Comic Book Curious

Video Games And The Law: The Rise Of The ESRB

August 9, 2021

As games got more and more powerful in their graphics, games could show more detail and graphic content. The rise of more graphic content was also a response to the bit wars between Nintendo and Sega; the thinking was to make games that could show off graphic content and using better visuals was what the bit wars excelled in doing in the early to mid-1990’s.

At the same time the culture was changing. Rap had gone mainstream, cartoons had become more violent and edgy, and rock and roll was becoming more explicit. Parent groups, specifically the Parents Music Resource Center, put pressure on Congress to hear debates about censorship in music and the media. Tipper Gore, wife of eventual vice president Al Gore, led the charge to contain the spread of this shift in culture.

Tipper Gore at a congressional hearing

After a wild hearing including testimony from a wide array of music artists, from the wholesome country singer John Denver to Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider who both argued to not censor art and expression claiming that this violated their first Amendment rights AND the rights of Americans to consume media. The PMRC got John Denver to speak for them and it totally backfired because artists like making art the way they want, and people like buying art the way they want. These two were both on the same side. The PMRC did get Congress to step in and force record labels to put warning stickers on music that was bought and sold in stores.

A few problems were instantly apparent:

1. Music artists tend to make “radio play” songs on their albums to sell the album, but the other 8 songs might never be on the radio at all, and those songs are what bands experiment with. Great, no censorship (the first Amendment to the Constitution) but pretty much everyone is going to be offended by something and what is offensive to one person might not be to another, so this warning label went on nearly every single album.

The cover of a Metallica album with a parental advisory sticker

2. The label isn’t specific at all. What is it about this that is explicit? Is it the content of the lyrics, are there swear words, are the songs about murder or drugs, is there artwork in the album that is offensive?

The cover of George Carlin’s Parental Advisory album

3. The label became a joke overnight. Soon artists used the “Explicit lyrics'' font and design to sell their albums because they had explicit lyrics. George Carlin, a stand-up comedian, named his entire comedy album “Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics''. Even t-shirts carried the logo.
Here’s a question, do you put the sticker on the album with the same title as the sticker?

This also doesn’t solve ANY of the problems that the PRMC had with explicit content. The sticker was on the outside of the packaging and was easy to remove, and the music and entertainment industry didn’t censor their artists. If anything, it became a tool to sell more content!

The PMRC saw this as a huge loss, even though they got that warning sticker. Soon a new target became in danger of being censored: video games. With improving graphics, games could be more complex and didn’t look like pixilated blobs, but rather real people.

An 8 bit game screen


A 16 bit game screen

There were three video games that were the primary focus, Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, and Lethal Enforcers. Mortal Kombat was the biggest videogame of 1992 and in 1993 Acclaim spent 10 million dollars marketing Mortal Kombat on home video game consoles. They played previews of the game before movies in theaters. There was even a movie in the works!

Kano having ripped an opponent’s heart out

This marketing push got the attention of lots of people, including the PMRC and people in Congress. Nintendo made a censored version of the game, but Sega’s version of Mortal Kombat had blood in it, and you could rip someone’s heart out of their chest. Sega’s more violent version sold more copies.

A screenshot from Night Trap

Night Trap for Sega CD was a “full motion video” game where it was sort of like watching a movie or a bunch of clips. If you press the right button at the right time, you can have an impact on the movie. The game itself is about space vampires invading a slumber party, the player uses traps to thwart the bad guys. But if you don’t stop the bad guys, they kill the ladies at a slumber party. It was a trashy B-movie turned into a video game but had violence against women as the plot.

Alt text: A screenshot from Lethal Enforcers

Lethal Enforcers, another game for Sega, had the player take on the role of a police officer shooting bad guys on a crime spree. One issue was that the characters you shoot are not cartoons or monsters, but digital pictures of real human actors. The other problem was that the game came with a slightly too real looking gun. Oddly, this game hadn’t even been made for home consoles, but the government sat up and took notice anyway.

The gun controller for Lethal Enforcers

Weirdly, both Sega and Nintendo, the two biggest players in the video game console market, had systems in place to censor their own content. Nintendo had a longstanding policy about violence, gore, and even religious imagery, censoring material for U.S. audiences.

Sega had a ratings board of their own in 1993 and had three levels: General Audiences, 13 and up, 17 and up. Mortal Kombat was 13 and up while Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers were both 17 and up. This system was new in 1993 as Sega was getting negative attention for their more violent and risqué games. Sega publicly began to push their ratings system, saying that other companies like Nintendo didn’t have a ratings board for their games, irritating Nintendo.

Most people, myself included, didn’t know Sega had such a rating, and much like the “Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics” sticker, this probably sold more games because of the warning. The ratings were also too vague; what exactly is in this game that makes it 13 and up? What is offensive to one person might not be offensive to another.

At the same time there was the continued push against culture becoming more open to new forms of violent or extreme entertainment. But unlike Movies, TV, or music, videogames were interactive, and the player takes a role in them. Maybe they’re even worse?

The Attorney General of California posed a question as to the harmful effects of video games on not only children, but anyone playing them. As these prominent people in government began to look closer and closer at games, few people stepped up to defend the video game industry. Those in the industry didn’t want children to be harmed, but they didn’t want censorship either. They also didn’t want to lose a multi-billion-dollar industry that they had created.

Joseph Lieberman at a hearing

Eventually a concerned parent brought this to the attention of Joe Lieberman, Senator and future vice-presidential candidate. Lieberman was also one of the ranking Senators to vote for the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker that was on music and was the chairman of something called the Regulation Subcommittee. What was being regulated was free speech.
Lieberman wanted the video games industry to create their own ratings board and run it themselves. If they were not able to do this, then the government would step in and do it for them. While Lieberman was on the record as someone who disliked video games and called the makers of Night Trap “Scumbags'' saying, “I’d ban all video games if I could” he still saw this as a first amendment and free speech issue and did not want to take those unlawful steps.

The cover of the game Night Trap

This hearing, in December of 1993, right before the holiday buying season, was like the PMRC music hearing except with one big difference. The music industry labels are not in competition with each other; Sega and Nintendo were rivals and didn’t want to work together.

There was a lot of testimony in this hearing, but a lot of it from the “censor / get rid of video games” side was about if video games cause violence, not if there should be a warning label or what it should say or who rates games. A lot of the research about video games was new and there wasn’t much of it, the studies that were done were not helpful. Oddly, some people testified that because video games were so new, they could be an exciting new technology to help children rather than harm them, but there just wasn’t enough research about this evolving industry.

Because that part of the testimony was not on task, it was ignored or pushed to the side.

A meme of a scene from The Simpsons

One odd thing that came from the “We should censor / get rid of video games” side was that video games were being marketed more towards boys and often girl characters were there to be rescued. Again, not what this hearing is about, but that is an interesting point. Thankfully, the video game makers were in the room to hear this and maybe adapt to include games that were more inclusive of not just teenage boys. They eventually did!

The testimony against video games was strong and everyone was united against the gaming market. The video game market side though, they turned on each other because they have businesses to protect. Nintendo, doing in house censoring for more than a decade, said that Sega’s guidelines were vague, and they were. Nintendo pointed out that all three games were on Sega, and only Mortal Kombat was on Nintendo, and Nintendo’s version didn’t have any blood.
Howard Lincoln, Nintendo’s lawyer, put up an excellent defense and implied that it wasn’t the industry that was the problem, that it was specifically Sega and other companies that were the problem. Nintendo also had a “gun” but theirs didn’t look like a real gun.

Nintendo’s gun controller

Lincoln said that Nintendo wasn’t perfect, but Nintendo has a quality standard that they would always strive for.

Sega pointed out that the average Sega player was 21 years old and that not all games are for kids. Even today in 2021 the average video game player is 36. Sega didn’t want to market to kids, but the Senators saw them as doing exactly that in their marketing and commercials.

The Senators used Sega’s own marketing against them in the hearing.

A bar chart showing the average age of gamers

Lincoln, Nintendo’s lawyer, jumped in and pointed out that Night Trap didn’t have a rating on it, but it did have Sega’s seal of quality. Oh no, what a mess!

A lawyer holds up the cover art for Night Trap

Joe Lieberman told Nintendo and Sega, “The best thing you can do, not only for this country, is to self-regulate. Not only will it be important for our kids, but for the success and credibility of your business.” As Lieberman did not want the government involved because of free speech issues and the 1st Amendment.

As the arguments heated up and the hearings got more attention, many parents groups, wanting to get rid of video games entirely, sent in letters to the Senators suggesting that video game makers can make violent video games, but must use the faces of their own children in the games. Soon toy stores stopped carrying games like Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers and started getting rid of inventory. Lieberman introduced the “Video Game Rating Act” of 1994 telling the video game makers that if they didn’t get control over their industry, he would take the bill to the Senate and make it a law. Sega and Nintendo both tried to blame each other, but soon realizing that they did not want to be told what to do creatively, agreed to put their rivalry aside and regulate themselves. 7 companies, most of the video game industry, agreed to do the following.

  1. Have a detailed and comprehensive rating system. We know this today as the ESRB.
  2. Not use stickers but put the rating on the package itself and include the rating in the marketing.
  3. The rating board would not be owned by them but be independent and open to the public so people would make suggestions about how to change it if needed.
  4. Tough sanctions for any company that got a rating using fraud or cheated to get a rating that was untrue.
  5. There will not be censorship of games. There will be information for consumers, but game makers are artists and should be protected by the 1st Amendment.
  6. The video game industry will not go back and rate every game they have made so far as that’s around 5000 games, but will rate any new games they make.

The list of ESRB ratings

What was cool was stores like Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us, etc. agreed to these ratings and said they wouldn’t sell the games made by companies that sold unrated games. Companies wouldn’t make unrated games because they couldn’t sell them easily. In response to this, Lieberman didn’t bring the bill to the Senate saying that this problem was solved quickly and right and without the government getting involved, something nobody really wanted.

The ESRB today is praised for being detailed and specific, more specific than how movies are rated. Violence in video games wasn’t going away, but people being well informed about the content they are consuming is a great idea and did help the video game industry thrive and grow.

©2021, The Groovy Projects. All rights reserved. |