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The Ratings Game, Part 3: Dueling Standards

When Sega, Nintendo, and the Software Publishers Association announced just before the Senate hearing of December 9, 1993, that they had agreed in principle to create a standardized rating system for videogames, the timing alone marked it as an obvious ploy to deflect some of the heat that was bound to come their way later that day. At the same time, though, it was also more than a ploy: it was in fact the culmination of an effort that had been underway in some quarters of the industry for months already, one which had begun well before the good Senators Lieberman and Kohl discovered the horrors of videogame violence and sex. As Bill White of Sega was at pains to point out throughout the hearing, Sega had been seriously engaged with the question of a rating system for quite some time, and had managed to secure promises of support from a considerable portion of the industry. But the one entity that had absolutely rejected the notion was the very one whose buy-in was most essential for any overarching initiative of this sort: Nintendo. “Howard [Lincoln] was not going to be part of any group created by Sega,” laughs Dr. Arthur Pober, one of the experts the latter consulted.

So, Sega decided to go it alone. Again as described by Bill White at the hearing, they rolled out a thoroughly worked-out rating system for any and all games on their platforms just in time for Mortal Kombat in September of 1993. It divided games into three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for those age thirteen or older, and MA-17 for those age seventeen or older. An independent board of experts was drafted to assign each new game its rating without interference from Sega’s corporate headquarters; its chairman was the aforementioned Arthur Pober, a distinguished educational psychologist with decades of research experience about the role of media in children’s lives on his CV. Under his stewardship, Mortal Kombat wound up with an MA-13 rating; Night Trap, which had already been in stores for the better part of a year by that point, was retroactively assigned a rating of MA-17.

Although one might certainly quibble that these ratings reflected the American media establishment’s terror of sex and relatively blasé attitude toward violence, Sega’s rating system bore all the outward signs of being a good-faith exercise. At the very least it was, as White repeatedly stated at the hearing, a good first step, one that was taken before any of the real controversy even began.

The second step was of course Nintendo’s grudging acquiescence to the concept of a universal rating system on the day of the hearing — a capitulation whose significance should not be underestimated in light of the company’s usual attitude toward intra-industry cooperation, which might be aptly summarized as “our way or the highway.” And the third step came less than a month later, at the 1994 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, which in accordance with long tradition took place over the first week of the new year in Las Vegas.

Anyone wandering the floor at this latest edition of CES would have seen a digital-games industry that was more fiercely competitive than ever. Sega, celebrating a recent report that gave them for the first time a slight edge over Nintendo in overall market share, had several attention-grabbing new products on offer, including the latest of their hugely popular Sonic the Hedgehog games; the Activator, an early attempt at a virtual-reality controller; the CDX, a portable CD player that could also be used as a game console; and, most presciently of all, a partnership with AT&T to bring online multiplayer gaming, including voice communication, to the Genesis. Meanwhile Nintendo gave the first hints about what would see the light of day some 30 months later as the Nintendo 64. And other companies were still trying to muscle their way into the bifurcated milieu of the living-room consoles. Among them were Atari, looking for a second shot at videogame glory with their Jaguar console; Philips, still flogging the dead horse known as CD-I; and a well-financed new company known as 3DO, with a console that bore the same name. Many traditional makers of business-oriented computers were suddenly trying to reach many of the same consumers, through products like Compaq’s new home-oriented Presario line; even stodgy old WordPerfect was introducing a line of entertainment and educational software. Little spirit of cooperation was in evidence amidst any of this. With “multimedia” the buzzword of the zeitgeist, the World Wide Web looming on the near horizon, and no clarity whatsoever about what direction digital technology in the home was likely to take over the next few years, the competition in the space was as cutthroat as it had ever been.

And yet in a far less glitzy back room of the conference center, all of these folks and more met to discuss the biggest cooperative initiative ever proposed for their industry, prompted by the ultimatum they had so recently been given by Senators Lieberman and Kohl: “Come up with a rating system for yourself, or we’ll do it for you.” The meeting was organized by the SPA, which had the virtue of not being any of the arch-rival console makers, and was thus presumably able to evince a degree of impartiality. “Companies such as 3DO, Atari, Acclaim, id Software, and Apogee already have rating systems,” said Ken Wasch, the longstanding head of the SPA, to open the proceedings. “But a proliferation of rating systems is confusing to retailers and consumers alike. Even before this became an issue in the halls of Congress or in the media, there was a growing belief that we needed a single, easily recognizable system to rate and label our products.”

But the SPA lost control of the meeting almost from the moment Wasch stepped down from the podium. The industry was extremely fortunate that neither Senator Lieberman nor Kohl took said organization up on an invitation to attend in person. One participant remembers the meeting consisting mostly of “people sitting around a table screaming and carrying on.” Cries of “Censorship!” and “Screw ’em! We’ll make the games we want to make!” dominated for long stretches. Many regarded the very notion of a rating system as an unacceptable intrusion by holier-than-thou bureaucrats; they wanted to call what they insisted was the senators’ bluff, to force them to put up actual government legislation — legislation whose constitutionality would be highly questionable — or to shut up about it.

Yet such advocates of the principle of free speech over all other concerns weren’t the sum total of the problem. Even many of those who felt that a rating system was probably necessary were thoroughly unimpressed with the hosts of the meeting, and not much disposed to fall meekly into line behind them.

The hard reality was that the SPA had never been viewed as a terribly effectual organization. Formed  to be the voice of the computer-software industry in 1984 — i.e., just after the Great Videogame Crash — it had occupied itself mostly with anti-piracy campaigns and an annual awards banquet in the years since. The return of a viable console marketplace in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System and later the Sega Genesis had left it in an odd position. Most of the publishers of computer games who began moving some or all of their output to the consoles were members of the SPA, and through them the SPA itself got pulled into this brave new world. But there were certainly grounds to question whether the organization’s remit really ought to involve the console marketplace at all. Was the likes of Acclaim, the publisher of console-based videogames like Mortal Kombat, truly in the same business as such other SPA members as the business-software titans Microsoft and WordPerfect? Nintendo had always pointedly ignored the SPA; Sega had joined as a gesture of goodwill to their outside publishers who were also members, but hardly regarded it as a major part of their corporate strategy. In addition to being judged slow, bureaucratic, and uncreative, the SPA was regarded by everyone involved with the consoles as being much more invested in computer software of all stripes than console-based videogames. And what with computer games representing in the best case fifteen percent of the overall digital-games market, that alone struck them as a disqualifier for spearheading an initiative like this one.

Electronic Arts, the largest of all of the American game publishers, was in an interesting position here. Founded in 1983 to publish games exclusively for computers, EA had begun moving onto consoles in a big way at the dawn of the 1990s, scoring hits there with such games as the first installments in the evergreen John Madden Football series. By the beginning of 1994, console games made up over two-thirds of their total business.

A senior vice president at EA by the name of Jack Heistand felt that an industry-wide rating system was “the right thing to do. I really believed in my heart that we needed to communicate to parents what the content was inside games.” Yet he also felt convinced from long experience that the SPA was hopelessly ill-equipped for a project of this magnitude, and the disheartening meeting which the SPA tried to lead at CES only cemented that belief. So, immediately after the meeting was over, he approached EA’s CEO Larry Probst with a proposal: “Let’s get all the [other] CEOs together to form an industry association. I will chair it.” Probst readily agreed.

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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The Ratings Game, Part 1: A Likely and an Unlikely Suspect

Warning: this article contains images of pixelated male genitalia.

On December 9, 1993, members of the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information and its Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice held a joint hearing on the topic of violence and sex in videogames. Educators, social scientists, activists, and several prominent figures from the videogame industry itself spoke there for almost three hours. More heat than light was on display for much of that time: the middle-aged politicians often displayed a comprehensive ignorance of the subject at hand, the supposed experts often treated nuanced issues with stubborn stridency, and the industry figures often proved more interested in attacking each other than mounting a coordinated defense against the charge of being the corruptors of America’s youth.

But history sometimes moves in surprising ways. The hearing prompted far-reaching changes in gaming out of all proportion to its worthiness as a good-faith debate about a significant social concern. The first and to-date only industry-wide standard for rating the content in videogames — the same system that is still in use today — was one outcome. And another, much stranger result was the splashy trade show that has since come to dominate the industry’s public-relations calendar. One might say that December 9, 1993, was the day that the games industry began to wake up to a sense of itself as a distinct mass-media entity in its own right.

This is the story of how those things came to be.



Videogames have been causing intermittent moral panics for almost as long as they’ve existed. The first of them to ignite public ire dates all the way back to 1976 and a small company called Exidy. The year before, Exidy had made a standup-arcade game called Destruction Derby, about the time-honored American motorsports pastime of the demolition derby, a staple of county fairs and other rural gatherings. When Chicago Coin, the company who had agreed to distribute the game to arcades, failed to pay them their royalties, Exidy revamped it into something called Death Race and released it on their own. Instead of other cars, you were now expected to collide with stick figures, called “gremlins” or “monsters” in Exidy’s official terminology, in order to score points. When you hit one, it was replaced with a little gravestone.

As it happened, though, a recent B-movie called Death Race 2000 was generating enraged headlines at the very same time. Starring a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, it dealt with a cross-country road race of the dystopian future where the drivers were rewarded with bonus points for mowing down pedestrians en route. It’s very difficult to say what the connection between the film and the game actually was. The programmer who created the latter has insisted to this day that he was unaware of the movie at the time he did so. Still, the shared title remains quite a coincidence. Perhaps a marketer at Exidy belatedly elected to capitalize on the film’s notoriety by giving the already finished game the same name?

Death Race, with its onscreen tombstones to mark dead pedestrians.

At any rate, the shared title certainly wasn’t lost on the media at the time. Several television-news programs, including the highly respected nationwide 60 Minutes, ran segments about the game after receiving a flood of complaints from parents and other concerned adults, and many or most arcade owners removed it from their floor. Nolan Bushnell, the founder and chief executive of industry leader Atari, was very displeased with the negative attention Death Race brought to a burgeoning new form of entertainment: “We had an internal rule that we wouldn’t allow violence against people. You could blow up a tank or you could blow up a flying saucer, but you couldn’t blow up people. We felt that was not good form.” But Pete Kaufman, the founder of Exidy, was unrepentant. Those arcade owners who weren’t scared away by the controversy, he noted, did a booming business with Death Race.

The young industry was already learning an important lesson: that extreme violence in a videogame is dangerous because of the unwanted attention it can attract, but that it also has the potential to be very, very profitable. The industry’s future would be marked by a delicate dance between these two realities, as it attempted to be outrageous enough to attract customers with a taste for violence without going so far as to bring the heavy hand of government down upon its head.



Atari and their American and Japanese competitors went from strength to strength in the years after Death Race. First arcades became centerpieces of adolescent social life, and then, thanks to the Atari VCS home console, videogames took over American living rooms as well. The elder generation reacted to these things in much the same way that their parents had to such youth phenomena as Elvis and the Beatles: with a shrug of complete incomprehension, followed in many cases by concerns about the influence of this strange new pop-culture development on their children’s mental and even moral well-being.

The city council of the Dallas, Texas, suburb of Mesquite went so far as to ban children from visiting arcades without an adult escort. A legal challenge raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in response made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck the law down as unconstitutional in 1982. Undaunted, Dr. C. Everett Koop, President Ronald Reagan’s unusually prominent surgeon general, became a vocal critic of videogames and an advocate for laws to limit their pernicious influence, claiming that they were consciously engineered to addict children, “body and soul.”

It’s an odd truism of American culture that, while violence in media may upset various people at various times, nothing brings out the censors in the body politic like a little sex. In October of 1982, a company called Mystique, with ties to the pornography industry, proved this once again with an Atari VCS game called Custer’s Revenge, which combined violence and sex, then added a concluding flourish of racism. In it, you played a reincarnation of the benighted general. His most prominent onscreen feature was his outlandishly long penis, which he used to rape the Native American women he found scattered about the battlefield, already helpfully tied to stakes.

Custer’s Revenge. Be careful of the cacti when you’re waving that thing around…

Controversy had clearly been the whole point of the game, and it was rewarded with its full measure, managing to unite the American Indian Community House, the National Organization for Women, and Women Against Pornography for a shared protest outside the New York City venue where it was shown to the press for the first time. Robin Quinn of the last-named organization proclaimed, accurately enough, that the game “says that rape is not only a legitimate form of revenge but a legitimate form of entertainment.” Even the aged George Armstrong Custer III came out of the woodwork to complain that his grandfather’s reputation was being “maligned,” while Atari filed a dubious lawsuit claiming that the very existence of the game on their console created a “wrongful association” in the minds of the public. Arnie Katz, the founding editor of Electronic Games magazine, remembers telling the leadership of the protest movement that “the best way to keep the game from selling is to ignore it.” In the absence of a willingness to heed that perhaps wise advice, Custer’s Revenge wound up selling about 80,000 copies, at $50 a pop. Two other, similarly tasteless “adult” games from Mystique attracted less attention from groups who largely spent their outrage on Custer’s Revenge, and, just as Katz had predicted, proved much less commercially successful.

Still, the arrival of games of this ilk would surely have led to more controversy and eventually to serious calls for legislation, if only what struck many as the passing fad for videogames hadn’t ended abruptly the following year, in the series of events that have gone down in history as the Great Videogame Crash. By the beginning of 1984, the arcade market was greatly diminished, the home-console market effectively destroyed. For the next few years, for the first and only time in the history of digital gaming, computers rather than consoles became the most popular way to play games in the home; the Commodore 64 home computer became the new heart of the gaming mass market.

But even that machine, ultra-popular though it was as a computer model, wasn’t a patch on what the Atari VCS had been. Likewise, the market for floppy-disk-based entertainment software was a small fraction of the size of the former market for console cartridges — so small that it existed out of the sights and minds of the sort of public agencies that had raised concerns about the videogames of the earlier era. Thus software publishers felt little or no compunction about including whatever content struck their fancy and seemed most likely to appeal to their primarily young and male audience. Strip-poker games, many featuring digitized photographs of real models, were a dime a dozen; casual profanity was everywhere; the CRPG Wasteland gave you the option of visiting a house of ill repute (and catching “Wasteland herpes” as a reward for your effort).

Sometimes the lack of condemnation from the fuddy-duddy set could be downright frustrating. When Steve Meretzky of the text-adventure maker Infocom failed to generate any controversy with A Mind Forever Voyaging, his brutal take-down of the Reagan administration’s conservative politics, he decided to make a sex comedy called Leather Goddesses of Phobos. He confidently expected that, as he wrote in the game’s self-congratulatory opening text, people would soon be “indignantly huffing toward their dealer, their lawyer, or their favorite repression-oriented politico.” The actual result? Crickets — and a bunch of other adventure games, such as Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry series, that were even naughtier, and included graphics to boot.

Sex Vixens from Space, one of many risque games that were eagerly played by adolescent boys during the games industry’s equivalent of pre-Hays Code Hollywood.

The return of concerns about videogame content to the public consciousness unsurprisingly coincided with the return of console systems, and the vastly greater number of players they’ve always tended to attract, to the center of the mass market. The Nintendo Entertainment System was first imported to North America from Japan in a rather quiet and cautious fashion in late 1985. But by 1987, it was gaining steam quickly, and by decade’s end its market penetration exceeded even that of the Atari VCS in its heyday.

The fact was, the executives at Nintendo, both those in Japan and in the United States, had made a careful study of what Atari had gotten right and wrong back in the day, and developed a plan for how they could do things in a better, more sustainable way. Nintendo exercised complete control over the NES and everything associated with it. They created an ironclad legal framework which allowed them to decide who was allowed to make NES games, what sort of games these were allowed to be down to the very last detail, and even how many cartridges their software “partners” were allowed to manufacture and sell. Then, as the icing on the cake, Nintendo took a cut of every NES game anyone sold. Not only did this approach make the company extraordinarily profitable, but it ensured that they wouldn’t have to contend with any examples of a Custer’s Revenge and the ensuing public-relations nightmare. Nintendo hewed to a firm “family-friendly” policy. Anecdotes about their censorship regime abound, from the swimsuit calendar which they forced LucasFilm Games to pull down from a wall inside Maniac Mansion to the gravestone crosses which Capcom had to remove from DuckTales — for, in Nintendo’s zeal not to offend, religious symbols of even the most understated stripe were strictly prohibited.

Nevertheless, plenty of Americans found plenty of room in their hearts to be offended by Nintendo’s success. In many cases, their concerns about the heavy-handed tactics which the company used to control both the medium and the message of the NES were perfectly reasonable. Still, a distinct whiff of xenophobia and/or outright racism clung to many of the criticisms, manifested in dark mutterings about the latest Pearl Harbor, couched in stereotypes about the shifty Oriental character. When Nintendo introduced the Game Boy handheld console in 1989 and saw it blow up as big as the NES, the mutterings threatened to become a chorus.

Believing that the winds of public opinion were at their back, Atari Games and Atari Corporation, the two halves into which the old king of American videogames had been split back in 1984, launched a series of legal challenges that attempted to tear down the barriers around Nintendo’s walled garden. These would drag on for years, but would never provide the decisive victory the deposed kings of gaming were looking for; they soon learned that Nintendo could afford good lawyers too. Ditto a probe by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission; the smoking gun these would-be trust busters were looking for either didn’t exist or was very well-hidden.

But there was also another reason that the government investigation fizzled out anticlimactically in 1992, two years after its beginning: Nintendo had some genuine competition in the console space by that point, making it hard for the agencies to stick them with the monopoly tag. The Sega Genesis console, another product of a Japanese company, had first reached American shores in August of 1989. It thoroughly outclassed the NES in technical terms, with a 16-bit rather than an 8-bit processor and far better graphics and sound. Justifiably alarmed, Nintendo did everything they could to snuff out Sega’s North American operation, pressuring everyone from game publishers to retail stores to shun the alternative platform or face the consequences. Their efforts kept Sega on the ropes for quite some time, but Nintendo never could completely finish the job. A turning point came when Electronic Arts, one of the largest American game publishers, chose to make Sega rather than Nintendo their platform of first choice.

By 1992, following years of dogged effort, Sega had brought their brand to a place of near commercial parity with Nintendo, despite the appearance in 1991 of a new Super NES which made up for most of the NES’s failings in comparison to the Genesis and then some. Sega owed their success at least partially to their willingness to embrace edgier and often more violent content, pitched to a slightly older adolescent demographic than the stereotypical Nintendo fanatic. The differences in corporate personality were vividly illustrated by the two companies’ de-facto mascots. Nintendo’s Mario was cute and sweet and harmless; Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog was manic and a little unhinged — a little bit more dangerous than the cuddly Italian plumber. Sega didn’t hesitate to call out their target by name: “Sega Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” ran one of their most-used slogans. But it could just as easily have read, “Sega Genesis does what Nintendo won’t,” in terms of content. The two companies’ North American management absolutely loathed one another. Soon they would parade their antipathies before no less august a body than the United States Senate.

Although that landmark hearing would purport to examine questionable videogame content in general, its story is inextricably bound up with that of two games in particular, as different from one another as they could be in their genres, format, and to some extent even the audiences they attempted to reach. One was notable for its extreme level of violence, while the other was notable for its combination of sex and violence — or rather was made notable by politicians and others who convinced themselves that it contained far more of both than was actually the case. We’ll take the two suspects one at a time.



Arcades were still blundering along at this late date, sustained by the impressive audiovisuals that were made possible by their specialized hardware, which not even the likes of the SNES could match. By far the biggest arcade hit of 1992 was a game called Mortal Kombat, the latest in what was already a long line of so-called “fighting games.” (“Aren’t most videogames fighting games?” says the naïve observer…)

The premise was simplicity itself: you and an opponent — in the form of either the computer or, for maximum entertainment, your human buddy — controlled avatars who stood face to face on the screen and beat the ever-loving crap out of one another. Mortal Kombat won special favor in a crowded field for the variety of fighters you could choose to control, each with his or her own strengths and weaknesses; for its many moves, counter-moves, and power-move combinations; for its rambunctiously over-the-top depiction of the action, including copious amounts of blood; and for the so-called “fatalities” that finished a match, where a fighter’s heart might get pulled right out of his chest or his head ripped off his shoulders. Jeff Greeson, a student of the game and its lore, notes that “Mortal Kombat not only shocked anyone who had ever played the game, but those who simply walked by the game were mesmerized by its gore.” No arcade game had ever been as extreme as this. How could it not become a hit?

A Mortal Kombat “fatality.”

The life cycle of a hit arcade game in those days was much like that of a hit movie: it would remain an arcade exclusive for nine to twelve months in order to maximize that revenue stream, then come home in a version for consoles and/or computers. Midway Games, the maker of the original Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet, placed its home ports in the hands of the software publisher Acclaim Entertainment, who had contracts with both Nintendo and Sega. True to form, Sega encouraged Acclaim to put in as much of the arcade edition’s lurid violence as would fit within the more limited audiovisual capabilities of the Genesis. But Nintendo was different: while they certainly wanted the game on the SNES, they insisted that Acclaim tone it down — for example, by replacing flying blood with flying sweat, and by removing the gory fatalities entirely. Howard Lincoln, a Nintendo of America executive who is widely and justly regarded as one of the two principal architects of the brand’s success, remembers an extended back-and-forth with Acclaim over the issue: “Look, we’re going to make the Sega version, and it’s going to be right in line with the coin-op game. Having a toned-down version for Nintendo… Do you guys really want us to do that? Does that really make sense?” But Nintendo held firm to the family-friendly standards that had gotten them this far.

Versions of Mortal Kombat for the SNES, the Game Boy, the Genesis, and the Game Gear — the last being Sega’s handheld competitor to the Game Boy — shipped simultaneously on September 13, 1993, on the back of a marketing budget that was higher than the combined cost of creating them. Just as Acclaim had intended, “Mortal Monday” became a major event in the lives of countless young fans, who greeted the game the way their parents might have a new Led Zeppelin album. The merchandising manager of Electronics Boutique, one of the country’s biggest videogame retailers, called it “the largest new release we’ve ever had.” Later that week, the New York Times could already report that the Sega versions were handily outselling the Nintendo versions.

Whether you were into videogames or not, Mortal Kombat was an inescapable mass-media presence during the autumn of 1993.

Over the next two months, 1 million SNES Mortal Kombat cartridges were sold. This was an impressive showing – except that 2 million Genesis cartridges were sold over the same period. It was a triumphant moment for Sega, who had struggled so long and hard to reach this point, even as it struck Nintendo’s management as the most palpable sign yet that they were in danger of being dismissed as a kiddie company by the teenagers who were now flocking to Sega, bringing along with them their greater reserves of precious disposable income. The defeat had twice the sting in light of the fact that, missing gore aside, the SNES version was by far the better looking and better playing of the two, thanks to running on a newer and more capable console. For the first time, a serious internal debate began at Nintendo over the commercial sustainability of their family-friendly approach.

Despite or because of its outrageous violence, Mortal Kombat was and is a good game in the estimation of most connoisseurs of its genre. Even if it had never prompted a public controversy, it would probably still be fondly remembered by them today; it proved the starting point of a franchise that has encompassed thirteen more games to date. But the other game destined to take center stage before the United States Senate was not so good, and would almost certainly be completely forgotten today if not for its strange moment of infamy in the halls of government.



If nothing else, the game in question does have a fascinating origin story. It begins with Tom Zito, a journalist and music critic for the Washington PostRolling Stone, and the New Yorker, who in 1984 was assigned by the last of these to profile Nolan Bushnell of Atari fame. He parlayed that meeting into a job with the Sunnyvale, California-based Axlon, one of the legendary technologist’s several companies, marketing baby monitors and talking Teddy bears which were distributed by the toy giant Hasbro.

But Bushnell always encouraged his proteges to think expansively rather than narrowly. Thus early in his tenure with Axlon, Zito allowed himself to become intrigued by the new video technology of the laser disc, and by the possibility of overlaying conventional computer graphics onto its pre-recorded random-access imagery. In 1986, he stumbled upon the NES and the burgeoning excitement around it during a routine visit to a department store. Deciding that a laser-disc-powered videogame console was just the ticket, he hired a small team to cobble together a Rube Goldberg contraption they called the Nemo. When the limitations of laser discs began to bite — they could fit only 30 minutes of video onto a side, and the hardware was expensive to boot — they tried to make the concept work with the even blunter instrument of a videotape player under the control of an attached computer. “What I truly believed was that interactive television could be something akin to today’s casual gaming,” says Zito. “I really believed it could be something very, very big.” But Bushnell, alas, displayed more and more skepticism as the technical challenges to the concept became more and more clear. So, Zito secured support directly from Hasbro to develop the gadget further, and he and his team of programmers and engineers split from Bushnell to work on it independently.

They decided that the best way to proceed was to create a full-length, playable game to demonstrate the potential of the Nemo. But what kind of game could they hope to make, given all the limitation of their prototype hardware?

As it happened, a game destined to go down in history as one of the schlockiest of all time was inspired by a much more high-brow piece of artistry. An experimental theatrical play called Tamara was enjoying an extended run at the time in a grand old American Legion mansion in Hollywood. Instead of sitting in one place and watching the show unfold on one stage, the audience could move around the mansion’s three floors on the trail of equally mobile actors; each spectator was encouraged to decide for herself which of the play’s many characters and sub-plots were most interesting and to see them through for herself, as it were.

Two of Zito’s associates, by the names of Rob Fulop and Jim Riley, went to see the play in question one evening. Then they saw it again, and then again. This was not atypical in itself: with so much happening simultaneously, the only way to piece together anything like the complete picture was to attend multiple performances. Yet the precise nature of Fulop and Riley’s curiosity was unusual: rather than trying to piece together the full plot, they were trying to understand how the play really worked, and how its approach might be adapted to interactive video. When they thought they had an understanding of those things, they produced a design document for something called Night Trap.

Night Trap was a bizarre creation by any standard, being the (interactive) story of a group of vampires in training who attack a mansion full of college girls having a weekend sleepover party. Not yet having won their fangs, the vampires have to suck the girls’ blood with a weird contraption of plastic tubing. These are unusually diffident — not to say nerdy — vampires: instead of overpowering the girls bodily, they’ve installed a network of surveillance cameras in the house, along with traps which they can activate remotely to capture the girls for blood extraction. The player’s role is that of a good Samaritan who has hacked into the surveillance system, with the goal of turning the tables on the vampires and catching them in their own booby traps. While by no means completely bereft of a certain creepy voyeuristic vibe — how could it be when it combined college girls in their pajamas, vampires, and a secret surveillance system? — the final script was far from sexually explicit, and likewise more silly than violent. The developers did, after all, envision the game someday being sold by Hasbro, a maker of children’s toys. Indeed, they allowed that company’s management to review the script and remove or change anything they found objectionable.

Fulop, Riley, and Zito spent sixteen days in 1987 shooting the footage for the game with a Hollywood crew that included the future cinematographer of Forrest Gump and the former producer of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The shoot wound up costing $1 million, several times the budget of even the most elaborate conventional videogames of the time.

For all the richly deserved schlocky reputation which it would later earn, Night Trap was a genuinely pioneering effort in its way. The combination of real-world footage featuring real actors with conventional graphics would become one of the dominant trends of computer gaming during the early- and mid-1990s. Many of the dubious hallmarks of this so-called “full-motion-video” era appeared for the first time in Night Trap. There was, for example, the way that it tried to make up for the cheesiness that was an inevitable result of its ultra-low cinematic budget by affecting a knowing, ironic attitude — i.e., it’s supposed to be terrible! That’s the joke? Get it? Well then, what are you complaining about? This sort of thing can work occasionally, but most of the time it just comes across as the cheaply disingenuous ploy it really is.

And then there was the use of actors who were vaguely recognizable, but not — or no longer — truly sought-after. “Interactive ‘moviegames’ were populated by performers either on their way up or on their way down the Hollywood ladder,” says Rob Fulop. “Nobody aspired to appear in a moviegame.” Night Trap‘s big catch was Dana Plato, a young actress who had had a prominent role in the hit sitcom Diff’rent Strokes from 1978 until 1986, but whose struggles with alcohol and drugs, and the erratic behavior they brought on, had now all but derailed her career. “She’d come in late and never wanted to rehearse,” remembers Fulop. “Her doing this project was obviously a step down from her previous popularity, and she didn’t make a great deal of effort to hide this fact.” This sort of thing too would become all too typical of later interactive movies.

When the shoot was complete, the developers returned to Sunnyvale to try to figure out how to turn their pile of videotapes into a playable game on the Nemo. In the best spirit of Tamara, you were supposed to be able to switch between the video feeds from eight different cameras set up around the mansion; you would need to be in just the right place at just the right time to trigger a trap and catch each of the vampires. But making this random-access concept work using the fundamentally sequential medium of videotape was, needless to say, a tall order.

Amazingly, Hasbro allowed Zito and company to shoot the footage for a second interactive movie while they were still struggling to implement their first one. Zito conceived Sewer Shark as a visual-effects extravaganza, and therefore gave the director’s chair to John Dykstra, the effects supervisor for such films as Silent Running, Star Wars, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He spent most of his time setting up shots of the tunnels down which the player would fly a spacecraft; think of an interactive-movie version of the later 3D action game Descent, if your imagination can encompass such a thing. Any way you look at it, Sewer Shark is a well-nigh ludicrous technological stew. Just as Hollywood was beginning to embrace computer-generated imagery in place of many physically-constructed special effects, Sewer Shark flipped that formulation on its head; it was filmed using old-fashioned physical scale models, which were then digitized and displayed on a computer. Shot in exotic Hawaii for reasons no one can seem to explain, the Sewer Shark footage wound up costing $2 million.

When not supervising film shoots, Zito was spending a lot of time hobnobbing with the Hollywood set, trying to interest them in a concept that still had no practical delivery device. He talked to Jane Fonda about an interactive workout video; talked to Jerry Bruckheimer about an interactive Top Gun; talked to Paramount about an interactive Star Trek; talked to the rock band Yes about an interactive music video; talked to George Miller about an interactive Mad Max; talked to ESPN about interactive sports broadcasting. He even flew to London for a meeting with Stanley Kubrick. None of it went anywhere.

It isn’t clear how much progress his technical team made on the task of turning Night Trap and Sewer Shark into playable games on the Nemo while he was away. We can say for sure, however, that their progress wasn’t fast enough for Hasbro’s taste. The latter came to suspect, by no means entirely unreasonably, that Zito was more interested in enjoying his Hollywood jet-setter lifestyle than buckling down and delivering the finished product he had promised them. They finally pulled the plug on the Nemo in 1989 — ironically, just as the evolution of computer technology, especially the onset of CD-ROM, was beginning to make what Zito had first proposed to do some three years before seem at least potentially practical. But Zito, for his part, was well aware that the science-fictional was slowly moving into the realm of the possible. He convinced Hasbro to sell him the rights and all of the footage earmarked for Night Trap and Sewer Shark for a song.

Two years later, what had once seemed so pie-in-the-sky was now striking many people who weren’t named Tom Zito as gaming’s necessary future. That year, there appeared Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, the first published game to make extensive use of filmed live-action footage. It did very, very well.

Suddenly afraid that his five-year-old brainstorm was about to take off without him, Zito founded a company called Digital Pictures. Its first objective would be to make a pair of interactive movies built around the live-action footage which he had carried away from the Nemo project.  His rhetoric, once so bizarre, was now right in line with the emerging conventional wisdom: “Ultimately, I believe the [videogame] business will be more like traditional Hollywood stuff than what’s coming out of Silicon Valley today: some dinky animated guys running around the screen. We’ll be doing interactive game shows, talk shows, dramas, sitcoms.” “Why watch a movie where you can’t have any effect over it?” asked the Digital Pictures artist Josh Solomon. “Why not be able to put your own stamp on it?”

There was one important difference to separate Digital Pictures from most of the others jumping on the full-motion-video bandwagon. These others tended to focus on the high-end personal-computer marketplace, where CD-ROM drives were slowly but steadily winning acceptance, and where the hardware in general dramatically outclassed that of the consoles. But Zito was a mass-media populist by instinct; he wanted to bring his interactive movies to the living rooms of everyone, not just to the dens, offices, and bedrooms of a privileged few.

Both Nintendo and Sega were also aware of CD-ROM, and both were contemplating whether and how they could use the technology. But the former, after first partnering with Sony to make a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, abruptly pulled out of the deal; an optical drive wouldn’t finally make it to a Nintendo console until the release of the GameCube in 2001. Nintendo’s abandonment of the field left only Sega, who planned to make a CD add-on of their own for the Genesis. So, Zito signed on with them.

Re-purposing the aged footage wasn’t easy. First it had to be digitized, then downgraded dramatically to fit a venerable console that in all truth was thoroughly unsuited to the task it had been assigned: it could display just 61 colors at a time from a palette of just 512. Compared to the full-motion-video productions on personal computers — not exactly marvels of high-fidelity in themselves — Sewer Shark on the Genesis was a bad joke. Digital Pictures programmer Ken Melville:

All our video had to be tortured, kicking and screaming, into the most horrifying, blurry, reduced-color-palette mess imaginable. I shudder to think about it. The audio, the video, the accessing of data on the sloooow-crawling 10 K per second bandwidth CD was all torturous and disastrous. The limitations presented were enormous.

The actual gameplay that was shoehorned in on top of the video was as simplistic as could be, consisting of little more than cross-hair and some grainy targets to shoot at.

Sewer Shark.

Sega’s CD add-on shipped on September 15, 1992; the two-and-a-half minute television advertisement that was rolled out to mark the occasion had cost more to make than three or four typical videogames. The gadget had sold 1.5 million units by the time anyone managed to complete the first tally. As one of the first games to be made available for Sega CD, Sewer Shark did very well. In 1993, it was bundled with the add-on for a period of time, thereby making a lot more money for Digital Pictures.

Night Trap appeared soon after Sewer Shark. It was more formally ambitious than the simple rail shooter that was Sewer Shark — the original, Tamara-inspired gameplay concept had traveled the long and winding road to the Genesis intact — but it was no more attractive to look at and no more fun to play, being in the end an exercise in trial and error and rote timing. Predictably enough, the magazine reviews fixated on the novelty of its use of video and the nubile girls it featured so prominently, and especially on Dana Plato’s starring role. Over the five years since the footage had been shot, she had become one of Hollywood’s most infamous burnouts, having recently been arrested twice: once for robbing a liquor store (“I’ve just been robbed by the girl who played Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes,” said the clerk when he phoned the police), then again for forging a drug prescription. But even her involvement constituted a paltry — not to mention rather mean-spirited — ground for playing a game, as some of the more perceptive or less beholden reviewers reluctantly acknowledged.

Night Trap. Dana Plato stands to the viewer’s left. She died of a drug overdose in 1999 at age 34, after an intensely troubled life.

Night Trap didn’t sell in particularly big numbers in comparison to its predecessor. Had it never come to a certain senator’s attention, it would doubtless have become no more than a minor footnote to gaming history, like the rest of Digital Pictures’s underwhelming output. As it was, though, it got to join Mortal Kombat as the public face of videogame depravity.



According to his own account, Joseph A. Lieberman, a United States Senator for the Democratic Party from the state of Connecticut, first heard about Mortal Kombat when his chief of staff Bill Andresen told the senator in casual conversation how his nine-year-old son had asked for a copy, and how he had refused because he had read in the newspaper that the game was “incredibly violent.” His curiosity kindled, Lieberman suggested that the two of them have a look at the game themselves. Lieberman:

I was startled. It was very violent, and rewarded violence. At the end, if you really did well, you’d get to decide how to kill the other guy, how to pull his head off. And there was all sorts of blood flying around.

Then we started to look into it, and I forget how I heard about Night Trap. I looked at that game too, and there was a classic. It ends with this attack scene on this woman in lingerie, in her bathroom. I know that the creator of the game said it was all meant to be a satire of Dracula, but nonetheless, I thought it sent out the wrong message.

Of course, the player’s objective in Night Trap was to protect the girls rather than attack them, and the nerdy trainee vampires were unusually non-violent by the traditional standards of their kind. Yet Lieberman would continue to spout misleading statements like these for months to come — before, during, and after the Senate hearing on videogame content which he instituted and oversaw.

The scene from Night Trap that got Joe Lieberman’s dander up.

In light of his manifest ignorance, many have questioned the senator’s own professed origin story of his investigation; did he and his chief of staff really have the wherewithal to go out and buy Mortal Kombat, buy or otherwise procure a Sega Genesis to play it on, and then get far enough into it to see its trademark fatalities? Tom Zito, for his part, claims that the investigation began in a very different way: that Nintendo, or one of their Washington lobbyists, arranged to show the good senator what sorts of filth their rival Sega was peddling. And indeed, the bad blood between the two companies was so pronounced that this conspiracy theory sounds more plausible than it perhaps ought to. We can say for sure only that, if Nintendo did touch off the affair in an attempt to stick it to their arch-rival, it would soon snowball hopelessly out of their control as well.

Naturally, we cannot hope to know what was really in Senator Lieberman’s mind in the midst of all this — whether he simply saw it as an easy way to win favor with his constituents (videogame players were not a large voting bloc in comparison to nervous parents and grandparents), or whether he really, truly felt the deep-seated concern he expressed on numerous occasions. In Lieberman’s defense, however, it should be noted that violent crime in the real world and its causes constituted a big part of Washington’s agenda that year and the next, in the midst of a spate of well-publicized incidents. For example, on October 1, 1993, a twelve-year-old girl named Polly Klaas was abducted from a slumber party in rural California at knife point, then murdered and buried in a shallow grave. Although the connection was never explicitly made during the Senate hearings, it isn’t a huge leap to presume that the slumber-party aspect of Night Trap may have been what tipped the balance and singled it out for so much overheated condemnation.

Whatever his motivation or combination thereof, Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information, reached out to his friend Herbert Kohl, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. The two announced a joint hearing on the subject of videogame content and its effects on the psychology of children and adolescents, advertising it as the first step toward an eventual law that would require videogame publishers to mark any of their products which contained violent and/or sexual content on their boxes.

The videogame industry was about to get its day in a decidedly hostile court, with Mortal Kombat and Night Trap in the role of its two most flagrant offenders. The games made for quite the odd couple. Mortal Kombat was, for all its envelope-pushing violence, traditionalist in spirit, engineered to appeal to the teenage boys who had always been the biggest market for videogames; Night Trap, despite its manifestly clumsy execution, was an attempt to do something genuinely new in games, with the potential to appeal to new types of players. Mortal Kombat would later be remembered as a very good game; Night Trap as a very, very bad one. Mortal Kombat was a game whose content a reasonable person could reasonably object to in at least some contexts; Night Trap was most offensive in its sheer ineptness, and was hardly the grisly interactive slasher flick which Lieberman apparently believed it to be. Nevertheless, here they both were. December 9, 1993, would change the games industry forever.

(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood by Jamie Russell, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Edge of February 1994; New York Times of October 15 1982 and September 16 1993; Retro Gamer 54; the article “Regulating Violence in Video Games: Virtually Everything” by Alex Wilcox in the Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, Volume 31, Issue 1. Online sources include Kevin D. Impellizeri’s look back at the videogame hearings, “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy” at GameSpot, “The 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming” at GameSpy, and Shannon Symonds’s blog post about Death Race at the Strong Museum of Play’s website.)

 

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Whither the Software Artist? (or, How Trip Hawkins Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Consoles)

One of the places we ran the “Can a computer make you cry?” [advertisement] was in Scientific American. Scientific American readers weren’t even playing videogames. Why the hell are you wasting any of this really expensive advertising? You’re competing with BMW for that ad.

— Trip Hawkins (EA Employee #1)

Consumers were looking for a brand signal for quality. They didn’t lionize the game makers as these creators to fawn over. They thought of the game makers almost as collaborators in their experience. So apostatizing didn’t make sense to the consumers.

— Bing Gordon (EA Employee #7)

In the ’80s that was an interesting experiment, that whole trying-to-make-them-into-rock-stars kind of thing. It was certainly a nice way to recruit top talent. But the reality is that computer programmers and artists and designers are not rock stars. It may have worked for the developers, but I don’t think it had any impact on consumers.

— Stewart Bonn (EA Employee #19)

One of the stories that gamers most love to tell each other is that of Electronic Arts’s fall from grace. If you’re sufficiently interested in gaming history to be reading this blog, you almost certainly know the story in the broad strokes: how Trip Hawkins founded EA in 1982 as a haven for “software artists” doing cutting-edge work; how he put said artists front and center in rock-star-like poses in a series of iconic advertisements, the most famous of which asked whether a computer could make you cry; how he wrote on the back of every stylish EA “album cover” not about EA as a company but as “a collection of electronic artists who share a common goal to fulfill the potential of personal computing”; and how all the idealism somehow dissipated to give us the EA of today, a shambling behemoth that crushes more clever competitors under its sheer weight as it churns out sequel after sequel, retread after retread. The exact point where EA became the personification of everything retrograde and corporate in gaming varies with the teller; perhaps the closest thing to a popular consensus is the rise of John Madden Football and EA Sports in the early 1990s, when the last vestiges of software artistry in the company’s advertisements were replaced by jocks shouting, “It’s in the game!” Regardless of the specifics, though, everyone agrees that It All Went Horribly Wrong at some point. The story of EA has become gamers’ version of a Biblical tragedy: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Of course, as soon as one starts pulling out Bible quotes, it profits to ask whether one has gone too far. And, indeed, the story of EA is often over-dramatized and over-simplified. Questions of authenticity and creativity are always fraught; to imagine that anyone is really in the arts just for the art strikes me as hopelessly naive. The EA of the early 1980s wasn’t founded by artists but rather by businessmen, backed by venture capitalists with goals of their own that had little to do with “fulfilling the potential of personal computing.” Thus, when the software-artists angle turned out not to work so well, it didn’t take them long to pivot. This, then, is the history of that pivot, and how it led to the EA we know today.


Advertising is all about image making — about making others see you in the light in which you wish to be seen. Without realizing that they were doing anything of the sort, EA’s earliest marketers cemented an image into the historical imagination at the same time that they failed in their more practical task of crafting a message that resonated with the hoped-for customers of their own time. The very same early EA advertising campaign which speaks so eloquently to so many today actually missed the mark entirely in its own day, utterly failing to set the public imagination afire with this idea of programmers and game designers as rock stars. When Trip Hawkins sent Bill Budge — the programmer of his who most naturally resembled a rock star — on an autograph-signing tour of software stores and shopping malls, it didn’t lead to any outbreak of Budgomania. “Nobody would ever show up,” remembers Budge today, still wincing at the embarrassment of sitting behind a deserted autograph booth.

Nor were customers flocking into stores to buy the games EA’s rock stars had created. Sales remained far below initial projections during the eighteen months following EA’s official launch in June of 1983, and the company skated on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy on multiple occasions. While their first year yielded the substantial hits Pinball Construction Set, Archon, and One-on-One, 1984 could boast only one comparable success story, Seven Cities of Gold. Granted, four hits in two years was more than plenty of other publishers managed, but EA had been capitalized under the expectation that their games would open up whole new demographics for entertainment software. “The idea was to make games for 28-year-olds when everybody else was making games for 13-year-olds,” says Bing Gordon, Trip Hawkins’s old university roommate and right-hand man at EA. When those 28-year-olds failed to materialize, EA was left in the lurch.

For better or for worse, One-on-One is the spiritual forefather of the unstoppable EA Sports lineup of today.

The most important architect of EA’s post-launch retrenchment was arguably neither Trip Hawkins nor Bing Gordon, but rather Larry Probst, who left the free-falling Activision to join EA as vice president for sales in 1984. Probst, who had worked at the dry-goods giants Johnson & Johnson and Clorox before joining Activision, had no particular attachment to the idea of software artists. He rather looked at the business of selling games much as he had that of selling toilet paper and bleach. He asked himself how EA could best make money in the market that existed rather than some fanciful new one they hoped to create. Steve Peterson, a product manager at EA, remembers that others “would still talk about how we were trying to create new forms of entertainment and break new boundaries.” But Probst, and increasingly Trip Hawkins as well, had the less high-minded goal of “going public and being a billion-dollar company.”

Probst had the key insight that distribution, more so than software artists or perhaps even product quality in the abstract, was the key to success in an industry that, following a major downturn in home computing in general in 1984, was only continuing to get more competitive. EA therefore spurned the existing distribution channels, which were nearly monopolized by SoftSel, the great behind-the-scenes power in the software industry to which everyone else was kowtowing; SoftSel’s head, Robert Leff, was the most important person in software that no one outside the industry had ever heard of. Instead of using SoftSel, EA set up their own distribution network piece by painful piece, beginning by cold-calling the individual stores and offering cut-rate deals in order to tempt them into risking the wrath of Leff and ordering from another source.

Then, once a reasonable distribution network was in place, EA leveraged the hell out of it by setting up a program of so-called “Affiliated Labels” — other publishers who would pay EA instead of a conventional distributor like SoftSel to get their products onto store shelves. It was a well-nigh revolutionary idea in game publishing, attractive to smaller publishers because EA was ready and able to help out with a whole range of the logistical difficulties they were always facing, from packaging and disk duplication to advertising campaigns. For EA, meanwhile, the Affiliated Labels yielded huge financial rewards and placed them in the driver’s seat of much of the industry, with the power of life and death over many of their smaller ostensible competitors.

Unsurprisingly, Activision, the only other publisher with comparable distributional clout, soon copied the idea, setting up a similar program of their own. But even as they did so, EA, seemingly always one step ahead, was becoming the first American publisher to send games — both their own and those of others — directly to Europe without going through a European intermediary like Britain’s U.S. Gold label.

There was always something a bit contrived, in that indelible Silicon Valley way, about how EA chose to present themselves to the world. Here we have Bing Gordon, head of technology Greg Riker, and producer Joe Ybarra indulging in some of the creative play which, an accompanying article is at pains to tell us, was constantly going on around the office.

Larry Probst’s strategy of distribution über alles worked a treat, yielding explosive growth that more than made up for the company’s early struggles. In 1986, EA became the biggest computer-game publisher in the United States and the world, with annual revenues of $30 million. Their own games were doing well, but were assuming a very different character from the “simple, hot, and deep” ideal of the launch — a phrase Trip Hawkins had once loved to apply to games that were less stereotypically nerdy than the norm, that he imagined would be suitable for busy young adults with a finger on the pulse of hip pop culture. Now, having failed to attract that new demographic, EA adjusted their product line to appeal to those who were already buying computer games. A case in point was The Bard’s Tale, EA’s biggest hit of 1985, a hardcore CRPG that might take a hundred hours or more to complete — fodder for 13-year-olds with long summer vacations to fill rather than 28-year-olds with jobs and busy social calendars.

If “simple, hot, and deep” and programmers as rock stars had been two of the three pillars of EA’s launch philosophy, the last was the one written into Hawkins’s original mission statement as “stay with floppy-disk-based computers only.” Said statement had been written, we should remember, just as the first great videogame fad, fueled by the Atari VCS, was passing its peak and beginning the long plunge into what would go down in history as the Great Videogame Crash of 1983. At the time, it certainly wasn’t only the new EA who believed that the toy-like videogame consoles were the past, and that more sophisticated personal computers, running more sophisticated games, were the future. “I think that computer games are fundamentally different from videogames,” said Hawkins on the Computer Chronicles television show. “It becomes a question of program size, when you want to know how good a program can I have, how much can I do with it, and how long will it take before I’m bored with it.” This third pillar of EA’s strategy would take a bit longer to fall than the others, but fall it would.

The origins of EA’s loss of faith in the home computer in general as the ultimate winner of the interactive-entertainment platform wars can ironically be traced to their decision to wholeheartedly endorse one computer in particular. In October of 1984, Greg Riker, EA’s director of technology, got the chance to evaluate a prototype of Commodore’s upcoming Amiga. His verdict upon witnessing this first truly multimedia personal computer, with its superlative graphics and sound, was that this was the machine that could change everything, and that EA simply had to get involved with it as quickly as possible. He convinced Trip Hawkins of his point of view, and Hawkins managed to secure Amiga Prototype Number 12 for the company within weeks. In the months that followed, EA worked to advance the Amiga with if anything even more enthusiasm than Commodore themselves: developing libraries and programming frameworks which they shared with their outside developers; writing tools internally, including what would become the Amiga’s killer app, Deluxe Paint; documenting the Interchange File Format, a set of standard specifications for sharing pictures, sounds, animations, and music across applications. All of these things and more would remain a part of the Amiga platform’s basic software ecosystem throughout its existence.

When the Amiga finally started shipping late in 1985, EA actually made a far better public case for the machine than Commodore, taking out a splashy editorial-style advertisement just inside the cover of the premiere issue of the new AmigaWorld magazine. It showed the eight Amiga games EA would soon release and explained “why Electronic Arts is committed to the Amiga,” the latter headline appearing above a photograph of Trip Hawkins with his arm proprietorially draped over the Amiga on his desk.

Trip Hawkins with an Amiga

But it all turned into an immense disappointment. Initially, Commodore priced the Amiga wrong and marketed it worse, and even after they corrected some of their worst mistakes it perpetually under-performed in the American marketplace. For Hawkins and EA, the whole episode planted the first seeds of doubt as to whether home computers — which at the end of the day still were computers, requiring a degree of knowledge to operate and associated in the minds of most people more with work than pleasure — could really be the future of interactive entertainment as a mass-media enterprise. If a computer as magnificent as the Amiga couldn’t conquer the world, what would it take?

Perhaps it would take a piece of true consumer electronics, made by a company used to selling televisions and stereos to customers who expected to be able to just turn the things on and enjoy them — a company like, say, Philips, who were working on a new multimedia set-top box for the living room that they called CD-I. The name arose from the fact that it used the magical new technology of CD-ROM for storage, something EA had been begging Commodore to bring to the Amiga to no avail. EA embraced CD-I with the same enthusiasm they had recently shown for the Amiga, placing Greg Riker in personal charge of creating tools and techniques for programming it, working more as partners in CD-I’s development with Philips than as a mere third-party publisher.

Once again, however, it all came to nought. CD-I turned into one of the most notorious slow-motion fiascos in the history of the games industry, missing its originally planned release date in the fall of 1987 and then remaining vaporware for years on end. In early 1989, EA finally ran out of patience, mothballing all work on the platform unless and until it became a viable product; Greg Riker left the company to go work for Microsoft on their own CD-ROM research.

CD-I had cost EA a lot of money to no tangible result whatsoever, but it does reveal that the idea of gaming on something other than a conventional computer was no longer anathema to them. In fact, the year in which EA gave up on CD-I would prove the most pivotal of their entire history. We should therefore pause here to examine their position in 1989 in a bit more detail.

Despite the frustrating failure of the Amiga and CD-I to open a new golden age of interactive entertainment, EA wasn’t doing badly at all. Following years of steady growth, annual revenue had now reached $63 million, up 27 percent from 1988. EA was actively distributing about 100 titles under their own imprint, and 250 more under the imprint of the various Affiliated Labels, who had become absolutely key to their business model, accounting for some 45 percent of their total revenues. About 80 percent of their revenues still came from the United States, with 15 percent coming from Europe — where EA had set up a semi-independent subsidiary, the Langley, England-based EA Europe, in 1987 — and the remainder from the rest of the world. The company was extremely diversified. They were producing software for ten different computing platforms worldwide, had released 40 separate titles that had earned them at least $1 million each, and had no single title that accounted for more than 6 percent of their total revenues.

What we have here, then, is a very healthy business indeed, with multiple revenue streams and cash in the bank. The games they released were sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes mediocre; EA’s quality standards weren’t notably better or worse than the rest of their industry. “We tried to create a brand that fell somewhere between Honda and Mercedes,” admits Bing Gordon, “but a lot of the time we shipped Chevy.” Truth be told, even in the earliest days the rhetoric surrounding EA’s software artists had been a little overblown; many of the games their rock stars came up with were far less innovative than the advertising that accompanied them. The genius of Larry Probst had been to explicitly recognize that success or failure as a games publisher had as much to do with other factors as it did with the actual games you released.

For all their success, though, no one at EA was feeling particularly satisfied with their position. On the contrary: 1989 would go down in EA’s history as the year of “crisis.” As successful as they had become selling home-computer software, they remained big fish in a rather small pond, a situation out of keeping with the sense of overweening ambition that had been a part of the company’s DNA since its founding. In 1989, about 4 million computers were being used to play games on a regular or semi-regular basis in American homes, enough to fuel a computer-game industry worth an estimated $230 million per year. EA alone owned more than 25 percent of that market, more than any competitor. But there was another, related market in which they had no presence at all: that of the videogame consoles, which had returned from the dead to haunt them even as they were consolidating their position as the biggest force in computer games. The country was in the grip of Nintendo mania. About 22 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems were already in American homes — a figure accounting for 24 percent of all American households — and cartridge-based videogames were selling to the tune of $1.6 billion per year.

Unlike many of their peers, EA hadn’t yet suffered all that badly under the Nintendo onslaught, largely because they had already diversified away from the Commodore 64, the low-end 8-bit computer which had been the largest gaming platform in the world just a couple of years before, and which the NES was now in the process of annihilating. But still, the future of the computer-games industry in general felt suddenly in doubt in a way that it hadn’t since at least the great home-computer downturn of 1984. A sizable coalition inside EA, including Larry Probst and most of the board of directors, pushed Trip Hawkins hard to get EA’s games onto the consoles. Fearing a coup, he finally came around. “We had to go into the [console-based] videogame business, and that meant the world of mass-market,” Hawkins remembers. “There were millions of customers we were going to reach.”

But through which door should they make their entrance? Accustomed to running roughshod over his Affiliated Labels, Hawkins wasn’t excited about the prospect of entering Nintendo’s walled garden, where the shoe would be on the other foot, thanks to that company’s infamously draconian rules for its licensees. Nintendo’s standard contract demanded that they receive the first $12 from every game a licensee sold, required every game to go through an exhaustive review process before publication, and placed strict limits on how many games a licensee was allowed to publish per year and how many units they were allowed to manufacture of each one. For EA, accustomed to being the baddest hombre in the Wild West that was the computer-game marketplace, this was well-nigh intolerable. Bing Gordon insists even today that, thanks to all of the fees and restrictions, no one other than Nintendo was doing much more than breaking even on the NES during this, the period that would go down in history as the platform’s golden age.

So, EA decided instead to back a dark horse: the much more modern Sega Genesis, which hadn’t even been released yet in North America. It was built around the same 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU found in computers like the Commodore Amiga and Apple Macintosh, with audiovisual capabilities not all that far removed from the likes of the Amiga. The Genesis would give designers and programmers who were used to the affordances of full-fledged computers a far less limiting platform than the NES to work with, and it offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a brand-new market, as opposed to the saturated NES platform. The only problem was that Sega’s licensing fees were comparable to those of Nintendo, even though they could only offer their licensees access to a much more uncertain pool of customers.

Determined to play hardball, Hawkins had a team of engineers reverse-engineer the Genesis, sufficient to let them write games for it with or without Sega’s official development kit. Then he met with Sega again, telling them that, if they refused to adjust their licensing terms, he would release games on the console without their blessing, forcing them to initiate an ugly court battle of the sort that was currently raging between Nintendo and Atari if they wished to bring him to heel. That, he was gambling, was expense and publicity of a sort which Sega simply couldn’t afford. And Sega evidently agreed with his assessment; they accepted a royalty rate half that being demanded by Nintendo. By this roundabout method, EA became the first major American publisher to support the new console, and from that point forward the two companies became, as Hawkins puts it, “good partners.”

EA initially invested $2.5 million in ten games for the Genesis, some of them original to the console, some ports of their more popular computer games. They started shipping the first of them in June of 1990, ten months after the Genesis itself had first gone on sale in the United States. This first slate of EA Genesis titles arrived in a marketplace that was still starving for quality games, just as Hawkins had envisioned it would be. Among them was the game destined to become the face of the new, mass-market-oriented EA: John Madden Football, a more action-oriented re-imagining of a 1988 computer game of the same name.

John Madden Football debuted as a rather cerebral, tactics-heavy computer game in 1988, just another in an EA tradition of famous-athlete-endorsed sports games stretching back to 1983’s (Dr. J and Larry Bird Go) One-on-One. No one in 1988 could have imagined what it would come to mean in the years to come for either its publisher or its spokesman/mascot, both of whom would ride it to iconic heights in American pop culture.

The Sega Genesis marked the third time EA had taken a leap of faith on a new platform. It was the first time, however, that their faith paid off. About 25 percent of the games EA sold in 1990 were for the Genesis. And when the console really started to take off in 1991, fueled not least by their own games, EA was there to reap the rewards. In that year, four of the ten best-selling Genesis games were published by EA. At the peak of their dominance, EA alone was publishing about 35 percent of all the games sold for the Genesis. Absent the boost their games gave it early on, it’s highly questionable whether the Genesis would have succeeded at all in the United States.

In the beginning, few of EA’s outside developers had been terribly excited about writing for the consoles. One of them remembers Hawkins “reading us the riot act” just to get them onboard. Indeed, Hawkins claims today that about 15 percent of EA’s internal employees were so unhappy with the new direction that they quit. Certainly his latest rhetoric could hardly have been more different from that of 1983:

I knew we had to let go of our attachment to machines that the public did not want to buy, and support the hardware that the public would embrace. I made this argument on the grounds of delivering customer satisfaction, and how quality is in the eye of the beholder. If the customer buys a Genesis, we want to give him the best we can for the machine he bought and not resent the consumer for not buying a $1000 computer.

By this point, Hawkins had finally bitten the bullet and done a deal with Nintendo, who, in the face of multiple government investigations and lawsuits over their business practices, were becoming somewhat more generous with both their competitors and licensees. When games like Skate or Die, a port of a Commodore 64 hit that just happened to be perfect for the Nintendo and Sega demographics as well, started to sell in serious numbers on the consoles, Hawkins’s developers’ aversion started to fade in the face of all that filthy lucre. Soon the developers of Skate or Die were happily plunging into a sequel which would be a console exclusive.

Even the much-dreaded oversight role played by Nintendo, in which they reviewed every game before allowing it to be published, proved less onerous than expected. When Will Harvey, the designer of an action-adventure called The Immortal, finally steeled himself to look at Nintendo’s critique thereof, he was happily surprised to find the list of “suggestions” to be very helpful on the whole, demonstrating real sensitivity to the effect he was trying to achieve. Even Bing Gordon, who had been highly skeptical of getting into bed with Nintendo, had to admit in the end that “the rating system is fair. On a scale from zero to a hundred, where zero meant the system was totally manipulated for Nintendo’s self-interest and a hundred meant that it was absolutely democratic, they’d probably get a ninety. I’ve seen a little bit of self-interest, but this is America, the land of self-interest.”

Although EA cut their Nintendo teeth on the NES, it was on the long-awaited follow-up console, 1991’s Super Nintendo, that they really began to thrive. That machine boasted capabilities similar to those of the Sega Genesis, meaning EA already had games ready to port over, along with developers with considerable expertise in writing for a more advanced species of console. Just in time for the Christmas of 1991, EA released a new version of John Madden FootballJohn Madden Football ’92 — simultaneously on the Super Nintendo and the Genesis. The sequel had been created, according to the recollections of several EA executives, against the advice of market researchers and retailers: “All you’re going to do is obsolete our old game.” But Trip Hawkins remembered how much, as a kid, he had loved the Strat-O-Matic Football board game, for which a new set of player and team cards was issued every year just before the beginning of football season, ensuring that you could always recreate in the board game the very same season you were watching every Sunday on television. So, he ignored the objections of the researchers and the retailers, and John Madden Football ’92 became an enormous hit, by far the biggest EA had yet enjoyed on any platform — thus inaugurating, for better or for worse, the tradition of annual versions of gaming’s most evergreen franchise. Like clockwork, we’ve gotten a new Madden every single year since, a span of time that numbers a quarter-century and change as of this writing.

All of this had a transformative effect on EA’s bottom line, bringing on their biggest growth spurt yet. Revenues increased from $78 million in 1990 to $113 million in 1991; then they jumped to $175 million in 1992, accompanied by a two-for-one stock split that was necessary to keep the share price, which had been at $10 just a few years before, from exceeding $50. In that year, six of the fifteen most popular console games, across all platforms, were published by EA. Their Sega Genesis games alone generated $77 million, 18 percent more than the entirety of the company’s product portfolio had managed in 1989. This was also the first year that EA’s console games in the aggregate outsold their offerings for computers. They were leaving no doubt now as to where their primary loyalty lay: “The 16-bit consoles are far better for games than PCs. The Genesis is a very sophisticated machine…” The disparity between the two sides of the company’s business would only continue to get more pronounced, as EA’s sales jumped by an extraordinary 70 percent — to $298 million — in 1993, a spurt fueled entirely by console-game sales.

But, despite all their success on the consoles, EA — and especially their founder, Trip Hawkins — continued to chafe under the restrictions of the walled-garden model of software distribution. Accordingly, Hawkins put together a group inside EA to research the potential for a CD-ROM-based multimedia set-top box of their own, one that would be used for more than just playing games — sort of a CD-I done right. “The Japanese videogame companies,” he said, “are too shortsighted to see where this is going.” In contrast to their walled gardens, his box would be as open as possible. Rather than a single new hardware product, it would be a set of hardware specifications and an operating system which manufacturers could license, which would hopefully result in a situation similar to the MS-DOS marketplace, where lots of companies competed and innovated within the bounds of an established standard. The marketplace for games and applications as well on the new machine would be far less restricted than the console norm, with a more laissez-faire attitude to content and a royalty fee of just $3 per unit sold.

In 1991, EA spun off the venture under the name of 3DO. Hawkins turned most of his day-to-day responsibilities at EA over to Larry Probst in order to take personal charge of his new baby, which took tangible form for the first time with the release of the Panasonic “Real 3DO Player” in late 1993. It and other implementations of the 3DO technology managed to sell 500,000 units worldwide — 200,000 of them in North America — by January of 1995. Yet those numbers were still a pittance next to those of the dedicated game consoles, and the story of 3DO became one of constant flirtations with success that never quite led to that elusive breakthrough moment. As 3DO struggled, Hawkins’s relations with his old company worsened. He believed they had gone back on promises to support his new venture wholeheartedly; “I didn’t feel like I was leaving EA, but it turned out that way,” he says today with lingering bitterness. The long, frustrating saga of 3DO wouldn’t finally straggle to a bankruptcy until 2003.

EA, meanwhile, was flying ever higher absent their founder. Under Larry Probst — always the most hard-nosed and sober-minded of the executive staff, the person most laser-focused on the actual business of selling videogames — EA cemented their reputation as the conservative, risk-averse giant of their industry. This new EA was seemingly the polar opposite of the company that had once asked with almost painful earnestness if a computer could make you cry. And yet, paradoxically, it was a place still inhabited by a surprising number of the people who had come up with that message. Most prominent among them was Bing Gordon, who notes cryptically today only that “people’s ideals get tested in the face of love or money.” Part of the problem — assuming one judges EA’s current less-than-boldly-innovative lineup of franchises to be a problem — may be a simple buildup of creative cruft that has resulted from being in business for so long. Every franchise that debuts in inspiration and innovation, then goes on to join John Madden Football on the list of EA perennials, sucks some of the bandwidth away that might otherwise have been devoted to the next big innovator.

In the summer of 1987, when EA was still straddling the line between their old personality and their new, Trip Hawkins wrote the following lines in their official newsletter — lines which evince the keenly felt tension between art and commerce that has become the defining aspect of EA’s corporate history for so many in the years since:

Unfortunately, simply being creative doesn’t always mean you’ll be wildly successful. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. Lots of people would still rather go see Porky’s Revenge IV, ignoring well-produced movies like Amadeus or Chariots of Fire. As a result, film producers take fewer risks, and we get less variety, and pretty soon the Porky’s and Rambo clones are all you can find on a Friday night. Software developers have the same problem. (To this day, all of us M.U.L.E. fans wonder why the entire world hasn’t fallen in love with our favorite game.)

The only way to solve the problem is to do it together. On our end, we’ll keep innovating, researching, experimenting with new ways to use this new medium; on your end, you can support our efforts by taking an occasional risk, by buying something new and different… maybe Robot Rascals, or Make Your Own Murder Party.

You may be very pleasantly surprised — and you’ll help our software artists live to innovate another day.

Did EA go the direction they did because of gamers’ collective failure to support their most innovative, experimental work? Does it even matter if so? The more pragmatic among us might note that the EA of today is delivering games that millions upon millions of people clearly want to play, and where’s the harm in that?

Still, as we look upon this industry that has so steadfastly refused to grow up in so many ways, there remain always those pictures of EA’s first generation of software artists — pictures that, yes, are a little pretentious and a lot contrived, but that nevertheless beckon us to pursue higher ideals. They’ve taken on an identity of their own now, quite apart from the history of the company that once splashed them across the pages of glossy lifestyle magazines. Long may they continue to inspire.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff; Harvard Business School’s case study “Electronic Arts in 1995”; ACE of April 1990; Amazing Computing of July 1992; Computer Gaming World of March 1988, October 1988, and June 1989; MicroTimes of April 1986; The One of November 1988; Electronic Arts’s newsletter Farther from Summer 1987; AmigaWorld premiere issue; materials relating to the Software Publishers Association included in the Brøderbund archive at the Strong Museum of Play; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Computer Games.” Online sources include “We See Farther — A History of Electronic Arts” at Gamasutra, “How Electronic Arts Lost Its Soul” at Polygon, and Funding Universe‘s history of Electronic Arts.)

 
 

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A Tale of the Mirror World, Part 7: Winners and Losers

Hillary Clinton plays with her Game Boy on Air Force One in 1993. While history hasn’t recorded with certainty what game she was playing, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts it was Tetris.

Atari had high hopes for the superlative implementation of Tetris they released for the Nintendo Entertainment System on May 17, 1989, and its initial performance fulfilled all of them, more than justifying their ambitious opening production run of 300,000 cartridges. Indeed, in the first month alone, fueled by positive press and even more positive word of mouth, the Tengen Tetris burned through half of that stock, with sales increasing week over week. Atari clearly had the beginnings of a massive hit on their hands — but not if Nintendo could prevent it.

Nintendo requested that Judge Fern Smith, whose San Francisco courtroom would be the home of most of the legal proceedings in the war between them and Atari, issue a preliminary injunction barring Atari from continuing to sell Tetris until the questions surrounding the rights to it had been fully resolved. Judge Smith agreed to allow the two sides to argue their cases for or against such an injunction beginning on June 15. In the scant few weeks allowed to them, the two companies’ legal teams scrambled to collect documents and depositions in the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Nikoli Belikov, Alexey Pajitnov, and the other Russians associated with ELORG thus got to enjoy the novel experience of being interviewed by opposing teams of American lawyers.

The current proceedings were not a full trial on the issue of the rights to the NES Tetris; that wasn’t expected to begin for months, and could then take more months to bring to a final verdict. This preliminary hearing dealt only with the question of whether Atari should be allowed to continue to sell their Tetris over the course of all those months. If Judge Smith thought it likely that Atari would prevail at the full trial, she could give them permission to do so. If she thought the opposite, she could order the Tengen Tetris pulled from the market for the interim.

When in-court arguments began, Atari pressed two separate lines of defense against Nintendo’s charge that the Tetris rights they claimed to own were ill-gotten. They hoped at least one of them would stick.

One line of defense accepted for the sake of argument the definition of “computer systems” as “PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard, and operation system” which was found in the revised contract Robert Stein had signed with ELORG the previous February. The NES did in fact — or at any rate potentially could — meet this definition, Atari argued. For proof, they looked to the console’s Japanese incarnation. There it was known, conveniently for Atari’s purposes, as the Nintendo Famicom, short for “Family Computer.” As that name would imply, Nintendo’s long-term goal had always been to turn the platform into more than just a game console. As far back as 1984, they had started selling an add-on kit called Family BASIC, an implementation of the BASIC programming language which came complete with a keyboard for typing in code. From 1986 on, it had been possible to purchase a disk system for the Famicom, which could be used for saving one’s BASIC programs as well as running commercial software sold on this alternative media. Thus a Famicom could be configured in such a way as to tick most of the boxes in the revised contract’s definition of a computer system. Should Judge Smith need more evidence, Atari pointed out that just the previous year Nintendo of Japan had introduced the Family Computer Communications Network System, a modem allowing Nintendo owners to take their machines online — albeit, in keeping with Nintendo’s walled-garden philosophy, only to access Nintendo’s own network. Once online, a Famicom could be used to play games with others, but could also be used to access a whole range of other information and services, from an encyclopedia to stock reports, from a travel agency to mail-order retail kiosks.

Sure, these things had only happened in Japan to date, but the North American NES was at bottom the same machine as the Japanese Famicom. All signs pointed to the NES as well being given capabilities that moved it from the category of game console to that of full-fledged home computer. For evidence of that, one needed look no further than Nintendo’s most recent annual report, where plans for a North American version of a Nintendo-branded online service featured prominently: “By employing the Nintendo Entertainment System as a domestic communications terminal, utilizing regular telephone lines, and the establishing of a large-scale network which to this point has been inconceivable, we plan to provide a vital supply of information for the domestic lifestyle in the fields of entertainment, finance, securities, and health management, to mention but a few.” “In court,” said an Atari spokesman, “Nintendo went to great lengths to say that the NES was a toy and its cartridges were the equivalent of Barbie’s arms and legs, but at the same time they were signing up AT&T to use the machine for stock reports. There is a Nintendo computer network in Japan and one planned for the United States. Sounds like a computer to me.”

If Judge Smith was in doubt how seriously Nintendo’s more grandiose schemes should be taken, she needed only ask the Software Publishers Association. The American software industry lived in terror of this potential Nintendo network, as it did of all of Nintendo’s much-rumored plans to use their game console as a Trojan Horse for bringing the walled-garden model of a software marketplace to applications other than games. If and when brought to fruition, such plans might force the entire industry to kowtow to the whims of this one foreign company. Thus the SPA’s support of Atari’s efforts to break into Nintendo’s extant walled garden of videogames by force, before it was too late.

In response to Atari’s claim that the NES effectively was a computer system, Nintendo noted that the contract which they claimed gave them rather than Atari the rights to make Tetris for the NES had been signed between ELORG and Nintendo of America, not Nintendo of Japan; the version of Tetris available for the Famicom in Japan was made by Henk Rogers’s Bullet-Proof Software, and its legitimacy wasn’t an issue to be decided in Judge Smith’s courtroom. Whatever its technical similarities to the Famicom, the North American NES was a separate product, and none of the Japanese accessories which could be construed as turning the Famicom into a “real” computer were available for the NES. If such accessories should become available in the future, the argument might be revisited, but right now the court should deal only in actualities, not hypotheticals.

For their other line of defense, Atari fielded the assertion that the revisions made to the original contract with Robert Stein had been made in bad faith, and that Stein had in fact been tricked into signing the contract. The Russians had originally intended, Atari argued, to license all of the rights to Stein and be done with it before they realized what a big seller the game had the potential to become. When they saw the opportunity to make more money through a deal with Nintendo, they had tried to pull a fast one to duck out of the first agreement. Stein himself testified to all of this in his deposition. Atari’s Dan Van Elderen, who had recently replaced Randy Broweleit at the head of the Tengen subsidiary, claimed the Russians “knew they had sold all those rights until they figured out, counseled by Henk Rogers and Nintendo, that there was a loophole. They realized they could have gotten a lot more money, so they double-dealt us all.” “Something went on between the Russian author and Nintendo,” said Atari’s president Hideyuki Nakajima in a deposition that might have come across better had he shown Alexey Pajitnov the respect of learning his name. “Nintendo knew we had the license, and it urged us to go forward with the game. Nintendo only cared once we filed the antitrust suit against them. They went after us. Howard Lincoln and Arakawa wanted to stop us. It was revenge.”

Nintendo yielded no ground to this argument either. They trotted out depositions from Alexey Pajitnov, Alexander Alexinko, Nikoli Belikov, and others at ELORG, all testifying that they had always understood the contract with Stein as covering only full-fledged personal computers, and had created the revised version merely to clarify what had always been the case. Furthermore, Stein had been given ample time to review this clarified version of the contract, and had signed it of his own free will.

As anyone who has followed the long and winding story of the Tetris negotiations to this point must acknowledge, neither side was presenting anything close to the unvarnished truth. Nevertheless, Judge Smith, who wasn’t privy to the inside details of the case in the way that we are today, had a hard time getting past the presence of a signed contract clearly stating that the rights Stein had licensed applied only to personal computers — which she judged that the NES, whatever it might become in the future, wasn’t as of June of 1989. On June 21, she handed the devastating news to Atari: they must immediately cease manufacturing and selling the Tengen Tetris, unless and until their right to do so was affirmed by the trial which was to follow later in the year. In the meantime, all unsold copies were to be recalled from the retail pipeline and locked away in a warehouse under the supervision of the court.

In a telling sign of which way the winds were blowing, Judge Smith issued no injunction against Nintendo releasing their own NES version of Tetris while both sides prepared for the full trial. But, perhaps wary of attracting her ire when she seemed to be favoring their side, Nintendo opted to hold their version in abeyance as well. Whose Tetris would make it permanently onto store shelves would be decided by a trial which was scheduled to begin in November. Until then, Tetris on the NES would remain in a tense state of stasis.

As the trial date drew near, Nintendo flew Nikoli Belikov to California to become their most important witness. The excitement of a free trip to the Soviet Union’s vision of a Mirror World was rather dampened by the rest of his circumstances. The pressure from Robert Maxwell’s allies inside the Kremlin hadn’t eased. Belikov faced the prospect of losing his career or possibly even his freedom if things went badly in that San Francisco courtroom. “Before my departure, I was invited into the State Committee for Computer Technology,” he remembers, “and they said, if you lose this lawsuit a special commission will be created who will look into how many millions of dollars the Soviet state has lost due to your reckless actions.” Belikov had known his fair share of bureaucratic scuffles during his day, but he had never felt so exposed as he did now. He joked darkly with his new Nintendo friends that if things went south he might just have to defect.

He needn’t have worried; Nintendo’s confidence that Judge Smith was leaning in their direction proved well-founded. The first day of the trial — November 13, 1989 — was a dream for Nintendo and a nightmare for Atari. Judge Smith came into the courtroom that morning only briefly, to announce that, having reviewed the evidence that had already been submitted, she saw no need to hear from witnesses or otherwise go through the motions of a full trial. She announced a summary judgment declaring Nintendo to be entirely in the right, Atari entirely in the wrong. The former was free to release their NES version of Tetris at their convenience, while the latter was to destroy their warehoused copies of the game forthwith. After months of preparation and buildup, the “trial” was over well before lunchtime. Atari announced that they would appeal the summary judgment, as you do in such circumstances, but soon decided that doing so would just mean more lawyers’ fees down the drain.

So, the judgment was allowed to stand, and the remaining copies of the Tengen Tetris were destroyed. Thanks to their relative scarcity as well as their sheer quality as the best implementation of Tetris ever to grace the NES, those copies which were sold during the one month the game spent on the market have become collectors’ items today, fetching prices of $100 or more.

For the Nintendo/ELORG camp, it was all over but the celebrations. “It made both Mr. Arakawa and I feel wonderful, just great” says Howard Lincoln. “There was jubilation,” says Henk Rogers. Rogers took Belikov out on the town. “I remember he turned up the stereo. We were breaking all the laws,” says Belikov. “He was speeding around San Francisco on the hilly streets. I was, honestly speaking, still in shock. Everything was happening in slow motion. The joy came a lot later. The fear started to go. I could go… I could go back!”

When Belikov did go back to Moscow, the money that came flowing the Russians’ way thanks to the deals he had made was finally enough to quiet the storm that had been battering at ELORG’s doors for so long. Robert Maxwell came to ascribe his friend Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to deliver on his promise to oust “the Japanese company” to his need to placate certain factions within the Kremlin in order to maintain his grip on the General Secretary post: “He said other people in the government felt strongly that it should go the other way, so we stopped.” After threatening to create an international political scandal out of the issue, Maxwell allowed cooler heads to prevail in the end, washing his hands of the whole matter in that way that only the very rich are generally empowered to do. “You take your lumps along the way,” he said with a shrug. As big a deal as Tetris was in the realm of videogames, it was small potatoes in the context of his overall business empire.

And so, not without a whiff of anticlimax, the final questions about who was the rightful owner of Tetris in each of its incarnations were definitively resolved. ELORG, Bullet-Proof, and Nintendo were the winners, the new order they had sculpted in February and March of 1989 having been given the stamp of approval of an American court. Atari, Stein’s Andromeda Software, and Mirrorsoft were the losers. Somewhere in between was Spectrum Holobyte, who had managed — as much due to circumstance as conscious choice — to sit out the conflict as something of a neutral party, and was rewarded by being allowed to continue enjoying the strong sales of the North American personal-computer version of Tetris. Those sales, which would ultimately total several hundred thousand, might not have been a patch on the numbers the NES version would soon be racking up, but they suited a small computer-game publisher like Spectrum Holobyte just fine.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris was inferior to Tengen’s, but was good enough to get the job done.

As for the right and wrong of it all… well, the ethical waters surrounding Tetris had been muddy virtually from the moment Robert Stein had seen Vadim Gerasimov’s implementation of the game running on a computer in Budapest and tried to buy it from his Hungarian programmers without acknowledging where it had actually come from. Still, whomever we decide to label as the heroes and villains of this twisted tale, and in whatever ethical light we choose to see the other aspects of Atari’s war against Nintendo, it’s hard not to feel that Atari got a raw deal when it came to Tetris. They licensed the rights in good faith and created a superlative version of the game, only to be forced to pay for the sins of others. But all’s fair in love and (business) war. “It was revenge,” says Howard Lincoln of spoiling Atari’s plans and spiriting away what would go on to become the most popular videogame in history. “And you know how sweet revenge can be.” I’m not sure I do, actually — but I have a feeling that Howard Lincoln does.

Nintendo’s NES Tetris hit the market within days of the summary judgment, hoping to capitalize on whatever was left of the Christmas rush. The game would spend a year on the NES top-ten chart and sell at least 6 million copies over the course of its unusually long commercial lifetime. Yet, just as Lincoln, Arakawa, and Rogers had all suspected, and despite all the drama that had surrounded its release, this version of Tetris didn’t turn out to be the one that mattered most.

The Nintendo Game Boy had arrived in North American stores near the end of the summer of 1989, just in time to create a major headache for the teachers of all those members of Generation Nintendo who headed back to school with the gadgets in their backpacks. Game Boy would go on to become Nintendo’s second massive success story. In fact, it would become even more massive a success story than the first, selling almost 120 million units — roughly twice the total worldwide sales of the NES and Famicom lines — over the course of more than a decade in production.

For the first handful of those years, every single one of the millions upon millions of Game Boys that were sold in North America and Europe included a copy of Tetris. It was thus the Game Boy that spread Tetris absolutely everywhere, making it popular on a scale that no videogame had ever managed before nor has ever quite managed since. The irony in this is rich. While everyone’s attention had been focused on the grand legal showdown between Nintendo and Atari, the handheld Tetris, the rights to which had never been seriously disputed by anyone since Henk Rogers had picked them up on his first visit to Moscow, was the Tetris which ultimately proved to be the most important by far.

The Nintendo Game Boy Tetris, by far the most successful and historically important version of all.

In discussing such a divine synergy as that enjoyed by the Game Boy and Tetris, it’s impossible to state precisely which half of the equation got more out of the deal. Still, the preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Tetris gave at least as much as it got. In the process, it did nothing less than identify a whole new potential market for videogames.

Nintendo of America’s success to date had been predicated on knowing exactly who constituted the natural market for their games, and targeting that market with pinpoint precision. Nintendo Power, the lifeline that linked the Nintendo executive suites to the youthful Generation Nintendo, looked not at all different from other magazines aimed at teens and preteens, full of exclamation points and eye-popping splashes of color plastered across every page. A closer look at the contents only cemented the impression: alongside articles about the games themselves were profiles of teen pop stars like Debbie Gibson and earnest admonitions not to let playing Nintendo supersede doing homework. While a story might occasionally surface, in Nintendo Power or for that matter in a newspaper, about a sheepish parent who had somehow picked up a Super Mario Bros. obsession, such anecdotes were amusing for the very reason that they were such an exception to the demographic rule.

But as the Game Boy’s sales only continued to increase following a launch that had been explosive beyond even Nintendo’s dearest hopes, the company’s customer surveys began to reveal a curious piece of information: many, many adults were playing with the Game Boys they had bought for their children as much or more than said children were. The adults in question were largely well-educated professionals who would never have dreamed of darkening the doors of an arcade or picking up an NES controller. Yet here they were, playing Game Boy. And, it didn’t take much further probing to reveal, the game they were almost universally playing was Tetris.

Surprised by this development but far from averse to it, Nintendo began aiming some of their marketing fusillade at adults. Game Boy advertisements were soon appearing in in-flight magazines, targeted explicitly at the business travelers leafing through their pages:

If you’re reading this ad, you’re very bored. You’ve mastered the safety instructions in every language, and the flight attendant won’t give you any more almonds. Now what? Game Boy won’t ask you for your dessert, and fits just as neatly into the mouth of that screaming child beside you as it does into your briefcase.

The cleverest of all the new advertisements neatly reversed the typical family’s videogame supply chain to suit the changing times: “This Father’s Day, treat Dad like a kid!”

Many of the Game Boys sold via such advertisements were literally never used to play any other game than Tetris. Reports had it that some players, concerned over a tendency the cartridge had to fall out of its slot as it aged, actually glued it into place — thus cementing permanently, as it were, the link between Game Boy and Tetris. This state of affairs wasn’t entirely ideal in Nintendo’s view — they sold the Game Boy cheap in the expectation of making a lot more money off the game cartridges they would later sell for it, a plan which a Game Boy that was used for nothing other than playing Tetris rather nullified — but Game Boy sales on the whole were so absurdly strong that there was little room to really complain.

Careful readers will note that I described the combination of the Game Boy and Tetris as “identifying a whole new potential market for videogames” rather than creating one in any sustained sense. For years after millions of adults went Tetris crazy, game makers — including the usually astute Nintendo — were remarkably slow to follow up this success. Many students of gaming history date the true beginning of the modern market for casual games to the release of Bejeweled in 2001. Yet if you ask these same students about the first casual game, full stop, the majority will point back to Tetris. Not coincidentally, Bejeweled and its many descendants all inhabit a subgenre broadly known as the “matching game,” which has Tetris as its forefather. When writing A Casual Revolution, his book on the phenomenon of casual games, Jesper Juul interviewed dozens of casual players. One of the constants of these interviews emerges when the players are asked about their experience of playing games before discovering modern casual-game portals like Big Fish Games. As often as not, Tetris is the first thing to spring into their minds. This indicates not simply that many of these casual gamers once played Tetris, but that they also identify it as something broadly like the games they enjoy today. Tetris gave them a glimpse of something circa 1990 that the games industry never fully managed to deliver to them again until the following decade.

Eager like all Tetris publishers to use the game’s origins in the Mirror World for marketing purposes, Nintendo did a fair amount of outreach in the Soviet Union. Here Howard Lincoln visits a Russian summer camp, where he passes out free Game Boys.

Juul published his book in 2010, when countless millions were still playing Tetris on the so-called “feature phones” of the time. For all the anecdotes from Tetris‘s heyday about playing it on work PCs in office cubicles, it was always the collision between the game and a mobile device — whether Game Boy, feature phone, or smartphone — that really brought the magic. It may have taken Tetris five years to make the journey from Alexey Pajitnov’s clunky Elektronika 60 terminal to the svelte little Game Boy, but once it arrived on mobile it was clear that this was where the game would truly thrive. A great casual game can be played obsessively or sporadically with equal success, and thus really comes into its own when combined with a portable gadget of some stripe and a player with a little — or perhaps sometimes a lot — of time to kill. Game designer Frank Lantz:

Tetris might be the ur-casual game. If you think of casual games as the PopCap-style match-3 puzzle games, Tetris is the blueprint for that, and yet it is possible to play Tetris in drunken binges. You are addicted to this activity, this repetitious thing you can’t walk away from for hours. When you finally put it down, you are groggy and have a headache. Or it is possible to play Tetris when you are standing in the line at the DMV and you think, “Okay, I am bored, I’ve got five minutes to fill and I will play some Tetris.” It is still Tetris in either sense.

Tetris, in other words, molds itself to your life rather than the other way around. Rather than gaming as lifestyle, it’s gaming as lifestyle accessory. It turns out that, contrary to almost every one of the games industry’s pre-millennial instincts, there’s even more money to be made in the latter than the former. Tetris, the urtext of the casual game, had sold an estimated 170 million physical copies and 425 million digital copies by 2016, earning nearly $1 billion in the process. By most meaningful measures, it is indeed the most popular videogame in history. A game that somehow managed to become iconic without containing any actual icons — no characters, no story, no essential style or look — it must also be, in light of the market it did so much to identify, at the very least in the conversation for the title of most important videogame of all time.

In 1993, Tetris became the first videogame to be played in space when cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov took his Game Boy with him into orbit. This well-publicized event was as close as the Russians ever came to achieving their hopes for a grand promotional partnership between Nintendo and the Soviet space program.

(Sources: the books Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff, The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, and A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players by Jesper Juul; the BBC television documentary From Russia with Love; Nintendo Power of July/August 1989, September/October 1989, and November/December 1989; The New York Times of June 22 1989 and December 21 1989.)

 

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