Video Game History: Content Rating in Video Games

Video games and violence… Yes, I know this sounds like the media’s favorite topic when it comes to video games.

A common theory is that playing video games raises aggression in younger gamers. Some studies support that theory while other studies found no connection whatsoever. For every case of aggression or antisocial behavior linked in one way or another to video games, you can find as much, if not more people, doing fine and enjoying it as a hobby.

Heck, now with online gaming being a standard, e-sports tournaments being held in front of massive audiences and let’s players and other Key Opinion Leaders frequently live streaming, video games became a more social activity than movies or music. People are even making a living from playing video games and talking about them.

But as they say, old habits die hard. Nowadays, video games are still subject of criticism: they are too violent, sexist, racist, etc. While a small part of these accusations may seem true, they still are debatable due to the video game market past history and the interpretation of cultural differences.

Let’s focus on these accusations and how it affected the whole industry. When it comes to controversy regarding violent content in video games, parents are usually the first ones to complain. Whether it might be graphic content, sexual innuendo, religious or mature topics, there is always going to be something that might create some sort of controversy.

Heck, even some nutjobs thought that Pokémon was the work of the Devil, according to some fundamentalist Christian groups. For some other nutjobs in the Arab and Muslim world, they think that Pokémon is part of a huge Zionist Jewish conspiracy… I’ll let you facepalm at your own pace.

All in all, parents are afraid of what their children are exposed to, and sometimes they feel like they can’t really control everything in their children’s lives. These feelings are completely understandable. Yet, that doesn’t mean that video games should suffer from this, especially coming from parents or representatives that usually know nothing about the content they’re complaining about. So many people enjoy playing video games: you get involved in great stories, your sense of adventure kicks in and makes you yearn for quests, enemies to fight, world/people to save.

So to better inform parents or younger players on what they might encounter in the video game they’re considering, content rating was invented. Most of the games, if not all of them, are reviewed and rated, so that gamers and by extension parents know what they’re in for when playing/buying this game.


Death Race Arcade Flyer

But content rating didn’t exist at the birth of the video game industry. It had to be created at one point or another. And nothing’s better than a good old controversy over a game that’s anything but representative of the video game industry.

Controversies regarding violent or graphic content in video games can be dated back to the 80’s, with DeathRace, an arcarde game released in 1976.

In this game adapted from the movie DeathRace 2000, the player controlled a car and had to run over gremlins in order to score points. The gremlins were just human-looking stick figures, due to graphic limitations at the time.

Each time they ran over a gremlin, it screamed and a tombstone would show up. Here’s some gameplay footage so you can see what the game looks like:



After this controversy, another sparked later around 1982, with Mystique, a company that published pornographic video games for the Atari 2600. A thing that most people don’t know is that the company was a subisidiary of Caballero Home Video, a pornographic film studio. I won’t go into a lot of details on the games because I think that the Angry Video Game Nerd’s episode on Atari Porn is perfect to assess the poor taste of these games.

After the 1983 video game crash, the industry wished for a better regulation when it came to quality and content. This is why Nintendo asked for every third party developer game to be licensed by them and included in the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) a chip to forbid unlicensed games to be played on the system.

Mortal Kombat

Mortal_Kombat_coverMany years laters, during the bit wars, technological advances made possible the use of Full Motion Videos (FMVs) and better graphics and sounds in video games. This brought more realism to games in the 90’s, but it was also the sign of new controversies coming and plaguing the market.

In 1992, Mortal Kombat, America’s highest grossing arcade game that year, used digitized actors instead of pixels and displayed gory and bloody fights. The game also introduced Fatalities, one of the franchise’s most notorious features, where the winner could use a very graphic move to destroy and put to shame his opponent.

The game would later come out on 4 home consoles in North America on Monday, September 13th 1993. Acclaim put in place a whole advertising campaign with trailers in movie theaters, TV commercials, print ads and even a comic book tie-in. All these ads eventually reached a culminating point when the home console versions were released on what Acclaim dubbed “Mortal Monday”.

The hype was so huge that the company had to set up reservations in advance with an expected amount of at least 2 million copies.

When it came to content, there were some differences between the home consoles. Nintendo, known for its strict policy regarding nudity, violence and profanity, removed the very explicit moves. Sega stayed the most faithful to the arcade game, but it established its own rating system for games with 3 labels: MA-17 for Mature Audiences (i.e. not appropriate for children younger than 17), MA-13 for Mature Audiences and General Audiences.

At the time, no research was made on the impact of graphic violence in interactive media, but people protesting against the game assumed that “the higher the levels of realism, the more likely children will internalize it and imitate it.” (Quote from Parker V. Page, president of San Francisco’s Children’s Television Resource and Education Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving children’s social development).

Robert Holmes, President of Acclaim at the time, replied to the criticism by saying: “We’re certainly not in the realm of creating film-quality realism. We’re dealing with A, a fantasy; B, entertainment, and C, an audience that goes well beyond the young child. The hue and cry about a 6-year-old being confused is inappropriate. You have to assume that a 6-year-old has $70 to $75 and can get in his or her car and go to the mall and buy it. That’s a fantasy that’s even more unlikely.”

“If they think rating systems are going to make violence go away, they’re missing the point,” said at the time Peter T. Main, former Executive Vice President of Marketing & Sales for Nintendo of America.

Night Trap

Night_Trap_CoverAnother game stirred some controversy around the same period of time as Mortal Kombat, Night Trap.

In this game, or more of an interactive movie, the player has to monitor events happening inside a house. While it seems like a typical American house, weird things have been happening inside. Five girls who previously stayed in the house disappeared. A new group of scantily clad girls are staying in the house and it’s your role to protect them from a gang of vampire house invaders who are looking for some fresh blood.

Controversy came from the voyeurism aspect of the game and some apparently graphic scenes due to the extensive use of FMVs. Despite stirring the same kind of controversy, Night Trap isn’t as known as Mortal Kombat. Some teenagers were asked by the New York Times about this game and said the following: “It makes girls feel like pieces of meat”/ “That’s a little too much,” one teenager said, adding that he thought Mortal Kombat was also violent. But, he said, “most kids realize it’s just a game. I don’t think they have anything to do with violence.”

At the time, Nintendo criticized Sega for this game that “will never be produced for a Nintendo system”. After many complaints, Toys’R’Us stopped selling Night Trap because it was deemed too violent for children, but it kept selling Mortal Kombat.

As controversial as this game was, it was very cheesy when it came to production value and acting. I mean, here’s what happens when the so-called vampires catch one of the girls:

I mean, come on…

Again, if you wish to see more of Night Trap and other FMV games, I recommend you to watch AVGN’s episode on the Sega CD.

Lethal Enforcers

Lethal_EnforcersAnother game that came around the same time and sparked a similar but not as big controversy was Lethal Enforcers.

In this Konami game released in 1992, players assumed the role of police officers in the city of Chicago. The game was about crime fighting and involved shooting terrorists, drug deal-dealers and highjackers.

Gameplay-wise, it works a lot like Virtua Cop, Players point guns at actors on the screen and fire at them. The actors collapse if they are hit. The controversy came from the use of digitized actors to portray the enemies. When it came out, the game was labeled MA-17 by Sega and was only available at computer stores and not at toy stores.

Answering the controversies

In a response to the whole controversy that was rekindled by Mortal Kombat and other games, senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl held hearings in late 1992 to 1993 to discuss the realism and depiction of violence in video games.

Besides all the complaints from parents and educators, the hearings became the scene of clashes between Nintendo and Sega. Yes, even at at time when video game makers were accused of irresponsibly creating and publishing violent video games, Nintendo and Sega were duking it out in the Congress. Talk about rivalry to the extreme.

On one side of the ring, Nintendo’s then Chairman Howard Lincoln (now CEO of the Seattles Mariners baseball team) representing a company yet lacking a rating system but with clear-cut guidelines on video game content. On the other side of the ring, Sega’s then Vice President Bill White representing a company seen as more “edgy” than Nintendo but with an already established rating system.

Lincoln talked about Night Trap and how it “simply has no place in our society”. White argued in favor of Sega thanks to its existing rating system, and even went as far as playing some “violent” Nintendo games while pointing out the fact that video games presumably suitable for general audiences wasn’t enough. He even brought a Super Scope gun controller to show the audience some accessories that can be interpreted as an incentive to violence.

Despite all this bickering between Nintendo and Sega, video game makers had to put aside their differences when confronted with the possible threat they were all facing. After the hearings, the video game industry had one year to build a content rating system or else, the federal government would have to create its own rating system, which would have been harsher.

If you wish to watch the hearings, here’s a Youtube video (courtesy of K. Huntington for uploading it):

A political trade group was born and known as the Interactive Digital Software Association (ISDA) in April 1994. It was later renamed in July 2003 as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

Sega tried to push its own rating system but Nintendo refused to adopt its main competitor’s rating system, thus the neutral Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was created and officially launched on September 1st, 1994.

As the outcries and complaints came from violence in television, movie theaters and video games, the rating system was said to be modeled from the the system used in the movie industry. At the time, games began to come on CD-ROM. Some of them took advantage of this and used interactive video segments with live-action characters, blurring even more the lines between video games, other visual media and reality. But it didn’t just copy the movie industry’s or Sega’s initial rating system. It added descriptions like “Blood and Gore”.

From this moment on, all games had to be rated by this board, with the rating displayed on the front of the video game’s packaging. But this didn’t come for free, as game developers/publishers have to pay a fee if they want their game reviewed by the ESRB. They didn’t have much of a choice as console and PC makers as well as retailers requested that games had to be rated.

Other countries also reacted on the matter and created their own rating systems: PEGI in Europe, CERO in Japan, the Australian Classification Board (ACB), … Most of these are sponsored by the government, and some are part of the country’s or regional movie classification board.

Nowadays, rating has become part of of a video game release. Content rating is also adapting slowly to changes in how people play video games. Recently, Google announced that the Play Store will adopt the ESRB system for Android games, while Apply will keep on using a generic system.


If you’re curious about how Nintendo of America censored some of its games, here’s an illustrated Gamesradar article addressing this topic.


Andrews, Edmund L. – “Industry Set to Issue Video Game Ratings As Complaints Rise” – The New York Times – December 9th, 1993

Chalk, Andy – “Inappropriate Content: A Brief History of Videogame Ratings and the ESRB” – The Escapist Magazine – July 20th, 2007

Elmer-Dewitt, Philip – “Too Violent For Kids?” – TIME Magazine – September 27th, 1993

Gruson, Lindsey – “Video Violence: It’s Hot! It’s Mortal! It’s Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent” – The New York Times – September 16th, 1993

Kent, Steven – “The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon-The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World” – Three Rivers Press – October 2nd, 2001

Kohler, Chris – “Videogame Makers Propose Ratings Board to Congress” – Wired – July 29th, 1994

Nichols, Peter M. – “Home Video” – The New York Times – December 17th, 1993

Redburn, Tom – “Toys ‘R’ Us Stops Selling a Violent Video Game” – The New York Times – December 17th, 1993

3 responses to “Video Game History: Content Rating in Video Games

    • It’s a shame, indeed. But on a brighter side, people have become more and more accepting of video games. It is a staple of current pop culture. Just ask any one about Mario or other famous titles.

      Yet, there still is a lack of seriousness regarding how people treat the industry. Only a few people talk about how big of an industry video games became, with GTA V becoming the fastest selling entertainment product and grossing more than a billion dollars in just 3 days.

  1. Pingback: Controversial Games – Shoutout to Game Sack | Late Gaming with Omar·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s