A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum for me: the other day, I watched Clerks.
As someone who can totally identify with Dante, the movie’s protagonist, I was intrigued by the movie and wanted to know more about it, so I visited with the omniscient god, Wikipedia. While reading through the article on the movie, I was shocked to see that the Motion Picture Association of America originally issued an NC-17 rating to the film. Yeah, it was 1994 and we were still a little uptight with our morality back then, but Clerks? NC-17? Originally, the NC-17 rating was called X by the MPAA. The X rating was reserved for traditionally non-pornographic movies with content clearly unsuitable for children, such as Midnight Cowboy or A Clockwork Orange. I ask you: what was in Clerks that put it in the same league as A Clockwork Orange?
You might wonder why I mention all of this. As we know, censorship is a term being slung about a lot in our society these days. The argument between freedom of speech and limitations on speech has become even more virulent since the advent of the Internet. There is a belief that people, especially children, ought not to be exposed to certain types of content in media. This has been especially prominent in video games, and thus we get to our topic for today: the Entertainment Software Rating Board, America’s video game analogue for the MPAA.
To understand the ESRB, we should first understand context. Throughout the 1980s until the mid-90s, America was in the throes of one of the worst spikes in crime in its history. Social scientists offered several theories to explain this: the crack epidemic, a stagnant economy, poor education, and a surge in job outsourcing. Of course, societies becoming unmoored like to treat symptoms rather than the disease, often with all of the surgical precision of a hacksaw. In this case, Tipper Gore launched a campaign against the so-called Filthy Fifteen, 15 pop songs with objectionable content because of their references to sex, drugs, violence, profanity, and unconventional spiritual beliefs. At the same time, the MPAA had to reassess its standards because films like Gremlins and the first two Indiana Jones films did not neatly fall either in the PG or R categories. The degree to which movies and music depicting such offensive content had any effect on the youth culture is debatable today, but back then, experts were willing to sign on to the socially accepted belief that “superpredators” were being incubated in homes all across middle-class America due to hip-hop music and bloody movies. This was a cultural belief going back to the 1960s and earlier, and so when video games became a new form of popular entertainment, society was apt to blame real violence on virtual violence. This brought the two biggest American video game companies of the time into the crossfire: Nintendo and Sega.
Since the legendary video game crash of 1983, Nintendo had made itself into the patron saint of video games in America. As an insurance policy against repeating the mistakes of Atari, Nintendo issued Seals of Quality on the games it distributed, guaranteeing certain standards were met. Such standards included guarantees against excessive violence, nudity, and profanity. While Nintendo was portraying itself as the Disney of video games, the upstarts from Sega were far less interested in playing that game. Sega’s aggressive sales tactics included the freedom to choose which kinds of games gamers could buy. From one perspective, Sega was taking a very American approach: what could be more fundamentally American than the freedom of consumer choice? However, Sega’s gamble struck a nerve with some parents, especially when the Sega Genesis’s version of Mortal Kombat featured blood and the famously violent finishing moves (the Super Nintendo version excised the finishing moves and recolored the blood to look like sweat). Worse still, the Sega CD game Night Trap notoriously garnered attention for “scantily-clad” young women being attacked by blood-sucking vampires (“scantily-clad” being a relative term since most of them were in sleep wear, but standards were different in 1993). Since Night Trap was an FMV video game depicted by real actors, the facade of innocence that could be hung over pixelated violence was inapplicable. This reached a head when a child asked his father to buy him a copy of Mortal Kombat. Ordinarily, this would not have been a big deal, but the father investigated the game and was displeased with what he saw so he reported it to his boss: United States Senator Joseph Lieberman. Senator Lieberman, along with Senator Herb Kohl, turned up their noses at what they perceived to be a trend of increasing realism in video game violence. Konami’s Lethal Enforcers where the player uses a plastic gun akin to an NES Zapper to shoot criminals on-screen, exacerbated the situation; at one point, Senator Lieberman waved the plastic gun in front of the senatorial committee for all to see. The Senate started an investigation that changed the future of the video game industry.
For its part, Nintendo was determined to wear a halo around its head and paint devil’s horns on Sega. Howard Lincoln, Nintendo of America’s senior vice president and accomplished lawyer, testified before the Senate with the same steely nerves that helped him steer Nintendo to victory in court over Universal Pictures (the studio sued Nintendo on the belief that it stole Donkey Kong from King Kong; Lincoln found out that Universal Pictures never actually copyrighted King Kong). Lincoln assured the Senate that Nintendo committed no wrongdoing and in fact saved the industry from destruction by placing such rigorous standards of decency on its products. Then, in true lawyer fashion, he discredited Sega, pointing out how games like Night Trap had “no place in our society.” The effect was devastating. Whereas musicians of all kinds banded together when Tipper Gore set out to regulate the music industry (resulting in the Parental Advisory Label), Sega and Nintendo were having a grudge match in front of the Senate. Experts and outraged parents had already testified that video games hurt children. The clashing testimonies of Lincoln and Sega’s vice president of marketing communications, Bill White, did little to reassure the senators. White, a former Nintendo employee, was personally hammered by Lincoln for knowing that video games were primarily marketed toward children despite White’s contention that Sega console owners were college-age adults. White countered that Sega had already instituted its own ratings system. However, of the few people who even knew about the ratings, fewer understood it. Critics called it vague. Senator Byron Dorgan agreed, slamming White for the fact that the Sega ratings system implied thirteen-year-olds were mature. White was forced to admit the implication. Senator Dorgan, incredulous, asked, “Are you kidding me?” White made a final bid to make his case, taking a shot back at Nintendo by displaying the SNES Super Scope, a light gun accessory, in front of the senatorial committee. Unfortunately, White famously flubbed his delivery, saying it was Sega, not Nintendo, that made the Super Scope. To quote from Blake J. Harris’s Console Wars:
Bill White had fired his silver bullet, and as noble as the effort had been, nobody in the room appeared to be particularly moved by it, causing the shot to come right back at him.
“No!” [Sega of America CEO] Kalinske exclaimed when he heard White jumble his words. He was back in Redwood Shores, watching it live on C-SPAN from the television in his office, and despite the flub, he was very pleased with how White had handled himself: perpetually poised, meticulously defensive, and just the right amount of angry.
The Senate did not take long to respond. Senator Lieberman threatened to introduce legislation that would give the government regulatory power over video games. This inspired another all-American tradition: distrust of government. For the moment, archrivals Sega and Nintendo walked away, smarting at the thought that nerds from DC might tell them how to run their businesses. Sega linked arms with several other publishers and tried to present a united front at the next round of senatorial hearings, operating under the name the Videogames Ratings Council. The Senate was unimpressed; the VRC suggested a ratings system like Sega’s but dared not try to catalogue the 5,000+ titles already in existence. Nintendo refused to play ball with Sega, still convinced this whole mess was Sega’s fault. Senators Lieberman, Kohl, and Dorgan introduced a bill to create the regulatory body overseeing video games in 1994, as promised. The publishers scrambled; pressure from the government was on and the public was disgusted. As long as some publishers refused to be part of the cooperative and there were no penalties for it, the government would not be satisfied. Everyone had to hang together or hang separately. When the Senate reconvened months later, a turnabout such as would impress Phoenix Wright had occurred.
“Upon implementation of an industry-wide rating system, Wal-Mart will only purchase video games that have gone through the rating process and received a rating. Thank you,” stated Wal-Mart’s manager of merchandising, Chuck Kerby. Senator Lieberman chuckled at how the testimony was unusually short, but that was just the beginning. One by one, major retailers of toys and games fell in line before the Senate, promising that their companies would not carry any games that were not appropriately rated. Just before the Christmas season of 1994, Senator Lieberman admitted that the rapid transformation of the regulatory scene in video games was unlike anything else he had ever seen and he shelved his bill. The day was carried for the video game industry: no government regulation.
The newly-formed ESRB classified games under five different ratings: eC (early childhood), K-A (kids to adults), T (teen), M (mature), and AO (adults only). K-A was renamed as E (everyone) in 1998. E10+ was added in 2005 for games believed to be suited to children ten and older, falling between E and T. The ESRB also used descriptors for the particular concerns of any given video game. For a game to be rated, the publisher would submit a questionnaire, a fee, and video footage of the game to the Board, which then reviewed the content and assigned a rating. A chance to modify the game and an appeals process for challenging the rating were also instituted. Incidentally, the MPAA has no comparable appeals process; Clerks was bumped from NC-17 to R only because civil rights attorney Alan Dershowitz threatened suit. Of course, the system is imperfect, and next time, we will talk about those imperfections.
To be continued…