Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the hearings on violent video games that led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). Led by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, lawmakers and a panel of alarmed experts denounced video games for encouraging or desensitizing children to violence (you can view the entire hearing here).
The December hearing was the culmination of two major social and technological movements at work during the early nineties.
One the one hand, the late eighties and early nineties brought a wave of technological fads as various entrepreneurs attempted to combine the resurgent popularity of video games with other forms of established media, such as television and film, to create some kind of interactive supermedium.
This was the most fervent period of the VR craze. Led in no small part by Jaron Lanier. Lanier, a former programmer who had previously worked for arcade manufacturer Exidy, founded his own company–VPL–in the late 1980s as a virtual reality firm. Their flagship product was the DataGlove, a glove that allowed users to interact with computer environments with simple hand movements. Many readers may recognize the technology as that which inspired Mattel’s PowerGlove. The flamboyant Lanier took the DataGlove on the road, professing to the popular press of the coming of a technological utopia where people interacted with virtual worlds. He was by no means the only one. Even Timothy Leary, the spokesman of the wild sixties jumped on the VR bandwagon, demonstrating the technology at trade shows and news programs in the US and abroad. The world of science fiction crossed into the mainstream as words like “cyberspace,” “virtual,” and the “information highway” entered the popular lexicon.
The FMV or interactive movie game also had its brief moment in the sun. There was a wave of games utilizing live actors that promised to bridge the gap between video games and film. Initially introduced by Sega with Astron Belt in 1982, games that utilized canned film sequences fell in and out of fashion with various storage media. The success of Dragon’s Lair in 1983 brought a wave of “laserdisc games” that lasted through 1984; a few companies such as ViewMaster and Worlds of Wonder attempted VHS-based systems in the late eighties; and CD-ROM became the format of choice for the early nineties through systems such as 3DO, Cd-i, and Sega CD.
Hollywood also attempted to get in on the action with “I’m Your Man.” Released on December 18, 1992, by Controlled Entropy as an “Intervision” movie (company president Bob Bejan dubbed it a “cinematic game”) viewers could press one of three buttons on a controller attached to their seat to vote on actions that took place in the film, which the actors then carried out on-screen.
On the other hand, America was in a growing state of unease in 1993 as the country fell into the grips of a panic over violence. It is difficult to say what exactly sparked the controversy but Americans found themselves inundated by stories of violent crime in the press and declarations of an “epidemic of violence” among reporters, politicians, and pundits. In reality, statistics show that violent crime was actually on the decline (According to an FBI report, following a high in 1992, crime rates in the United States began a steady decline that continued through 2009); nevertheless, popular attention to violence reached frenzied proportions.
The popular press funneled in a steady stream of reports of random acts of violence into American living rooms. Stories that received significant airtime included the kidnapping and murder of Paula Claas and the December 7 mass shooting on a Long Island commuter train that killed five and wounded twenty-three. Following the Long Island shooting, the cover of Time ran a picture of a larger-than-life image of a handgun under the headline “ENOUGH!” Television specials aired throughout the latter months of 1993 and into 1994 on such topics as guns, drugs, and gang violence, such as MTV’s “Generation Under the Gun” which aired on December 9, 1993. In news stories the underlying questions were “Who/What is responsible” and “What is to be done?”
Congress responded with a wave of new legislation targeted at law enforcement and gun control. Two significant bills that came out of the panic were the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Signed into law on November 30, 1993, The “Brady Bill” called for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases pending a criminal background check. The “Crime bill” meanwhile was a broad-sweeping piece of legislation. Introduced in October 1993 and passed in August 1994, the 356 page bill instituted tougher penalties for violent crime and expanded the use of the death penalty among its numerous other provisions.
Activists branched out in all directions searching for a cause for the supposed wave of violence, including urban gangs, the proliferation of drugs, and gun culture. Invariably, others turned to moral issues. As is typical, some cited the outbreak to the decline of “traditional family values.” It should come as no surprise then that their efforts shifted toward the media as either reflecting violence in society or actively causing it. After a young boy set fire to his family’s mobile home, killing his younger sister, parents and law enforcement officials blamed Beavis and Butthead; in response, MTV removed all instances of Beavis’ “Fire, fire” catchphrase and preceded the show with a disclaimer. Others blamed the death of Pennsylvania teenager Michael Shingledecker on the movie “The Program,” arguing he was reenacting a scene from the film when he lay down in the middle of a busy street and was fatally run over.
It was in the midst of this environment that moral activists directed their ire toward video games. Sen. Joseph Lieberman emerged as their spokesman when on December 1, 1993, he held a press conference denouncing what he called “violent video games.” Flanked by members of the National PTA and former Captain Kangaroo star Bob Keeshan, Lieberman called out games for promoting violence and sex, especially violence toward women.
Lieberman singled out two games in particular: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. Mortal Kombat was the breakaway arcade hit of 1992 with its use of digitized actors and its stylized violence, including the now-famous “Fatalities.” Acclaim released home versions for all the major systems on September 13, 1993 (“Mortal Monday”). Night Trap, meanwhile, was less of a household name. Developed by Digital Pictures, Night Trap had players portray a surveillance officer observing a slumber party through closed circuit cameras and protecting the partygoers from shambling black-clad vampires. Night Trap involved little skill beyond memorization, its live-action scenes were hammy and drawn out, and it came out for the Sega CD, an expensive add-on for the Sega Genesis. It is hard to determine just how Lieberman discovered Night Trap, and it is not much of a stretch to say had he not given it so much attention, it would have died in obscurity among Sewer Shark, Ground Zero: Texas, Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties, and the rest of the legion of bad FMV games from the early 1990s . Nevertheless, Lieberman set Night Trap up as the symbol of a video game industry threatening to corrupt America’s children and threatened legislation against the games industry.
The stage was set for the first of three hearings. On December 9, 1993, Lieberman, joined by Sens. Herbert Kohl and Byron Dorgan, denounced the video game industry for peddling violence to children. They pointed to Night Trap as the symbol of everything wrong with video games. He and a panel of educators and child psychologists described a game, as Lieberman described, designed to ensnare women (the objective in reality was actually the opposite), where women were strung up on meat hooks and had their blood decanted into wine bottles, neither of which were features available in the game. Experts cited conjecture and limited findings based on television violence research, including a controversial study by the American Medical Association which cited television as responsible for half the murders in America, as the definitive proof of the negative effects of video games on children. They pointed to the rise of VR as an example of how video games were becoming an even greater threat than traditional media and cited interactive movie games as the harbinger of dark days to come.
The representatives of the video game industry offered little resistance to the activists’ assertions. Howard Lincoln of Nintendo and Bill White of Sega brought their industry feud (epitomized by Sega’s slogan: “Sega Does What Nintendon’t”) into the halls of Congress. Lincoln, the former trial lawyer, successfully deflected congressional ire toward his counterpart at Sega, seasoned with some personal attacks directed at White, a former employee of Nintendo. He repeatedly cited Nintendo’s strict restrictions on content and their decision to not release Night Trap (which was probably motivated more by Nintendo’s lack of a system capable of playing the CD-rom-based game). White repeatedly found himself as the target of legislative outrage.
After the hearings, Lieberman introduced the Video Game Rating Act in February 1994. The bill called for an executive-appointed panel to develop a ratings system for the video game industry. Meanwhile, the video game manufacturers established the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), the industry’s first trade organization (now known as the Entertainment Software Association, or ESA), and developed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a letter-based ratings system present on all video game materials .