Moral Kombat: How an Arcade Fighting Game Shaped a Hundred-Billion Dollar Industry

Ben Robke, Staff Writer & Illustrator

By 1993, video games had come a long way from simple arcade games, such as Pong or Pac-Man. Video game graphics had evolved from simple images projected onto a screen, to 8-bit pixels, and now to 16-bit pixel art and larger. The SEGA Genesis in particular was able to have incredibly realistic graphics for the time, and even output full motion video, albeit somewhat pixelated.

One of the games that showed off the power of this new generation of consoles was 1992’s Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat was, at the time, incredibly realistic. Instead of cartoony imagery and hand-drawn characters, each frame of movement was a pixelated version of a picture of a real person. The gameplay revolved around fighting against a real person sitting next to you using these different characters. The gameplay, however, was not its main selling point when it released in arcades — it was the blood. There were a few red pixels every time a character was hit with an attack, but the real attraction was the “fatality” system. After one person wins by lowering their opponent’s health to 0, they are instructed by a digitized voice to “finish” their opponent and have the option to input a special controller sequence and watch their character perform a “fatality”. Some are fairly unrealistic, such as freezing someone in a block of ice and breaking them apart, but some are far more graphic. The main fatality that was under scrutiny consisted of one character ripping out another character’s spine.

Mortal Kombat initially debuted in arcades in 1992, and was planned to come to home consoles in 1993. SEGA and Nintendo, the two main console manufacturers at the time, both censored the game’s blood and fatalities, but SEGA allowed them to be reactivated with a cheat code. SEGA especially was afraid of the impact violence and gore could have on what was expected to be a sales juggernaut (Harris). They knew that a game they marketed as bloody and graphic wouldn’t sell, much less sell new video game consoles, so SEGA instead opted to not be upfront with the content of the game.

Mortal Kombat had done well in arcades, but there were far more people with home video game consoles at this point. The SNES and SEGA Genesis had sold nearly 80 million units worldwide (Richter). While most games cost $60-$70 at the time, kids were also able to play them by renting them like they would a movie. Many kids would have access to Mortal Kombat, and SEGA prepared for that, trying to make it the big system-selling game for 1993’s holiday season (Harris). SEGA was pushing to put this game into the hands of as many gamers as possible.

SEGA had reason to think their goal was attainable — the game’s publisher, Acclaim, was making an intense push for it in marketing. They dubbed its release date “Mortal Monday” and had heavy advertising for it. Their ad campaign was in-your-face and loud. It consisted of actors seeming to be in their later teens shouting “Mortal Kombat!” and running down empty city blocks, cut together with clips of gameplay, and the bombastic main theme playing over it. They were hard to miss. The minimal gameplay featured in the ad campaign, however, made no mention of the fatalities, or even the blood featured when an opponent is hit. According to an Associated Press article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, this ad campaign cost Acclaim $10 million. By December, the numbers were clear that the ad campaign had been a success, with the game selling over 3 million copies, and higher expectations for the holiday season (Senator Calls For Warnings on Video Games). 

Critics pointed out that Mortal Kombat was not alone in its violence, pointing to games with similar graphics, such as Night Trap, a game that plays more like a PG slasher movie with the ability to press buttons to set off traps and stop the antagonists, and Lethal Enforcers, which notably included a toy gun players could use to shoot criminals in the game, called the Konami Justifier. Though Mortal Kombat was only one game, it had fueled the flame that was the criticism of violent games more than any other game before it.

Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut and the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, was one of the harshest of these critics. In a November letter to Congress, he wrote, in part:

Gone are the days when video games were just Pac-Man and other quaint characters. Advances in technology permit the latest video games… to depict murder, mutilation, and disfigurement in an extremely graphic manner. And the technology… is becoming ever more realistic… these games glorify the most depraved acts of cruelty… the video game industry has not addressed the danger presented by their latest creations… No uniform system exists for warning… about the violent content of a video game… (qtd. in Harris)

Interestingly, the letter also describes a scene from the game Night Trap that never happens in the game. Lieberman later stated that, ideally, he would like to ban violent video games, but he knew it couldn’t happen because of the first amendment (Senator Calls for Warnings on Video Games). He stated that “It would be far better for America… if the industry simply kept the worst violence and sex out of their games” (qtd. in All Things Considered). While Lieberman’s proposed policy was to rate video games, it’s important to note that his ultimate aim was censorship.

Selena Deng

While Lieberman was correct that there was no widely-accepted system for content warnings on games, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. SEGA had instituted a rating system containing three ratings: GA for General Audiences, MA-13, for teenagers, and MA-17, for adults. They even tried to get Nintendo, and eventually the rest of the games industry to adopt it, but to no avail (Harris). This was clearly not enough for Lieberman, however, as he saw this as proof that the game industry would not regulate itself unless jolted into action.

In congressional hearings on December 8, 1993, experts from child-safety organizations as well as industry representatives testified before Congress. A television was rolled in which showed what was essentially a ‘highlight reel’ of the most violent parts of Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and Night Trap. Parker Page, one of the child-safety experts that testified, was worried that the games would have a negative impact on children, as they would have trouble differentiating violent games from reality due to how realistic they were becoming (Hansen). Other experts made similar arguments about the harm this violent imagery can do to kids, especially in the context of playing a video game. These experts largely received simple questions from the Congresspeople. 

At the time, however, there was not enough research done on the effects of video games on children to back up many of the claims that they had adverse effects on kids (Cros). Many of the experts weren’t even in the video game field — Page, for example, was the president of an education center on children’s television. While not discounting them entirely, as they clearly had good intentions and were knowledgeable about other media for children, these people ultimately were speculating based on the past, not the then-present technology of video games. 

Later that day, the industry representatives testified before Congress. They naturally faced tougher questions, and harsher criticism from the senators. Nintendo mostly blamed SEGA, as Nintendo had far stricter rules on what could be on their console (Huntington). In an incredibly unfortunate slip of the tongue from the SEGA representative, Bill White said of a light gun similar in function to the Konami Justifier made by Nintendo: “SEGA produces this product” instead of “Nintendo produces this product.” If any senators present were not already skeptical of SEGA’s rating system, which many saw as a marketing ploy anyway, they were now.

By the end of the hearing, the Senators’ message was clear. Senator Herbert Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin, told the industry representatives bluntly, “…if you don’t do something about [violent video games], we will.” The following day, the industry announced it would be forming an independent rating system. While the ultimate goal of the government may have been closer to censorship than regulation, ultimately industry was still able to win out. In fact, only a day after the hearings, the ultra-violent Doom released on PCs, popularizing the now ever-present first-person-shooter genre, forever changing the gaming landscape.

In doing a lot of the research for this article, it struck me that a lot of the scapegoating of video games comes from a total lack of understanding of the industry, not necessarily an actual want to “save the children.” Joe Lieberman, for example, was a huge proponent of the Iraq War 10 years later. While that lies far beyond the scope of this article, the difference between his rhetoric about violent video games and real life war shocks and saddens me. Especially considering the fact that, hypothetically, the soldiers he sent off to Iraq 10 years later are largely the same eight to 13 year olds Acclaim targeted with their Mortal Monday ads (AP). 

While the outcome of these hearings was the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (the ESRB), a largely positive, and largely effective force in the gaming industry, video games are still scapegoated by those in positions of power who clearly do not understand them as root causes of violence. A report from a federal commission on gun safety in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass shooting devoted a chapter to “violent entertainment” (Draper). All this despite an agreement throughout much of the scientific community that video games do not cause violence. Dr Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, and the head of the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association asserts that data showing violent games causing violent behavior is about as conclusive as “bananas causing suicide” (qtd. in Draper).

New things will always be misunderstood and misrepresented by some people, including those in power. By the nature of changing technology and more access to the tools to make and sell games, it seems from where I am like video games will always be new — and there may not be an end to their being scapegoated for some time. Even so, it’s useful to look back at how the world was changed with two words that bellowed from countless TVs during an ad break- “Mortal Kombat!”

 

Works Cited

Cros, Jessica. “Video Game Violence: Pushing the Wrong Buttons.” Washington Post, 25 Oct. 1993, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1993/10/25/video-game-violence-pushing-the-wrong-buttons/467efb77-ee10-4bad-8678-7188c11b35d1/. Accessed 23 Feb. 2021.

“Death Moves’ in New Video Game Raise Concerns.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 14 Sept. 1993. ProQuest 5000, www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/docview/259897332/32EC0969AA0B478EPQ/1?accountid=36487. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.

Draper, Kevin. “Video Games Aren’t Why Shootings Happen. Politicians Still Blame Them.” The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/sports/trump-violent-video-games-studies.html. Accessed 30 Apr. 2021.

Hansen, Lian. “New Video Game Allows for More Violent ‘Play.'” Interview conducted by Parker Page. Weekend All Things Considered, NPR, 26 Sept. 1993. ProQuest, www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/docview/190167080/32EC0969AA0B478EPQ/4?accountid=36487. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021. Transcript.

Harris, Blake J. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation. HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

Hsu, Tiffany. “When Mortal Kombat Came Under Congressional Scrutiny.” The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/business/video-games-violence.html. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

“Mortal Kombat 1 Mortal Monday Commercial by Retroware TV.” YouTube, uploaded by Wwwmortalkombatpl, Google, 17 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8V7TwlYCt0. Accessed 11 Mar. 2021.

“1993 Senate Committee Hearings on Violence In Video Games.” YouTube, uploaded by K. Huntington, Google, 7 May 2013, youtu.be/nD-Afpg4P2U. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.

“Senator Calls for Warnings on Video Games.” The Washington Post, 2 Dec. 1993. ProQuest, www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/docview/307732068/A44D08A98E1747F6PQ/1?accountid=36487. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

“Technology Briefing Internet: Lieberman Seeks Hearings on Video Games.” New York Times, Late Edition (East Coast) ed., 2 Dec. 2002. ProQuest, newtrier.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/newspapers/technology-briefing-internet-lieberman-seeks/docview/432265272/se-2?accountid=36487.

“Video Game Industry to Introduce Ratings System.” Hosted by Robert Siegel and Brian Naylor. All Things Considered, NPR, 9 Dec. 1993. ProQuest, www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/docview/189986189/67F7FB8BC1A94805PQ/1?accountid=36487. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021. Transcript.

“Video-Game Ratings Promised Self-policing Proposed to Thwart Feds’ Action.” Newsday, 10 Dec. 1993. ProQuest, www-proquest-com.newtrier.idm.oclc.org/docview/278704073/9002A735461040B4PQ/4?accountid=36487. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.