s affordances. The CD Companion to Beethoven, which eventually sold 130,000 copies on the back of all the hype and a version for Microsoft Windows,[1]This version bore the title of Multimedia Beethoven. would remain the company’s most successful single product ever; the majority of the Voyager CD-ROMs would never break five digits, much less six, in total unit sales. Yet Stein would manage to keep the operation going for seven years by hook or by crook: by “reinvesting” the money turned over by the Criterion Collection, by securing grants and loans from the Markle Foundation and Apple, and by employing idealistic young people who were willing to work cheap; “If you’re over 30 at Voyager,” said one employee, “you feel like a camp counselor.” Thanks not least to this last factor, the average budget for a Voyager CD-ROM was only about $150,000.

During the first couple of years, Robert Winter’s CD-ROMs remained the bedrock of Voyager; in time, he created explorations of Dvorak, Mozart, Schubert, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky in addition to Beethoven. By 1991, however, Voyager was entering its mature phase, pushing in several different directions. By 1994, it was publishing more than one new CD per month, on a bewildering variety of subjects.

In the next article, then, we’ll begin to look at this rather extraordinary catalog in closer detail. If any catalog of creative software is worth rediscovering, it’s this one.

(Sources: the book The DVD and the Study of Film: The Attainable Text by Mark Parker and Deborah Parker; Wired of December 1994 and July 1996; CD-ROM Today of June/July 1994; Macworld of November 1988; New York Times of November 8 1992; the 1988 episode of the Computer Chronicles television show entitled “HyperCard”; Phil Salvador’s online interview with Bob Stein. The majority of this article is drawn from a lengthy personal interview with Bob Stein and from his extensive online archives. Thank you for both, Bob!)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 This version bore the title of Multimedia Beethoven.
 

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The Ratings Game, Part 4: E3 and Beyond

In 1994, the Consumer Electronics Show was a seemingly inviolate tradition among the makers of videogame consoles and game-playing personal computers. Name a landmark product, and chances were there was a CES story connected with it. The Atari VCS had been shown for the first time there in 1977; the Commodore 64 in 1982; the Amiga in 1984; the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985; Tetris in 1988; the Sega Genesis in 1989; John Madden Football in 1990; the Super NES in 1991, just to name a few. In short, CES was the first and most important place for the videogame industry to show off its latest and greatest to an eager public.

For all that, though, few inside the industry had much good to say about the experience of actually exhibiting at the show. Instead of getting the plum positions these folks thought they deserved, their cutting-edge, transformative products were crammed into odd corners of the exhibit hall, surrounded by the likes of soft-porn and workout videos. The videogame industry’s patently second-class status may have been understandable once upon a time, when it was a tiny upstart on the media landscape with a decidedly uncertain future. But now, with it approaching the magic mark of $5 billion in annual revenues in the United States alone, its relegation at the hands of CES’s organizers struck its executives as profoundly unjust. Wherever and whenever they got together, they always seemed to wind up kibitzing about the hidebound CES people, who still lived in a world where toasters, refrigerators, and microwave ovens were the apex of technological excitement in the home.

They complained at length as well to Gary Shapiro, the man in charge of CES, but his cure proved worse than the disease. He and the other organizers of the 1993 Summer CES, which took place as usual in June in Chicago, promised to create some special “interactive showcase pavilions” for the industry. When the exhibitors arrived, they saw that their “pavilions” were more accurately described as tents, pitched in the middle of an unused parking lot. Pat Ferrell, then the editor-in-chief of GamePro magazine, recalls that “they put some porta-potties out there and a little snack stand where you could pick up a cookie. Everybody was like, ‘This is bullshit. This is like Afghanistan.'” It rained throughout the show, and the tents leaked badly, ruining several companies’ exhibits. Tom Kalinske, then the CEO of Sega of America, remembers that he “turned to my team and said, ‘That’s it. We’re never coming back here again.'”

Kalinske wasn’t true to his word; Sega was at both the Winter and Summer CES of the following year. But he was now ready and willing to listen to alternative proposals, especially after his and most other videogame companies found themselves in the basement of Chicago’s McCormick Place in lieu of the parking lot in June of 1994.

In his office at GamePro, Pat Ferrell pondered an audacious plan for getting his industry out of the basement. Why not start a trade show all his own? It was a crazy idea on the face of it — what did a magazine editor know about running a trade show? — but Ferrell could be a force of nature when he put his mind to something. He made a hard pitch to the people who ran his magazine’s parent organization: the International Data Group (IDG), who also published a wide range of other gaming and computing magazines, and already ran the Apple Macintosh’s biggest trade show under the banner of their magazine Macworld. They were interested, but skeptical whether he could really convince an entire industry to abandon its one proven if painfully imperfect showcase for such an unproven one as this. It was then that Ferrell started thinking about the brand new Interactive Digital Software Association. The latter would need money to fund the ratings program that was its first priority, then would need more money to do who knew what else in the future. Why not fund the IDSA with a trade show that would be a vast improvement over the industry’s sorry lot at CES?

Ferrell’s negotiations with the IDSA’s members were long and fraught, not least because CES seemed finally to be taking the videogame industry’s longstanding litany of complaints a bit more seriously. In response to a worrisome decline in attendance in recent editions of the summer show, Shapiro had decided to revamp his approach dramatically for 1995. After the usual January CES, there would follow not one but four smaller shows, each devoted to a specific segment of the larger world of consumer electronics. The videogame and consumer-computing industries were to get one of these, to take place in May in Philadelphia. So, the IDSA’s members stood at a fork in the road. Should they give CES one more chance, or should they embrace Ferrell’s upstart show?

The battle lines over the issue inside the IDSA were drawn, as usual, between Sega and Nintendo. Thoroughly fed up as he was with CES, Tom Kalinske climbed aboard the alternative train as soon as it showed up at the station. But Howard Lincoln of Nintendo, very much his industry’s establishment man, wanted to stick with the tried and true. To abandon a known commodity like CES, which over 120,000 journalists, early adopters, and taste-makers were guaranteed to visit, in favor of an untested concept like this one, led by a man without any of the relevant organizational experience, struck him as the height of insanity. Yes, IDG was willing to give the IDSA a five-percent stake in the venture, which was five percent more than it got from CES, but what good was five percent of a failure?

In the end, the majority of the IDSA decided to place their faith in Ferrell in spite of such reasonable objections as these — such was the degree of frustration with CES. Nintendo, however, remained obstinately opposed to the new show. Everyone else could do as they liked; Nintendo would continue going to CES, said Lincoln.

And so Pat Ferrell, a man with a personality like a battering ram, decided to escalate. He didn’t want any sort of split decision; he was determined to win. He scheduled his own show — to be called the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3 — on the exact same days in May for which Shapiro had scheduled his. Bet hedging would thus be out of the question; everyone would have to choose one show or the other. And E3 would have a critical advantage over its rival: it would be held in Los Angeles rather than Philadelphia, making it a much easier trip not only for those in Silicon Valley but also for those Japanese hardware and software makers thinking of attending with their latest products. He was trying to lure one Japanese company in particular: Sony, who were known to be on the verge of releasing their first ever videogame console, a cutting-edge 32-bit machine which would use CDs rather than cartridges as its standard storage medium.

Sony finally cast their lot with E3, and that sealed the deal. Pat Ferrell:

My assistant Diana comes into my office and she goes, “Gary Shapiro’s on the phone.” I go, “Really?” So she transfers it. Gary says, “Pat, how are you?” I say, “I’m good.” He says, ‘”You win.” And he hangs up.

E3 would go forward without any competition in its time slot.

Howard Lincoln, a man accustomed to dictating terms rather than begging favors, was forced to come to Ferrell and ask what spots on the show floor were still available. He was informed that Nintendo would have to content themselves with the undesirable West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, a space that hadn’t been remodeled in twenty years, instead of the chic new South Hall where Sony and Sega’s big booths would have pride of place. Needless to say, Ferrell enjoyed every second of that conversation.


E3 1993

The dawn of a new era: E3 1995.

Michael Jackson, who was under contract to Sony’s music division, made an appearance at the first E3 to lend his star power to the PlayStation.

Jack and Sam Tramiel of Atari were also present. Coming twelve years after the Commodore 64’s commercial breakout, this would be one of Jack’s last appearances in the role of a technology executive. Suffice to say that it had been a long, often rocky road since then.

Lincoln’s doubts about Ferrell’s organizational acumen proved misplaced; the first E3 went off almost without a hitch from May 11 through 13, 1995. There were no less than 350 exhibitors — large, small, and in between — along with almost 38,000 attendees. There was even a jolt of star power: Michael Jackson could be seen in Sony’s booth one day. The show will be forever remembered for the three keynote addresses that opened proceedings — more specifically, for the two utterly unexpected bombshell announcements that came out of them.

First up on that first morning was Tom Kalinske, looking positively ebullient as he basked in the glow of having forced Howard Lincoln and Nintendo to bend to his will. Indeed, one could make the argument that Sega was now the greatest single power in videogames, with a market share slightly larger than Nintendo’s and the network of steadfast friends and partners that Nintendo’s my-way-or-the-highway approach had prevented them from acquiring to the same degree. Settling comfortably into the role of industry patriarch, Kalinske began by crowing about the E3 show itself:

E3 is a symbol of the changes our industry is experiencing. Here is this great big show solely for interactive entertainment. CES was never really designed for us. It related better to an older culture. It forced some of the most creative media companies on earth to, at least figuratively, put on gray flannel suits and fit into a TV-buying, furniture-selling mold. Interactive entertainment has become far more than just an annex to the bigger electronics business. Frankly, I don’t miss the endless rows of car stereos and cellular phones.

We’ve broken out to become a whole new category — a whole new culture, for that matter. This business resists hard and fast rules; it defies conventional wisdom.

After talking at length about the pace at which the industry was growing (the threshold of $5 billion in annual sales would be passed that year, marking a quintupling in size since 1987) and the demographic changes it was experiencing (only 51 percent of Sega’s sales had been to people under the age of eighteen in 1994, compared with 62 percent in 1992), he dropped his bombshell at the very end of this speech: Sega would be releasing their own new 32-bit, CD-based console, the Saturn, right now instead of on the previously planned date of September 2. In fact, the very first units were being set out on the shelves of four key retailers — Toys “R” Us, Babbage’s, Electronics Boutique, and Software Etc. — as he spoke, at a price of $399.

Halfhearted claps and cheers swept the assembly, but the dominant reaction was a palpable consternation. Many of the people in the audience were working on Saturn games, yet had been told nothing of the revised timetable. Questions abounded. Why the sudden change? And what games did Sega have to sell alongside the console? The befuddlement would soon harden into anger in many cases, as studios and publishers came to feel that they’d been cheated of the rare opportunity that is the launch of a new console, when buyers are excited and have already opened their wallets wide, and are much less averse than usual to opening them a little wider and throwing a few extra games into their bag along with their shiny new hardware. Just like that, the intra-industry goodwill which Sega had methodically built over the course of years evaporated like air out of a leaky tire. Kalinske would later claim that he knew the accelerated timetable was a bad idea, but was forced into it by Sega’s Japanese management, who were desperate to steal the thunder of the Sony PlayStation.

Speaking of which: next up was Sony, the new rider in this particular rodeo, whose very presence on this showcase stage angered such other would-be big wheels in the console space as Atari, 3DO, and Philips, none of whom were given a similar opportunity to speak. Sony’s keynote was delivered by Olaf Olafsson, a man of extraordinary accomplishment by any standard, one of those rare Renaissance Men who still manage to slip through the cracks of our present Age of the Specialist: in addition to being the head of Sony’s new North American console operation, he was a trained physicist and a prize-winning author of literary novels and stories. His slick presentation emphasized Sony’s long history of innovation in consumer electronics, celebrating such highlights as the Walkman portable cassette player and the musical compact disc, whilst praising the industry his company was now about to join with equal enthusiasm: “We are not in a tent. Instead we are indoors at our own trade show. Industry momentum, accelerating to the tune of $5 billion in annual sales, has moved us from the CES parking lot.”

Finally, Olafsson invited Steve Race, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, to deliver a “brief presentation” on the pricing of the new console. Race stepped onstage and said one number: “$299.” Then he dropped the microphone and walked offstage again, as the hall broke out in heartfelt, spontaneous applause. A $299 PlayStation — i.e., a PlayStation $100 cheaper than the Sega Saturn, its most obvious competitor — would transform the industry overnight, and everyone present seemed to realize this.

The Atari VCS had been the console of the 1970s, the Nintendo Entertainment System the console of 1980s. Now, the Sony PlayStation would become the console of the 1990s.

“For a company that is so new to the industry, I would have hoped that Sony would have made more mistakes by now,” sighed Trip Hawkins, the founder of the luckless 3DO, shortly after Olafsson’s dramatic keynote. Sam Tramiel, president of the beleaguered Atari, took a more belligerent stance, threatening to complain to the Federal Trade Commission about Sony’s “dumping” on the American market. (It would indeed later emerge that Sony sold the PlayStation essentially at cost, relying on game-licensing royalties for their profits. The question of whether doing so was actually illegal, however, was another matter entirely.)

Nintendo was unfortunate enough to have to follow Sony’s excitement. And Howard Lincoln’s keynote certainly wouldn’t have done them any favors under any circumstances: it had a downbeat, sour-grapes vibe about it, which stood out all the more in contrast to what had just transpired. Lincoln had no big news to impart, and spent the vast majority of his time on an interminable, hectoring lecture about the scourge of game counterfeiting and piracy. His tone verged on the paranoid: there should be “no safe haven for pirates, whether they board ships as in the old days or manufacture fake products in violation of somebody else’s copyrights”; “every user is a potential illegal distributor”; “information wants to be free [is an] absurd rationalization.” He was like the parent who breaks up the party just as it’s really getting started — or, for that matter, like the corporate lawyer he was by training. The audience yawned and clapped politely and waited for him to go away.

The next five years of videogame-console history would be defined by the events of this one morning. The Sega Saturn was a perfectly fine little machine, but it would never recover from its botched launch. Potential buyers were as confused as developers by its premature arrival, those retailers who weren’t among the initial four chosen ones were deeply angered, and the initial library of games was as paltry as everyone had feared — and then there was the specter of the $299 PlayStation close on the horizon for any retail-chain purchasing agent or consumer who happened to be on the fence. That Christmas season, the PlayStation was launched with a slate of games and an advertising campaign that were masterfully crafted to nudge the average age of the videogame demographic that much further upward, by drawing heavily from the youth cultures of rave and electronica, complete with not-so-subtle allusions to their associated drug cultures. The campaign said that, if Nintendo was for children and Sega for adolescents, the PlayStation was the console for those in their late teens and and well into their twenties. Keith Stuart, a technology columnist for the Guardian, has written eloquently of how Sony “saw a future of post-pub gaming sessions, saw a new audience of young professionals with disposable incomes, using their formative working careers as an extended adolescence.” It was an uncannily prescient vision.

Sony’s advertising campaign for the PlayStation leaned heavily on the heroin chic. No one had ever attempted to sell videogames in this way before.

The PlayStation outsold the Saturn by more than ten to one. Thus did Sony eclipse Sega at the top of the videogame heap; they would remain there virtually unchallenged until the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001. By that time, Sega was out of the console-hardware business entirely, following a truly dizzying fall from grace. Meanwhile Nintendo just kept trucking along in their own little world, much as Howard Lincoln had done at that first E3, subsisting on Mario and Donkey Kong and their lingering family-friendly reputation. When their own next-generation console, the Nintendo 64, finally appeared in 1996, the PlayStation outsold it by a margin of three to one.

In addition to its commercial and demographic implications, the PlayStation wrought a wholesale transformation in the very nature of console-based videogames themselves. It had been designed from the start for immersive 3D presentations, rather than the 2D, sprite-based experiences that held sway on the 8- and 16-bit console generations. When paired with its commercial success, the sheer technical leap the PlayStation represented over what had come before made it easily the most important console since the NES. In an alternate universe, one might have made the same argument for the Sega Saturn or even the Nintendo 64, both of which had many of the same capabilities — but it was the PlayStation that sold to the tune of more than 100 million units worldwide over its lifetime, and that thus gets the credit for remaking console gaming in its image.

The industry never gave CES another glance after the success of that first E3 show; even those computer-game publishers who were partisans of the Software Publishers Association and the Recreational Software Advisory Council rather than the IDSA and ESRB quickly made the switch to a venue where they could be the main attraction rather than a sideshow. Combined with the 3D capabilities of the latest consoles, which allowed them to run games that would previously have been possible only on computers, this change in trade-show venues marked the beginning of a slow convergence of computer games and console-based videogames. By the end of the decade, more titles than ever before would be available in versions for both computers and consoles. Thus computer gamers learned anew how much fun simple action-oriented games could be, even as console gamers developed a taste for the more extended, complex, and/or story-rich games that had previously been the exclusive domain of the personal computers. Today, even most hardcore gamers make little to no distinction between the terms “computer game” and “videogame.”

It would be an exaggeration to claim that all of these disparate events stemmed from one senator’s first glimpse of Mortal Kombat in late 1993. And yet at least the trade show whose first edition set the ball rolling really does owe its existence to that event by a direct chain of happenstance; it’s very hard to imagine an E3 without an IDSA, and hard to imagine an IDSA at this point in history without government pressure to come together and negotiate a universal content-rating system. Within a few years of the first E3, IDG sold the show in its entirety to the IDSA, which has run it ever since. It has continued to grow in size and glitz and noise with every passing year, remaining always the place where deals are made and directions are plotted, and where eager gamers look for a glimpse of some of their possible futures. How strange to think that the E3’s stepfather is Joseph Lieberman. I wonder if he’s aware of his accomplishment. I suspect not.


Postscript: Violence and Videogames



Democracy is often banal to witness up-close, but it has an odd way of working things out in the end. It strikes me that this is very much the case with the public debate begun by Senator Lieberman. As allergic as I am to all of the smarmy “Think of the children!” rhetoric that was deployed on December 9, 1993, and as deeply as I disagree with many of the political positions espoused by Senator Lieberman in the decades since, it was high time for a rating system — not in order to censor games, but to inform parents and, indeed, all of us about what sort of content each of them contained. The industry was fortunate that a handful of executives were wise enough to recognize and respond to that need. The IDSA and ESRB have done their work well. Everyone involved with them can feel justifiably proud.

There was a time when I imagined leaving things at that; it wasn’t necessary, I thought, to come to a final conclusion about the precise nature of the real-world effects of violence in games in order to believe that parents needed and deserved a tool to help them make their own decisions about what games were appropriate for their children. I explained this to my wife when I first told her that I was planning to write this series of articles — explained to her that I was more interested in recording the history of the 1993 controversy and its enormous repercussions than in taking a firm stance on the merits of the arguments advanced so stridently by the “expert panel” at that landmark first Senate hearing. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I would be leaving the elephant in the room unaddressed, leaving Chekhov’s gun unfired on the mantel… pick your metaphor. She eventually brought me around to her point of view, as she usually does, and we agreed to dive into the social-science literature on the subject.

Having left academia behind more than ten years ago, I’d forgotten how bitterly personal its feuds could be. Now, I was reminded: we found that the psychological community is riven with if anything even more dissension on this issue than is our larger culture. The establishment position in psychology is that games and other forms of violent media do have a significant effect on children’s and adolescents’ levels of aggressive behavior. (For better or for worse, virtually all of the extant studies focus exclusively on young people.) The contrary position, of course, is that they do not. A best case for the anti-establishmentarians would have them outnumbered three to one by their more orthodox peers. A United States Supreme Court case from 2011 provides a handy hook for summarizing the opposing points of view.

The case in question actually goes back to 2005, when a sweeping law was enacted in California which made it a crime to sell games that were “offensive to the community” or that depicted violence of an “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved” stripe to anyone under the age of eighteen. The law required that manufacturers and sellers label games that fit these rather subjective criteria with a large sticker that showed “18” in numerals at least two-inches square. In an irony that plenty of people noted at the time, the governor who signed the bill into law was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was famous for starring in a long string of ultra-violent action movies.

The passage of the law touched off an extended legal battle which finally reached the Supreme Court six years later. Opponents of the law charged that it was an unconstitutional violation of the right to free speech, and that it was particularly pernicious in light of the way it targeted one specific form of media, whilst leaving, for example, the sorts of films to which Governor Schwarzenegger owed his celebrity unperturbed. Supporters of the law countered that the interactive nature of videogames made them fundamentally different — fundamentally more dangerous — than those older forms of media, and that they should be treated as a public-health hazard akin to cigarettes rather than like movies or books. The briefs submitted by social scientists on both sides provide an excellent prism through which to view the ongoing academic debate on videogame violence.

In a brief submitted in support of the law, the California Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Psychological Association stated without hesitation that “scientific studies confirm that violent video games have harmful effects [on] minors”:

Viewing violence increases aggression and greater exposure to media violence is strongly linked to increases in aggression.

Playing a lot of violent games is unlikely to turn a normal youth with zero, one, or even two other risk factors into a killer. But regardless of how many other risk factors are present in a youth’s life, playing a lot of violent games is likely to increase the frequency and the seriousness of his or her physical aggression, both in the short term and over time as the youth grows up. These long-term effects are a consequence of powerful observational learning and desensitization processes that neuroscientists and psychologists now understand to occur automatically in the human child. Simply stated, “adolescents who expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights, and performed more poorly in school.”

In a recent book, researchers once again concluded that the “active participation” in all aspects of violence: decision-making and carrying out the violent act [sic], result in a greater effect from violent video games than a violent movie. Unlike a passive observer in movie watching, in first-person shooter and third-person shooter games, you’re the one who decides whether to pull the trigger or not and whether to kill or not. After conducting three very different kinds of studies (experimental, a cross-sectional correlational study, and a longitudinal study) the results confirmed that violent games contribute to violent behavior.

The relationship between media violence and real-life aggression is nearly as strong as the impact of cigarette smoking and lung cancer: not everyone who smokes will get lung cancer, and not everyone who views media violence will become aggressive themselves. However, the connection is significant.

One could imagine these very same paragraphs being submitted in support of Senator Lieberman’s videogame-labeling bill of 1994; the rhetoric of the videogame skeptics hasn’t changed all that much since then. But, as I noted earlier, there has emerged a coterie of other, usually younger researchers who are less eager to assert such causal linkages as proven scientific realities.

Thus another, looser amalgamation of “social scientists, medical scientists, and media-effects scholars” countered in their own court brief that the data didn’t support such sweeping conclusions, and in fact pointed in the opposite direction in many cases. They unspooled a long litany of methodological problems, researcher biases, and instances of selective data-gathering which, they claimed, their colleagues on the other side of the issue had run afoul of, and cited studies of their own that failed to prove or even disproved the linkage the establishmentarians believed was so undeniable.

In a recent meta-analytic study, Dr. John Sherry concluded that while there are researchers in the field who “are committed to the notion of powerful effects,” they have been unable to prove such effects; that studies exist that seem to support a relationship between violent video games and aggression but other studies show no such relationship; and that research in this area has employed varying methodologies, thus “obscuring clear conclusions.” Although Dr. Sherry “expected to find fairly clear, compelling, and powerful effects,” based on assumptions he had formed regarding video game violence, he did not find them. Instead, he found only a small relationship between playing violent video games and short-term arousal or aggression, and further found that this effect lessened the longer one spent playing video games.

Such small and inconclusive results prompted Dr. Sherry to ask: “[W]hy do some researchers continue to argue that video games are dangerous despite evidence to the contrary?” Dr. Sherry further noted that if violent video games posed such a threat, then the increased popularity of the games would lead to an increase in violent crime. But that has not happened. Quite the opposite: during the same period that video game sales, including sales of violent video games, have risen, youth violence has dramatically declined.

“The causation research can be done, and, indeed, has been done,” the brief concludes, and “leaves no empirical foundation for the assertion that playing violent video games causes harm to minors.”

The Supreme Court ruled against California, striking down the law as a violation of the First Amendment by a vote of seven to two. I’m more interested today, however, in figuring out what to make of these two wildly opposing views of the issue, both from credentialed professionals.

Before going any further, I want to emphasize that I came to this debate with what I honestly believe to have been an open mind. Although I enjoy many types of games, I have little personal interest in the most violent ones. It didn’t — and still doesn’t — strike me as entirely unreasonable to speculate that a steady diet of ultra-violent games could have some negative effects on some impressionable young minds. If I had children, I would — still would — prefer that they play games that don’t involve running around as an embodied person killing other people in the most visceral manner possible. But the indisputable scientific evidence that might give me a valid argument for imposing my preferences on others under any circumstances whatsoever just isn’t there, despite decades of earnest attempts to collect it.

The establishmentarians’ studies are shot through with biases that I will assume do not distort the data itself, but that can distort interpretations of that data. Another problem, one which I didn’t fully appreciate until I began to read some of the studies, is the sheer difficulty of conducting scientific experiments of this sort in the real world. The subjects of these studies are not mice in a laboratory whose every condition and influence can be controlled, but everyday young people living their lives in a supremely chaotic environment, being bombarded with all sorts of mediated and non-mediated influences every day. How can one possibly filter out all of that noise? The answer is, imperfectly at best. Bear with me while I cite just one example of (what I find to be) a flawed study. (For those who are interested in exploring further, a complete list of the studies which my wife and I examined can be found at the bottom of this article. The Supreme Court briefs from 2011 are also full of references to studies with findings on both sides of the issue.)

In 2012, Ontario’s Brock University published a “Longitudinal Study of the Association Between Violent Video Game Play and Aggression Among Adolescents.” It followed 1492 students, chosen as a demographic reflection of Canadian society as a whole, through their high-school years — i.e., from age fourteen or fifteen to age seventeen or eighteen. They filled out a total of four annual questionnaires over that period, which asked them about their social, familial, and academic circumstances, asked how likely they felt they were to become violent in various hypothetical real-world situations, and asked about their videogame habits: i.e., what games they liked to play and how much time they spent playing them each day. For purposes of the study, “action fighting” games like God of War and our old friend Mortal Kombat were considered violent, but strategy games with “some violent aspects” like Rainbow Six and Civilization were not; ditto sports games. The study’s concluding summary describes a “small” correlation between aggression and the playing of violent videogames: a Pearson correlation coefficient “in the .20 range.” (On this scale, a perfect, one-to-one positive or negative correlation would 1.0 or -1.0 respectively.) Surprisingly, it also describes a “trivial” correlation between aggression and the playing of nonviolent videogames: “mostly less than .10.”

On the surface, it seems a carefully worked-out study which reveals an appropriately cautious conclusion. When we dig in a bit further, however, we can see a few significant methodological problems. The first is its reliance on subjective, self-reported questionnaire answers, which are as dubious here as they were under the RSAC rating system. And the second is the researchers’ subjective assignment of games to the categories of violent and non-violent. Nowhere is it described what specific games were put where, beyond the few examples I cited in my last paragraph. This opacity about exactly what games we’re really talking about badly confuses the issue, especially given that strange finding of a correlation between aggression and “nonviolent” games. Finally, that oft-forgotten truth that correlation is not causation must be considered. When we add third variables to the mix — a statistical method of filtering out non-causative correlations from a data set — the Pearson coefficient between aggressive behavior and violent games drops to around 0.06 — i.e., well below what the researchers themselves describe as “trivial” — and that for nonviolent games drops below the threshold of statistical noise; in fact, the coefficient for violent games is just one one-hundredth above that same threshold. For reasons which are perhaps depressingly obvious, the researchers choose to base their conclusions around their findings without third variables in the mix — just one of several signs of motivated reasoning to be found in their text.

In the interest of not belaboring the point, I’ll just say that other studies I looked at had similar issues. Take, for example, a study of 295 students in Germany with an average age of thirteen and a half years, who were each given several scenarios that could lead to an aggressive response in the real world and asked how they would react, whilst also being asked which of a list of 40 videogames they played and how often they did so. Two and a half years later, they were surveyed again — but by now the researchers’ list of popular videogames was hopelessly out of date. They were thus forced to revamp the questionnaire with a list of game categories, and to retrofit the old, more specific list of titles to match the new approach. I’m sympathetic to their difficulties; again, conducting experiments like this amidst the chaos of the real world is hard. Nevertheless, I can’t help but ask how worthwhile an experiment which was changed so much on the fly can really be. And yet for all the researchers’ contortions, it too reveals only the most milquetoast of correlations between real-world aggression and videogame violence.

Trying to make sense of the extant social-science literature on this subject can often feel like wandering a hall of mirrors. “Meta-analyses” — i.e., analyses that attempt to draw universal findings from aggregations of earlier studies — are everywhere, with conclusions seemingly dictated more by the studies that the authors have chosen to analyze and the emphasis they have chosen to place on different aspects of them than by empirical truth. Even more dismaying are the analyses that piggyback on an earlier study’s raw data set, from which they almost invariably manage to extract exactly the opposite conclusions. This business of studying the effects of videogame violence begins to feel like an elaborate game in itself, one that revolves around manipulating numbers in just the right way, one that is entirely divorced from the reality behind those numbers. The deeper I fell into the rabbit hole, the more one phrase kept ringing in my head: “Garbage In, Garbage Out.”

Both sides of the debate are prone to specious reasoning. Still, the burden of proof ultimately rests with those making the affirmative case: those who assert that violent videogames lead their players to commit real-world violence. In my judgment, they have failed to make that case in any sort of thoroughgoing, comprehensive way. Even after all these years and all these studies, the jury is still out. This may be because the assertion they are attempting to prove is incorrect, or it may just be because this sort of social science is so darn hard to do. Either way, the drawing of parallels between violent videogames and an indubitably proven public-hazard like cigarettes is absurd.

Some of the more grounded studies do tell us that, if we want to find places where videogames can be genuinely harmful to individuals and by extension to society, we shouldn’t be looking at their degree of violence so much as the rote but addictive feedback loops so many of them engender. Videogame addiction, in other words, is probably a far bigger problem for society than videogame violence. So, as someone who has been playing digital games for almost 40 years, I’ll conclude by offering the following heartfelt if unsolicited advice to all other gamers, young and old:

Play the types of games you enjoy, whether they happen to be violent or nonviolent, but not for more than a couple of hours per day on average, and never at the expense of a real-world existence that can be so much richer and more rewarding than any virtual one. Make sure to leave plenty of space in your life as well for other forms of creative expression which can capture those aspects of the human experience that games tend to overlook. And make sure the games you play are ones which respect your time and are made for the right reasons — the ones which leave you feeling empowered and energized instead of enslaved and drained. Lastly, remember always the wise words of Dani Bunten Berry: “No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer!’” Surely that statement at least remains as true of Pac-Man as it is of Night Trap.

(Sources: the book The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent; Edge of August 1995; GameFan of July 1995; GamePro of June 1995 and August 1995; Next Generation of July 1995; Video Games of July 1995; Game Developer of August/September 1995. Online sources include Blake J. Harris’s “Oral History of the ESRB” at VentureBeat, “How E3 1995 Changed Gaming Forever” at Syfy Games, “The Story of the First E3” at Polygon, Game Zero‘s original online coverage of the first E3, “Sega Saturn: How One Decision Destroyed PlayStation’s Greatest Rival” by Keith Stuart at The Guardian, an interview with Olaf Olafsson at The Nervous Breakdown, and a collection of vintage CES photos at The Verge. Last but certainly not least, Anthony P’s self-shot video of the first E3, including the three keynotes, is a truly precious historical document.

I looked at the following studies of violence and gaming: “Differences in Associations Between Problematic Video-Gaming, Video-Gaming Duration, and Weapon-Related and Physically Violent Behaviors in Adolescents” by Zu Wei Zhai, et. al.; “Aggressive Video Games are Not a Risk Factor for Future Aggression in Youth: A Longitudinal Study” by Christopher J. Ferguson and John C.K. Wang; “Growing Up with Grand Theft Auto: A 10-Year Study of Longitudinal Growth of Violent Video Game Play in Adolescents” by Sarah M. Coyne and Laura Stockdale; “Aggressive Video Games are Not a Rick Factor for Mental Health Problems in Youth: A Longitudinal Study” by Christopher J. Ferguson and C.K. John Wang; “A Preregistered Longitudinal Analysis of Aggressive Video Games and Aggressive Behavior in Chinese Youth” by Christopher J. Ferguson; “Social and Behavioral Heath Factors Associated with Violent and Mature Gaming in Early Adolescence” by Lind Charmaraman, et. al.; “Reexamining the Findings of the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Task Force on Violent Media: A Meta-Analysis” by Christopher J. Ferguson, et. al.; “Do Longitudinal Studies Support Long-Term Relationships between Aggressive Game Play and Youth Aggressive Behavior? A Meta-analytic Examination” by Aaron Drummond, et. al.; “Technical Report on the Review of the Violent Video Game Literature” by the American Psychological Association; “Exposure to Violent Video Games and Aggression in German Adolescents: A Longitudinal Study” by Ingrid Möller and Barbara Krahé; “Metaanalysis of the Relationship between Violent Video Game Play and Physical Aggression over Time” by Anna T. Prescitt, et. al.; “The Effects of Reward and Punishment in Violent Video Games on Aggressive Affect,Cognition, and Behavior” by Nicholas L. Carnagey and Craig A. Anderson; “Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” by Craig A. Anderson, et. al.; “Violent Video Games: The Effects of Narrative Context and Reward Structure on In-Game and Postgame Aggression” by James D. Sauer, et. al.; “Internet and Video Game Addictions: Diagnosis, Epidemiology, and Neurobiology” by Clifford J. Sussman, et. al.; “A Longitudinal Study of the Association Between Violent Video Game Play and Aggression Among Adolescents” by Teena Willoughby, et. al. My wife dug these up for me with the help of her university hospital’s research librarian here in Denmark, but some — perhaps most? — can be accessed for free via organs like PubMed. I would be interested in the findings of any readers who care to delve into this literature — particularly any of you who possess the social-science training I lack.)

 

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The Ratings Game, Part 3: Dueling Standards

When Sega, Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association (SPA) 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.

Jack Heistand

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 original slate of ESRB icons. Since 1994, remarkably few changes have been made: the “Kids to Adults” category has been renamed “Everyone,” and a sixth category of games suitable for those ten years and older, known in the rating system’s nomenclature as “Everyone 10+,” has been added.

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.)

 

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The Ratings Game, Part 2: The Hearing

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.[1]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.[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.

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.[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.

Just a short while ago, some members of the videogame industry announced their intention to create a voluntary rating or warning-label system.[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. 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.[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. 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.[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. 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.[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. 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.”[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. 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.[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. 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.[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. 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.[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. 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.[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. 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.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
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.
 
 

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