Video Games
Mortal Kombat, Postal And The Real Censorship Of Fantasy Violence

Liz Finnegan | 13 Apr 2015 17:00
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"It has been revealed that the gunman read Dean Koontz novels regularly" - No one, ever.

Video games and the people who play them - much like the entire Rock & Roll music genre before them - have been the popular scapegoats for explaining violent behaviors for more than two decades, despite studies contradicting the claims that video games contribute to increased violence. The inability to prove a credible link between violent games and real life violence has not stopped people from asserting its existence however, and the industry has experienced numerous controversies as a result. Despite the ever present criticism surrounding video games, it has proven difficult to replicate the level of pure outrage that accompanied the 1992 release of the original Mortal Kombat.

Making a Killing

Mortal Kombat's arcade debut came during a time of evolution in the game industry. Once considered to be toys for children, developers were working to create more mature titles in an effort to expand beyond their existing audience. It was not the game's plot that gripped players - and eventually, the U.S. government - with such a fierce might. It was the graphics, the moves, and the backgrounds.

Capitalizing on the growing interest in fighting games, Midway Games' Mortal Kombat combined digitized sprites based on real people, as well as "oh shit" moments, in order to successfully deliver a next-level fighting game in a realistic and entertaining way. Blood sprays from the characters with each blow in best-of-three matches. Combinations at the end of the second win, egged on by the disembodied voice demanding you "FINISH HIM!" might result in your character ripping the heart from their opponent's chest or tearing their head off, holding the opponent's anatomy over their own head with the enthusiasm of a little league pitcher with his first trophy.

Amidst the more reserved scenery of temples and stadiums, you also find yourself fighting in a skeleton-strewn dungeon or atop bridge clad with stone gargoyles. Following the second win on this bridge, when delivering your final death blow via uppercut, your foe is launched into the air, off the bridge, and to the pit below, impaled by spikes already littered with the bloody heads and torsos of those who met a similar fate before him.

Enter: Lieberman

mortal kombat fatality

Mortal Kombat received widespread and instantaneous criticism alongside the survival horror game Night Trap, with its release gaining the attention of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman. Assuming the role of the Twisted Sister of video games, Mortal Kombat inspired a series of Senate hearings, resulting in the implementation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) video game rating system we see today. While many see the introduction of this rating system as a smart move, the combination of political and media driven hype given to the game resulted in a very negative public view of video games, and the industry, as a whole.

Just under a year after its arcade release, Mortal Kombat was ported to nearly every available console of the time. The SNES port was heavily censored, receiving intense criticism as a result. Backgrounds and finishing moves were altered, and the blood changed to a combination of green slime and sweat, in Nintendo's attempt to release a more "family friendly" product. Sega went the other way, introducing us to the Blood Code ABACABB, but otherwise staying mostly true to the arcade version. In addition to the original's port censorship, several Mortal Kombat titles have been banned in countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Australia.

The Good Senator Goes Postal

In 1997, Senator Lieberman resurrected his campaign against violent video games, focusing largely on the Running With Scissors title Postal. Utilizing an unprecedented level of gore and indiscriminate, no holds barred, relatively low-resolution homicide, Postal delivered an unashamed glorification of murder geared towards mature consumers. The player assumes the role of the "Postal Dude," a paranoid psychopath convinced that everyone around him intends to kill him. So, you know, he kills them first. Bits and pieces of the backstory can be gained in between levels, through excerpts from the Postal Dude's diary.

For its time, Postal was considered an extremely violent, albeit graphically unremarkable, game. Using a top-down perspective, the player guides the character through multiple stages on a mission to take out a certain number of hostiles- basically anyone with a gun- without getting yourself killed first. Killing unarmed civilians is not a requirement for level progression, although it is most definitely an option.

Lieberman described the game as "digital poison" due to its unapologetically gruesome option of murdering innocents- from Sunday church-goers to a high school marching band, no one was safe. Despite the game being clearly labeled as Mature (ages 17 and up), Leiberman asserted "...parents cannot not do it alone. That is why we are again asking gamemakers to set some basic standards and limit the violence in the games they mass market. A good place to start would be for Panasonic, the distributor of Postal, to stamp this repugnant game return to sender."

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