How Mortal Kombat brought M Rating to video games

Footage of Mortal Kombat was shown during a hearing of a US Senate Committee on Video Game Violence, helping to form the ESRB.

Mortal combat has been a staple in the game for decades, and its creation has had far-reaching effects within the industry. Entertainment media regulators are quite common, but Mortal combat contributed to the advent of CERS, the United States Video Game Content Review Council.

Prior to the 1990s, home console games – and all games, for that matter – did not have any age ratings. Arcades were still relatively popular, and console technology was rudimentary enough that realistic depictions of video games of sexual or violent content were rarely found in people’s homes. Mortal combat, however, was already known for his bloody and violent deaths in the arcades. When it came to consoles in 1993, the graphical nature of the game came under scrutiny from concerned parents, and the issue ultimately involved the United States Congress.


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Joseph Lieberman, then United States Senator representing Connecticut, Mortal combat and CRT television before two Senate committees in 1993 to show colleagues the allegedly corrupt content children were consuming on screen. Highlights of the Senate hearing have been preserved by NeoGamer on YouTube, where Lieberman can be seen solemnly describing the upcoming graphic images, warning his fellow Senators of what they’re about to see in the Sega Genesis version of Mortal combat:

“Blood splatters the competitor’s head. When a player wins, the so-called ‘death streak’ begins. The narrator of the game asks the player to finish – and I quote ‘finish’ – his opponent. The player can then choose a method of murder ranging from tearing out a heart to tearing out the head of the opponent with the spinal cord attached. “

Lieberman goes on to present a second game to the Senate, Night trap, which used footage of real actors for its interactive horror movie-like gameplay, and Deadly Executors, a prepackaged game with a light gun called “The Justifier“, used to shoot onscreen sprites with, for now, convincing graphics. Lieberman hoped the footage would spur Congress to pass legislation to grant the federal government the power to regulate the gaming industry and ” assign grades to new versions.

Mortal Kombat helped form the ESRB

Mortal Kombat helped form the ESRB

According to Polygon, much of the moral panic that surrounded Mortal combat was thanks to a marketing campaign upping the release date of its home console, dubbed “Mortals monday“, which brought the game to the attention of the general public. Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, said Polygon, “‘Deadly Monday’ was a multi-million dollar marketing campaign that included prime-time TV commercials, print ads, and giveaways, all leading to a single day of release for four different consoles.“Before the Senate hearing, an independent business group known as the Interactive Digital Software Association had already decided to create a game rating system.

The IDSA, which renamed itself in 2004 as the Entertainment Software Association, created the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the same ESRB that continues to distribute video game ratings to this day. The CERS launched its first rating scale in 1994 with five labels: Early Years, Children to Adults, Teens, Adults and Adults Only. Mortal combat received an M rating – which, of course, didn’t stop its success, as developer NeatherRealm is now reportedly working on Mortal combattwelfth main line entry.

No potential legislation made it through Congress, and lawmakers seemed happy with the introduction of ESRB ratings. The CERS is not a governing body, however, so there has been no legal repercussion for the sale of a game rated M as Mortal combat to minors, although many retailers adopt policies aligned with the rating scale.

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Sources: CERS, NeoGamer / YouTube, Polygon

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