Fear, panic and Legislation: how a handful of games created age restrictions on games

Violence and sexual imagery have been common place in modern video-games, with titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Hitman giving the player all kinds of masochistic freedom. However, this was not always so in gaming, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board), was born out of not only controversy but the desire not to be censored.

The story starts in the early 90s with the advent of a new generation of consoles, the Nintendo’s SNES and Sega’s Genesis console (Mega-drive in the UK). These hailed the arrival of the first 16-bit home consoles, a massive upgrade on the previous generation in terms of raw power and graphics; it is in this that problems started to arise. Before this, limited graphical output meant that even the most violent games were cartoonish, taking the edge of any potential offence. It was these new and improved graphics followed by the release of a few infamous games, that would force the industry into self-regulation.

Developer Midway, in mid-2001, tasked its developers to build a fighting game that could rival the current juggernaut of the genre, Street Fighter. The Street Fighter series had been on top of the fighting genre after their release of the brilliant Street Fighter II in February 1991; Midway needed an answer, a gimmick that would set the game apart from the rest, and that’s just what they found. Mortal Kombat is now famed for it’s digitised graphics and incredible violence. With winners ripping the spines from the losers.

Mortal Kombat fatalities compilation by ArcadeGamesFreak

This in combination with games like Night Trap for the Sega CD, a live action game where you had to stop intruders from attacking a gang of house mates, caused moral outrage across Europe and the USA. People were calling for regulation of the gaming industry, with new hardware revealing just how graphic (no pun intended) video games could be.

The debate started in the senate in 1992, led by Joe Liberman and Herb Kohl, where they led hearing on violence in video games and their potential affect on young people. Night trap and Mortal Kombat had made seismic waves in the industry, the ripple of which could be felt all the way in the upper houses of the American legislative system.

All industries want autonomy, away from the slow and constrictive nature of governmental control, and this is only more true with industries that are dominated by creativity. In a Senate debate in 1993, the body threatened to enforce regulation if the industry did not regulate itself. In Response, the major players in the gaming industry at the time, including Nintendo, Sega, EA and acclaim to name a few, banded together to form the Interactive Digital Software Association in 1994. This was also accompanied by the ERSB, which actually rated the games, giving them an independent body that could test and provide the age rating for them.

Now it’s hard to think of a time where games were tamer and unregulated, but in the long run it’s been a good thing for the industry. It increased creative licence as developers could cater for older gamers without having to take into account a younger audience, in turn making more interesting games.

By Ryan Pointon

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