The Needles

The Needles
Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB

Andy Chalk | 20 Jul 2007 17:00
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The upheaval struck on two fronts. First were the arcades, hit with the release of Mortal Kombat, a fighting game of unprecedented violence. With heightened realism provided by the use of digitized actors rather than hand-drawn characters, the game featured vicious combinations of fighting moves, Romero-worthy bloodletting and vocal exhortations to "finish" your enemy with special "fatalities." Possibly the most controversial fighting game ever released, Mortal Kombat's blend of over-the-top violence and thrilling fights proved irresistible to gamers, turning it into a tremendous success and laying the foundation for a franchise that continues to this day.

Then came the home market later that same year, faced with a similar assault in the guise of the infamous Night Trap. With over an hour and a half of full-motion video and a production cost of $1.5 million, Night Trap told the story of a slumber party gone wrong and the young, nightgown-wearing houseguests who must be saved from horrible fates by the voyeuristic gamer. A commercial flop, the game's sexually exploitative setting and gameplay nonetheless made it a focal point of Congressional hearings on offensive videogame content.

Led by U.S. Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, the hearings ran from late 1992 into 1993, and resulted in an ultimatum for the industry: Form a workable, self-regulated rating system for videogames within one year, or prepare for the U.S. federal government to implement one of its own. The threat of government regulation led to the formation of not just one but a handful of rating schemes from different corners of the industry.

Sega of America led the charge with the short-lived Videogame Rating Council. Established in 1993, the system was intended to cover all U.S. releases of games for the Sega Genesis, Game Gear and Sega CD. The VRC featured three ratings: General Audiences, MA-13 (Parental Discretion Advised) and MA-17 (Not Appropriate For Minors). The system was simultaneously simplistic and confusing; the lack of rating detail, combined with Sega's failure to document or explain their meaning, often left consumers puzzled over the actual nature of the game's content.

Also founded in 1993 was the 3DO Rating System, for games released in North America on the 3DO console. Similar to Sega's VRC, the 3DO Rating System was even narrower in focus - 3DO games only, which were scant in number - and featured four vague but easy-to-follow ratings: E (Everyone), 12 (Parental Guidance for 12 and Under), 17 (Parental Guidance for 17 and Under), and AO (Adults Only). In a significant improvement over Sega's VRC, details of the in-game content would be contained on the back of the box.

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