A Look Back on the Controversy of Mortal Kombat

The newest addition to the popular video game series, Mortal Kombat X, hit retail shelves last week and along with discussions of the 10th edition’s newest — and already controversial — violent game play also came reminiscences of the game’s very contentious history.

From the complicated and mixed reception that the franchise has faced within the gaming community itself to the series of contentious U.S. Senate hearings in the early 1990s that led to the formation of the industry-led game rating system still used today — the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) — some have taken a look back on the immortal legacy that Mortal Kombat has played in how video games and the video game industry as a whole are viewed, discussed, and, ultimately regulated.

One of the first fighting games specifically developed to incorporate more realistic graphics, Mortal Kombat was introduced to the arcade scene in 1992. Developed with the intent to provide more sophisticated visuals and a straight-forward plot-based narrative, Mortal Kombat got players involved in a way that no other arcade game had done before. With realistic backgrounds, characters, and blood and violence, the game quickly grew to immense popularity, especially among the young arcade-goers looking for the next level of gaming. With its ground-breaking graphics and even more ground-breaking content, Mortal Kombat helped take video games out of the arcade and into families’ living rooms.

“[In] just under a year after its arcade release,” Lizzy Finnegan of Escapist Magazine writes, “Mortal Kombat was ported to nearly every available console of the time.” Some systems maintained the original arcade format, but others like Sega opted for a bloodier version, introducing the “Blood Code” command that would, as the name suggests, allow players to choose a much gorier game play.

Whereas Sega chose the more gruesome route, banking on the game’s violence, other consoles like Nintendo would release a censored version with green instead of red blood for their systems, maintaining a more “family-friendly” experience.

Unlike any other game before it, Mortal Kombat was not only one of the first mature games pushing boundaries that would go on to form what would ultimately become a popular genre, but it was also one of the first games regulated by the industry itself and would become a key part of a series of Senate Hearings that would make the claim that “violent video games lead to violent children” that has dominated mainstream media discourse. “At one point in time, games were just meant for children, and nobody really took them seriously,” recalls then Chief Executive of Acclaim, Gregory Fischbach. “But it was with the launch of Mortal Kombat that people who controlled the media began to look at it differently.”

In 1993, Senator Joe Lieberman put together a case presented to the media arguing that the lack of regulation of the video game industry — particularly how easy it was for children to access violent video games like Mortal Kombat — opened the door for dire consequences in child development. Similar to the Senate Subcommittee Hearings of 1954 led by Senator Estes Kefauver and fueled by Dr. Fredric Wertham’s specious research that led to the formation of the Comics Code Authority and Comics Code, a self-regulatory system of rules and guidelines that censored comics right off the newsstands, Senator Lieberman argued that if not self-regulation, then state regulation needed to be implemented in order to stop the impending dilemma that was violent video games from getting into young, impressionable children’s hands.

The result of the new-found media attention surrounding video games was the implementation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) in 1994. Designed to not only rate video games from “Early Childhood” and “Everyone” to “Mature” and “Adults Only 18+”, but also provide advertising guidelines for how particular games should be marketed through media channels, the ESRB was an industry-adopted regulatory system that was instituted to prevent governmental regulation.

With the initiation of the ESRB, Senator Lieberman succeeded in not only forming the self-regulatory system still used today by the games industry, but he also succeeded in making video games the new media scapegoat of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Unlike the much of the comic book industry in the 1950s, though, whose own self-regulatory system ushered in a radically censored era for the comics that almost destroyed the format, the games industry has stood resilient in the face of continued criticism and has developed ways to combat censorship attempts and the scapegoating discourse the mainstream media still propagates. With landmark cases like Brown v. EMA, which acknowledged the bad decisions made in the wake of the Kefauver hearings and essentially determined that video games were considered protected speech under the First Amendment, to games press advocating for the diversity of the industry itself, the legacy that Mortal Kombat has left may have been a controversial one, but it also led the way to public discussions and decisions that helped protect, rather than destroy, an industry as creatively complex as the video game industry.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!