Let’s face it – like it or not, as videogames become more and more mainstream, we’re going to see more and more instances of politics and gaming intersecting. Piki Politics is here to serve as both a history of political/gaming scandals (or collisions, if you prefer) and as a discussion on the political motivations and context behind them. This week we’ll take a look at the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, better known in the gaming community as the ESRB.
It’s the early 1990s. Mortal Kombat is causing a frenzy in arcades, DOOM is popping up on PCs worldwide, and games like Night Trap are releasing alongside home consoles. The one thing these games have in common? Violence. Lots of violence, in fact. Videogames were no longer simple children’s toys, having evolved from Mario comically stomping Goombas, to ripping the spines out of opposing players and murdering college coeds in just seven years.
Of course, as gaming took a turn towards the morbid, politicians and concerned mothers nationwide took notice. The media reported on and played up the dangers of violent videogames, warning parents of the supposed effects they could have on their children. Meanwhile, Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) spearheaded a Congressional Hearing on offensive and violent videogame content. At the end of the hearing the message from Congress to the games industry was clear- Get your house in order, or we’ll do it for you. The industry was given one year to form their own industry regulated ratings system, before Congress would step in and do it themselves.
To their credit, the industry responded. In 1993, SEGA and 3DO would form their own ratings systems, both of which failed to address the demands of Congress. They did, however, influence the formation of the Recreational Software Advisory Council, or RSAC. A sort of “precursor” to the ESRB, the RSAC featured a five level ratings system and saw reasonably widespread adoption throughout the PC gaming industry. (It’s adoption as a PC-only format would spell its downfall, as it became irrelevant as gamers flocked towards the PlayStation and other home consoles in later years.)
1993 and 1994 were watershed years for offensive content, as Mortal Kombat and DOOM had officially made their way to consoles. Coupled with the re-release of Night Trap on the 32X, 3DO, and PC, and you had a recipe for an incensed Capitol Hill. Sensing trouble, the industry decided to head Congress off at the pass, forming the International Digital Software Association (known today as the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA).
The IDSA presented Congress its proposal for a self-regulating ratings system in the Summer of 1994. By September of the same year, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was born. Harkening back to the system used by the RSAC, the ESRB was based on a five level ratings system. The way in which the organization categorizes games has since changed and expanded, and now features a two-tiered, six level ratings system.
The controversy leading to the creation of the ESRB highlights the role in which the media and politicians with an agenda can play in influencing the adoption of policies. It was the media machine that hyped up the notion of violent videogames creating violent children. This myth is one that still persists today, despite all evidence to the contrary. The fact of the matter, as pointed out in the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Videogames and what Parents Can Do, is this:
It’s clear that the `big fears’ bandied about in the press — that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world… — are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy.
During the Congressional hearings of 1992-93, Senators Lieberman and Kohl bandied against violent videogames, particularly against Night Trap. During their rants against the game, they proved their total ignorance of the subject matter, claiming that the game encouraged an “effort to kill and trap women”. While there is much wrong with Night Trap (the way it portrays women, for one), this particular reason is way off, considering that the goal of the game is to prevent the trapping and killing of said women.
Politicians making and imposing policies on subjects they know little about is something that has become a bit of an epidemic in modern times. A recent example would be accusations of House and Senate members passing the Affordable Healthcare Act without actually reading the bill, an apparently novel concept that one would think to be necessary when deciding upon legislation that will have an effect on millions. In the case of Night Trap, Senators Lieberman and Kohl were still willing to put the full force of their support behind efforts to do something about what they thought was an overly violent videogame, something which they believed was “corrupting” the youth of America.
A particular point of contention raised during the hearings also highlights a strange contradiction throughout American society. A scene in Night Trap in which one of the protagonists is killed in a bathroom while wearing a nightgown drew the ire of both Senator and concerned parent alike. Not because she was killed, but because she was wearing a nightgown.
Here in the States, media wise, we tend to lean towards the idea that violence is okay, but anything even remotely sexual should be kept as far away from the public as possible. Congress and the concerned public were already up in arms over the gore and blood featured in Mortal Kombat, but the sexual suggestiveness of Night Trap had them absolutely livid. Not because of the way in which the game’s sexuality objectified the women it was portraying, but out of some misplaced sense of morality. The idea that sex is simply wrong, and should be kept in the bedroom behind closed doors. You would think that by the 1990s, the general public would be far beyond this white bread, “Beaver Cleaver” type of political correctness.
Next week Piki Politics will continue our look at the ESRB, addressing deeper issues related to the organization. Is it really necessary? Does it even work? Be sure to check back next Sunday for these answers and more.
Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB by Andy Chalk
Videogame Violence: A History by Matt Paprocki