The Most Controversial Moments In Video Games: Part 1

Controversial-Video-Games-Part-1Art is a reflection of human nature and any medium can act as a window to its dark side. Video games are no exception. Once the technology evolved to support more realism through sound and graphics, the grittier elements of certain games became hard to ignore - as did the controversies which soon followed suit.

The general opinion that video games were children's toys made matters worse - no matter how many colourful kid-friendly platformers there were on the market, one glimpse of in-game violence would validate the fear that the industry was out to warp their fragile little minds. Congressional hearings on the subject were held in 1993 by Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl, resulting in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to give games age ratings similar to films.

Several games were targeted during the hearings. Doom's violent content was in the spotlight for the first time but not the last. Konami's Lethal Enforcers had Senator Lieberman expressing his sincere and grave concern over putting a weapon in the hand of a child while brandishing the offending artefact - a baby blue plastic gun. Even if you believed that giving toy guns to children was morally questionable it was by no means a new phenomenon; light guns had been around since the 1930s and playground games of cops and robbers had provided wholesome fun for generations (though in Lethal Enforcers the players were always cops).

By far the most frequently referenced titles were Night Trap by Digital Pictures and Midway's Mortal Kombat. The allegations against Night Trap were either grossly exaggerated or entirely unfounded. As for Mortal Kombat... well, we'll get to that one in a bit!

Night Trap

The story of Night Trap began in 1985 when toy company Hasbro invested in a project to develop a console that used video cassettes instead of cartridges. The hardware itself never saw the light of day but the finished games were resurrected five years later on the Sega Mega-CD to showcase its Full Motion Video capabilities. Night Trap contained no gore, no sex and there were no naughty words lurking anywhere in the script yet somehow it incurred the full wrath of the Western media and was denounced as "sick", "disgusting" and even "child abuse" at the hearings.

Finding NEMO...

Interactive movies were once seen as the future of gaming. In the mid eighties Axlon employees Rob Fulop and Jim Riley began developing a home console designed to run special VHS tapes. As with laser disc technology, different sequences would be shown depending on the player's actions. They adopted the codename "Project NEMO" - an acronym for "Never Ever Mention Outside" - and produced a working prototype dubbed the Control-Vision.

Inspiration for a new game came from an experimental play called Tamara where scenes played out simultaneously across multiple rooms, leaving audience members to follow the action wherever they chose. The resulting demo, Scene of the Crime, was a murder mystery where events unfolded in real time and repeat playthroughs were required to identify the killer. "Great" they were told by the Hasbro executives "Now make it for kids". The finished game was Night Trap where the player had to monitor cameras, activate traps and save teenagers from the world's least-convincing vampires (no, they didn't sparkle).

Unfortunately the Control-Vision was axed at the last minute due to high production costs, though rumour has it that the first batch of boxed products had already shipped. With no system on which to run them, Tom Zito purchased the rights to the two games he produced (Night Trap and Sewer Shark) and launched his own company, Digital Pictures. Despite the false start, it was only a matter of time until interactive movies appeared on the home market and Night Trap was later released for the Sega Mega-CD.


Party Hard

Night Trap is a cheesy horror spoof with wall-to-wall ham acting and a healthy dose of slapstick. You play a member of SCAT - the Sega Control Attack Team ("Special" Control on other systems) investigating disappearances from a slumber party at a lake house. Some dodgy git has rigged the place with surveillance cameras (including one in the bathroom for some reason) and trapdoors, which SCAT manages to override. Another party is due to arrive bringing with them your partner - an undercover agent played by Dana Plato of Diff'rent Strokes who'll periodically break the fourth wall to comment on your progress. Your task is to monitor cameras, trap intruders and protect the girls. Throughout the game, the house becomes infested with bumbling vampiric creatures called Augers that hobble around looking for fresh victims. Allow one of the girls to get captured by them and you'll be scolded then decommissioned - Game Over.

"This is Filth"

Night Trap was believed to be a simulator for would-be stalkers, murderers and rapists. This stemmed from the misconception that the object was to trap and kill the girls - the exact opposite of what you actually did. More rumours surfaced that the game also featured mutilation, torture and sexual violence, all depicted with shocking realism. None of that was true but by this point it didn't matter as nobody was prepared to go anywhere near the game.

"At the end of the hearings I walked up to Lieberman and I said to him 'Senator, um, have you ever actually played this game? And he said 'I don't have to - this is filth.'" Tom Zito, Dangerous Games documentary

Had anyone searched through the video then they might have been offended by one part – the singing, which is indeed horrifying but not in the same sense.

The most frequently shown clip (taken from the limited amount of footage anyone at the hearings had actually seen) was the Game Over sequence where Lisa is captured by Augers in the bathroom, screaming her head off as only a B-movie actress knows how. There is no nudity (the actress, Debra Parks, wore a nightie she remembers being "cute") and the character dies off-screen. The creators had made a concentrated effort to keep the attacks as tame as possible by fashioning devices for the Augers to use (i.e. collars on sticks). These removed the sight of blood and made the attacks impossible to replicate. Ironically they ended up making the capture scenes look more traumatic - with the collars clamping down on the girls' necks and drilling into their jugulars - but nothing was intended to be offensive or titillating. The aim was to be funny and there were plenty of laughs on the set during this scene, particularly with the old "it's behind you" gag with the Auger in the shower. Seeing it wasn’t a reward anyway - if you watched this scene play out without intervening then you instantly lost the game.

Night Trap hardly merited the scandal, which resulted in the game being pulled from shelves, but no publicity is bad publicity. It was soon re-released with a different cover and 'Mature' tag, though anyone who bought the game expecting hardcore depravity must have been sorely disappointed. Regardless of Night Trap's actual content, the public feared what games were becoming capable of. Digital Pictures hadn't opted for photo-realistic dismemberment in their game but the potential was there, which brings us to our next video game nasty...

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat is legendary for four things - gore, secrets, superfluous letter Ks and more gore. It was credited (or "kredited") with the invention of death moves and used digital images to make the action realistic. Players were thrilled and parents were outraged. However, the real controversy (or "kontroversy" - okay, I'll stop now) kicked off with the console ports. Nintendo removed the blood but Sega had full arcade carnage unlockable by code.

Here comes a new challenger!

In the arcade scene circa 1992 Street Fighter II was king. This triggered a boom in tournament fighters, but as Capcom had near perfected the mechanics of the 2D beat 'em up, you had to get a gimmick if you wanted to get ahead. Enter Midway with Mortal Kombat. The sprites were digitised images of real actors, contrasting with the cartoony look of SFII. Pit Fighter had attempted this before but MK did a far better job. The overall style was grim and dark (if a bit tongue in cheek) but what really got the attentions of arcade goers was the violence. Not only did your uppercuts splatter the arena with red pixels, the winner could execute a move to literally execute the loser.

Finish Him!

Those Mortal Kombat fatalities in order of least to most brutal...

  1. Liu Kang - A windmill kick and uppercut that's hardly a fatality at all. Kang was a Shaolin Monk so technically he couldn't commit murder.
  2. Sonya Blade – “Smoochie of Death” Sonya blows a kiss, which catches fire and leaves nothing behind but a charred skeleton.
  3. Scorpion – “Toasty!” Scorpion barbeques his opponents with fire breath. It's similar to Sonya's but gets bonus points when he takes off his mask to reveal his grinning skull.
  4. Johnny Cage - Cage's uppercut lets him punch a fighter's head clean off their shoulders - the first proper bloody number on the list and they only get messier from here.
  5. Raiden - MK's resident thunder god gives new meaning to the term "shock treatment", blasting lightning bolts into your brain until your head goes kaboom.
  6. Kano - Remember Temple of Doom? Kano does, paying homage by pulling out his enemy's heart without the aid of surgical tools. Look close and you'll see it's still beating!
  7. Sub Zero - An all-time favourite. Sub Zero rips off the opponent's head and holds it aloft while their still-attached spine dangles underneath.

To bleed or not to bleed

Mortal Kombat was an instant arcade smash, so naturally the demand for home ports was huge. This created problems for Nintendo, who had established a family friendly brand with strict guidelines on acceptable content - pulling out spines was simply not on. After the "under the counter" games released for the Atari 2600 by third party smut-peddlers like Mystique (notorious for Custer's Revenge) Nintendo weren't taking any risks. Come "Mortal Monday" (the much-hyped release day of the console ports) Nintendo fans were shocked to find blood replaced by sweat and several fatalities removed. For fighting fans, Nintendo had effectively castrated the game. Sega, the bad older brother of home entertainment, kept in all the gory bits and outsold the SNES version despite its superior graphics and sound.

Sega had won the first round, but it would not be a flawless victory. Once again they were on the naughty step at the hearings and this time they didn't have a leg to stand on. Even with the cheat code and the MA-13 tag, they couldn’t argue that a game awarding bonus points for ripping out hearts wasn’t gratuitous. Meanwhile Nintendo were sitting with their hands clean and it wasn't long before suspicions arose as to who had blown the whistle. After all, their version of MK was outsold by a reported 2:1 plus they'd been beaten to the punch with CD add-ons. The only way to make Night Trap look like a sinister snuff-flick rather than a goofy comedy was to carefully edit the footage, which Nintendo of America supposedly did along with the fatality sequences from Mortal Kombat. If this was true then their efforts ultimately backfired - Night Trap sold well on its re-release and the Megadrive/Genesis version of Mortal Kombat went on to sell over two million copies.

"Konclusion" (sorry, can't help it!)

Regardless of all the idiotic comments made atop soap boxes, the need for a games ratings system was undeniable. The ESRB is still in effect today along with equivalents, such as ACB in Australia and PEGI in Europe. While taste and decency are subjective across art and culture, it stands to reason that guidelines are necessary when marketing a game, whether or not you personally agree with them. Still controversies will always arise and knee-jerk reactions will follow, especially from people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Additional Sources

Dangerous Games (documentary included on the PC version of Night Trap), Digital Pictures Inc 1995
Steven L Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games, Prima Life 2002
Jamie Russell, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, Yellow Ant 2012

Last Updated ( 07 July 2013 )  

Lindsay Robertson

Lindsay is freelance writer, librarian and all-round pop culture junkie. She considers herself a Game Historian (like that’s even a thing!), enjoys debunking controversies and particularly loves any game where girls kick ass. Being Scottish, she can usually be found at the bar.

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