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How Mortal Kombat invented the ESRB

A moral panic that changed the video game industry

Graphic with five screens from the Mortal Kombat video game and one screen with violence ratings Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

During a joint hearing before two Senate committees in 1993, Sen. Joe Lieberman called for a bulky TV to be wheeled in so he could show a video excerpt to illustrate a point. It was a brutal scene from Mortal Kombat — blood splattering from Sonia’s head before Kano rips out her heart. In a second clip, Sub-Zero finished Raiden by ripping his head off, spine still attached.

Gruesome fatalities, sure, but nothing I’d bat an eye at now, after seeing how the Mortal Kombat franchise has evolved in almost 30 years since. Think of Baraka tearing off his enemy’s face, layer by layer, before skewering their brain and taking a big ol’ bite out of it. Or maybe D’Vorah vomiting insect larvae into an opponent’s mouth; a spider eventually bursts from their body, their entrails dangling like jewelry.

Back in 1992, when Mortal Kombat came to home consoles, a lot of people hadn’t seen the game’s animated violence celebrated in a campy, rebellious way. It’s not like video games weren’t violent before the early 1990s, when Mortal Kombat, Doom, and others launched — after all, Mortal Kombat was already playable in arcades. But Mortal Kombat coming to a home console made the game more visible; what was once relegated to arcades was now something that could be played on the family TV.

And it’s the reason why the Entertainment Software Association (then called the Interactive Digital Software Association) formed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), creating the rating system still used today.

“In the arcade, there were no parents walking around, so they had no idea,” Josh Tsui, former Midway Games artist and Insert Coin documentarian, told Polygon. “When MK came home, now what was a secret for the kids is now in the family room. Parents of that generation were thinking arcades were still cute games like Pac Man and Donkey Kong, so this was going to be a shock.”

The original Mortal Kombat logo. Image: Midway Games/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Midway Games and publisher Acclaim hyped Mortal Kombat with a “Mortal Monday” marketing push that caught mainstream attention. “The panic over Mortal Kombat was really amplified by the marketing campaign surrounding its console releases,” Video Game History Foundation co-director Kelsey Lewin told Polygon. “‘Mortal Monday’ was a multi-million dollar marketing campaign that include prime-time TV commercials, print ads, and promotion giveaways, all leading up to a single release day for four different consoles.”

Lewin continued: “Mortal Kombat was meant for mature, arcade-going audiences in theory, but commercials for home versions of the game featured kids. There was a lot of public hype, and it became a lot more apparent that kids might be playing and interested in games like Mortal Kombat.”

That frenzy included Lieberman, who’d caught wind of the game and its pixelated blood, and blamed it for glorifying violence. At a news conference in 1993, he said Mortal Kombat taught children “to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.”

A month later, Lieberman and Sen. Herb Kohl convened the hearing on Mortal Kombat and other violent video games. During the hearing, Lieberman spoke of creating a government-operated regulatory body for the video game industry, and Mortal Kombat was a reason why, which Lieberman showed alongside Digital Pictures’ Night Trap and Konami’s Lethal Enforcers.

At the time, there was no rating system for video games — no guide or branding saying what was appropriate for ages, akin to the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings. Ahead of Lieberman’s hearing, the games industry trade group IDSA — now ESA — agreed to create a system to rate games based on their content. It debuted in September 1994, and is in use today.

“It was a bit of a Wild West back then and developers were always testing the waters to see what they can get away with,” Tsui said. “It was always a bit of a mystery, so when the ESRB came in, it actually opened the floodgates for even more crazy concepts. ‘We’re going to get an M rating now, so we can really go nuts.’”

SubZero holding up Raiden’s held with the spine still attached, shown on a TV during a 1993 hearing in the U.S. Senate on violence in video games
Mortal Kombat on display at a 1993 U.S. Senate hearing on violence in video games
Image: Midway Games, C-SPAN Today via YouTube

Mortal Kombat, of course, got an M rating on an ESRB scale that originally went Early Childhood, Everyone, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. Everyone 10+ was added in 2005, and Early Childhood was dropped in 2018, but I’m sure you’re familiar with it all. The black-and-white label is still prominently displayed on game boxes and in their marketing materials today.

In theory, the rating system made it so retailers were encouraged not to sell certain games to people under 17 or 18. It wasn’t illegal to do so, but a lot of retailers followed those rules. Of course, some didn’t.

Mortal Kombat 2 for Super Nintendo was the first video game I ever pre-ordered,” The Realm of Mortal Kombat co-founder Patrick McCarron told Polygon. “I was still only 15 at the time, and the box said ‘17 and up only’ on it, but didn’t have a problem pre-ordering or buying it.”

Today, plenty of research suggests there is little evidence linking video game violence to violent behavior in children or adults. Chris Ferguson, a psychologist who studies video games and violence, told Polygon that multiple studies in the decades since Mortal Kombat have found no connection to violent crime. “There’s just no data to think there’s a negative connection and a wealth of data now to say we need to stop these silly moral panics about video games,” Ferguson said. “They only distract us from the real causes of crime.”

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers and political figures from continuing to blame video games for ongoing violence. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association, scapegoated Mortal Kombat by name, as well as Bulletstorm, Splatterhouse and the Grand Theft Auto series.

Former president Donald Trump made similar claims in 2018 following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. More recently, in February an Illinois legislator proposed amendments to a 2012 state law that would restrict retailers from selling violent games to minors.

But a 2011 Supreme Court decision affirmed that video games are considered protected speech under the First Amendment. The Court’s 7-2 ruling struck down a California law that restricted the sale of violent video games to minors. Future laws, whether state or federal, would have to clear the First Amendment bar that the Supreme Court set 10 years ago.

“I think [the ESRB rating system] was and still is a good thing to have to educate parents, if anything, for buying games for their kids,” McCarron added. “That I feel is a net positive for the industry. That said, any and further legislative efforts around video games now get my full attention.”

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