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Published:April 19th, 2014 10:36 EST
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Games For Everyone - Entertainment Software Association Turns 20

By William Giorgio

April 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Entertainment Software Association.  Formerly known as the Interactive Digital Software Association until 2003, this group played a key part in evolving the video game industry from something seen as a medium for kids to the massive, all-encompassing, lucrative entertainment mecca it is now.  The group showed the world that video games were an important mode of expression that had real potential in the entertainment world and could (and should) be enjoyed by everyone.  In honor of the 20th anniversary of the group, I`ve written up this retrospective on how those changes came to be.

The ESA`s formation was in response to a Congressional effort to monitor and rate video games in the early "90s due to concerns regarding an increasing amount of violent content.  To understand why government action was taken on video games, it is necessary to go over the background of the video game industry before and during the hearings.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when video games didn`t have ratings.  This could be because most video games that were made from the "70s to the early "90s didn`t feature any truly objectionable content.  Since arcade games and (most) console games were given a lot of exposure by the public, developers often played it safe and didn`t feature anything in their games that wouldn`t be suitable for a child.

In the mid-to-late "80s, Nintendo dominated the console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System.  During this time, Nintendo had very strict guidelines on what could be allowed in the games released for the console.  This was done so that the company could maintain a family-friendly image with the public and assure parents that their kids wouldn`t be playing any potentially objectionable content on their game machine.  These rules were applied to every game released on Nintendo consoles from 1985 to 1994. 

The most frequently enforced rules included no random, gratuitous, and/or excessive violence, " no incorporat[ion] or encourag[ing of] the use of illegal drugs, smoking materials, and/or alcohol " and no symbols that are related to any type of racial, religious, nationalistic, or ethnic group. "  This lead to several games getting changed, including some of the Castlevania games losing their crosses and nude statues, the game Punch-Out having to change the USSR boxer`s name from Vodka Drunkenski " to Soda Popinski, " and any games featuring Nazis as the antagonists (such as Bionic Commando and Wolfenstein 3-D) having to sanitize the enemies into politically-discharged replacements.  Of course, some questionable content still made it past Nintendo`s watching eyes.  For example, despite having all of the Nazi symbolism removed, Bionic Commando managed to get away with an almost unaltered appearance by Adolph himself as the final boss (though the game calls him Master-D. ")  To really stick it to Nintendo`s puritan guidelines, the boss calls the player a damn fool, " and when the player beats him, they are rewarded with a detailed animation of D`s head exploding into glorious 8-bit chunks.  Some other oversights made by Nintendo include allowing the LucasArts classic, Maniac Mansion, to leave in a sequence where the player microwaves a hamster into oblivion, and allowing the Bandai game, Monster Party, to get away with featuring blood, direct death references, and one of the bosses greeting the player with, Welcome.  Entrance to Hell. "

1989 saw the release of the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive outside of America), the first real competition against Nintendo.  Sega was ready to take on Nintendo with not just a 16-bit console that eclipsed the capabilities of the NES, but also with a bold, new philosophy on console games.  Sega was much more lenient with the content that went into the games released for the Genesis, and very little censorship was done on their part.  For examples of Sega`s leniency, one can easily look to the games released by Razorsoft.  The company ported over many of their home computer games to the Genesis with very little changes.  These include Techno Cop, which featured enemies bleeding profusely when they get shot, and Death Duel, in which all of the game`s non-robotic bosses get slowly dismembered upon getting shot.  Namco really took advantage of Sega`s philosophy with their release of Splatterhouse 2, a sequel to a widely-controversial 1988 horror arcade game that received a heavily censored Turbografx-16 port.  Splatterhouse 2 held nothing back and allowed the player fight zombies that split in two when they`re hit, a ghastly spirit whose eyes explode when defeated, aborted zombie fetuses hanging from ropes, and much more.  This was allowed to be sold thanks to a little blurb on the game`s box that reads, This game contains scenes depicting graphic violence which may not be suitable for younger players. "  This blurb served as a foreshadowing for what was yet to come.    

1993 was the year when objectionable content in video games became a hot-button issue.  Democratic Senator of Connecticut Joe Lieberman became abhorred by the increasing amount of violent video games on the market.  He was quoted in a Courant article from December 7, 1993 to express a desire to ban all violent video games, " and that it [would be] hard to control every measure of this, especially in a society that values free speech and First Amendment rights. " On December 9, the first in many court hearings involving the prevalence of violent video games began.  Lieberman set his sights on three specific video games released the previous year.  All three of these games made the use of either digitized photographs to give the player the impression that the game had photorealistic graphics or full motion video sequences.

The first, and easily the most controversial, was Mortal Kombat.  Developed by Midway, the game was one of the catalysts of the arcade-fighting game craze of the "90s that was started by Capcom`s Street Fighter II.  The game became (in)famous for its use of digitized actors to represent the fighters and the large amount of gratuitous blood and gore.  Most of the violence came from the game`s fatalities, which were finishing moves you could inflict on your opponent after beating them.  Depending on the character selected, the player could rip out the opponent`s heart, uppercut their head off, and even burn them down to their skeletons.  By today`s standards, the original Mortal Kombat is too off-the-wall and cartoony to be taken too seriously, but back then, it was seen as, to quote the game`s advertising, so real, it hurts. "  The controversy surrounding the game can be perfectly described by this FOX News report from 1993.


Mortal Kombat was one of the key games to push Sega to create one of the first video game ratings systems, the Videogame Rating Council.  The council was responsible for looking at the content of each game and assigning them one of three ratings: GA (General Audiences, kids could play it), MA-13 (a bit more graphic, but nothing crazy), and MA-17 (adults only.)  Mortal Kombat received two different Sega ports in 1993 that were published by Acclaim.  One was for the Genesis that was branded with an MA-13 rating, which resulted in many of the fatalities being altered.  However, the port had a cheat code that would completely uncensor the game, making it one of the more popular ports of the game.  The other was released for the Genesis add-on, the Sega CD (Mega CD outside of America), that received an MA-17 rating and wasn`t censored at all.  Nintendo gamers got their own version of Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo, but, in one of the most infamous cases of video game censorship in history, all of the fatalities were heavily altered to be less violent, the blood was recolored white so that it resembled sweat, and there was no cheat code to reverse any of it.  Hilariously enough, when Lieberman showed footage of the Super Nintendo version at the hearing, he couldn`t even figure out that the white blood was supposed to be sweat!  He just described it as, some other liquid, but it don`t look like blood. "  

The second game was Night Trap, released for the Sega CD.  This was a full-motion video game starring Diff`rent Strokes actress, Dana Plato.  The player plays a police officer who is in control of a security system inside of a house where 15 people have gone missing.  The objective is to use the cameras to find any intruders and use various traps to expel them from the house before they can get to a group of girls that are having a sleepover.  The intruders themselves are people who have been bitten by vampires, but are only in the process of becoming ones themselves.  They need to feed off blood to survive, but they do not have teeth in which to obtain it, so they use a mechanized hook to drill into their victims` necks and vacuum the blood out of them.  If that description sounded violent to you, don`t worry, the concept sounds worse on paper than in execution.  The game is relatively tame, even when compared to the other violent " games at the time.  The movie segments reek of "80s cheese (the video was actually shot in 1987), the actors give extremely hammy performances, there`s no blood or gore, and none of the deaths take place on-screen.  Unlike Mortal Kombat where the complainers at least knew the basic concept of the game, Night Trap`s controversy was rooted entirely in misunderstanding.  In the hearing, Lieberman showed the court the scene where Lisa, one of the game`s damsels, is fixing herself up in the bathroom while one of the intruders is in the shower stalking her.  When Lisa sees the intruder, she thinks it`s one of the girls trying to prank her. She is then attacked by a group of intruders, who proceed to suck her dry while carrying her out of the room.  Democratic North Dakota Senator Bryan Dorgan described the game as an effort to trap and kill women, " and that it depicted child abuse. "  What the committee didn`t know was that the scene only plays out as such if the player is idle at the controls, and if they do not save Lisa (or any of the girls, for that matter), they will reprimanded by their superior officer and receive a Game Over.  They didn`t even seem to know that the player has no direct control over the intruders!  Take a look for yourself:             


The third game brought to the attention of the court by Sen. Lieberman was Lethal Enforcers, a 1992 light gun arcade game developed by Konami.  The game was ported to the Sega Genesis, the Sega CD, and the Super Nintendo, and each version came with a toy light gun called the Justifier.  The player assumes the role of a detective who assists the police in taking out waves of criminals that are running amuck in the city.  While this game didn`t generate as much controversy as Mortal Kombat or Night Trap, the controversy that was generated was caused by a combination of factors that affected those two games.  Like Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers used digitized actors to represent the on-screen characters, and like Night Trap, the controversy was generated from misconceptions.  Lieberman believed that the game violated Sega`s own rule of not approving products [ "] that encourages criminality of any kind. "  He blamed Sega for allowing a game that encourages a kid to point a gun at a television set, and rewards his success, or her success, by increasing the firepower of the gun, " and that the on-screen characters included, innocent bystanders, who, when hit, are pumped back and bleed. "  While it is true that innocent bystanders do occupy space in the playing field, which is a staple of light gun games, if the player shoots the bystanders, the game punishes them by taking away a unit of health.  The game makes it clear that the characters you are supposed to be shooting are criminals that are not only committing crimes, but are out to kill the player.  The characters also do not bleed when they`re shot, and their death animations are about as unrealistic and cartoony as you can get.  The only blood seen in the game is when a criminal shoots the player, in which a bullet-sized blood circle appears on the screen (to the surprise of no one, both the blood circles and death animations were cut from the Super Nintendo version.)  To add insult to injury, Sega gave their versions of the game an MA-17 rating, so not only was it clearly not marketed towards kids, but kids weren`t even supposed to be able to buy the game.

The hearings continued into the following year, and not only would they involve Sega, but every other player in the gaming industry as well.  On February 3, Lieberman proposed the Video Game Rating Act of 1994.  The act, if it were passed, would establish the Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission, a government-regulated ratings board that would serve to provide parents with information about the nature of video games which are used in homes or public areas, including arcades or family entertainment centers.

Video game developers weren`t ready to be at the mercy of government regulation.  In fact, the entities that made up this competitive, cutthroat industry were willing to work together to achieve the common goal of taking back the business.  So Sega, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Acclaim, and many other companies established the Interactive Digital Software Association to give the industry some foothold in American government.  Once the coalition was formed, the developers began thinking about how to approach the ratings issue. 

Sega pushed for the rest of the developers to use the system that was being exercised by the Videogame Rating Council, which saw heavy resistance from Nintendo, who didn`t want to utilize something being used by their biggest rival.  Differences were ironed out, however, and on July 29, 1994, the IDSA proposed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to Congress.  The board was approved, and on September 1, the ratings system we use today was put into effect.

Ever since, every game that`s been sold on the market has been marked with a letter rating that is clearly marked on the game`s case/box, and each rating comes accompanied with a list of themes and images that one can expect from the game.  When the ESRB was first established, it contained the following ratings: eC (early childhood, mostly educational games), KA (Kids to Adults, contained content that was acceptable for kids 6-12), T (Teenagers, 13-16, contained moderately mature themes), M (Mature, 17 and older), and AO (Adults Only, usually only reserved for pornographic games.)  As the years went by, the KA-rating was changed to the E-rating (Everyone), and there was also the introduction of the E10+ rating, which was made so that games with very mild themes of maturity wouldn`t get stuck with a T-rating.  

This opened up new opportunities for game developers and expanded what kinds of games could be sold to a mass market, since they now couldn`t be threatened by legal action for including more mature content and themes.  Nintendo`s draconian censorship rules could now only be applied to games that sought a KA/E-rating (in which acts of censorship were very rare) and the company now had to allow more mature games into their library.  In fact, one year after the ESRB`s launch, Super Nintendo players were blessed with a completely uncensored Mortal Kombat II. The only other games that were edited for content in the US were any games that received an AO (adults only) rating and were edited by their developers bring it down to an M-rating to give the game more commercial accessibility, which, much like the Nintendo example, rarely happened.

The IDSA would continue their expansion of the game market in 1995 by helping to give video games their own public expo.  Prior to 1995, video games were given public representation at the Consumers Electronic Show.  The problem was that the show didn`t take the gaming industry seriously.  Andy Eddy, the editor-in-chief of Gamer magazine, recalled a Vegas show in which the video game section was thrown into tents in the parking lot that had to endure the bad weather.  People in the video game industry tried to appeal to the CES showrunners for better treatment, but they did not receive it.  That`s when GamePro creator, Pat Ferrell, got the idea to give video games a trade show of their own.  He called up the presidents of Sega and EA, who both expressed interest in such a show.  He then got approval from Doug Lowenstein, the president of the IDSA, to go through with his idea, but there was one thing getting in the way of that.  Around the same time, the CES, supposedly having a change of opinion, approached the IDSA with the same idea.  Ferrell needed a way to make the companies pick a side in order to assure that his show happened, so he scheduled all of the meetings with the companies on the same days as the CES meetings.  The two parties decided on a vote, with every company except Nintendo and Microsoft (who strictly made games at the time) voting in favor of Ferrell.  Nintendo had a very good relationship with the CES, having debuted the NES at their 1985 show and showcasing their games every year since.  After three to four months of debating, Gary Shapiro, the President of the CES, called Ferrell and told him that he could run the show.

With that, Ferrell and the IDSA hosted the first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the LA Convention Center that ran from May 11 to May 13.  The show proved to be a great success, seeing an attendance of 50,000 people.  The show made a huge bang with the ushering in of the fifth console generation.  Sega surprised everyone with the early release of the soon-to-be-ill-fated Sega Saturn.

Sony got their chance to show America what the original PlayStation was capable of.  They even dropped the console`s price by $100 as a response to Sega`s release of the Saturn!

Nintendo announced a delay in the release of the Nintendo 64 (then known as the Ultra 64), but they still had something new to bring to the table: the also-soon-to-be-ill-fated Virtual Boy, which was recently mocked in the trailer to Nintendo`s upcoming Tomodachi Life.

After a successful first show, it was decided that E3 was to become an annual event.  In between the `95 and `96 shows, the IDSA bought the intellectual rights to E3 from the International Data Group, the company that GamePro is a subsidiary of.  The company has been the host of the event ever since.

While the company`s major accomplishments occurred near its conception, it still served as an important figure in the video game industry from that point forward.  Even after the group established a ratings system to help parents make more informed decisions, people still complained about the possibility of kids getting a hold of violent video games.  As a result, several government entities had tried to come in and do exactly what the Entertainment Software Association prevented all of those years ago.  Some of these entities included the St. Louis County in 2003, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2006, and California Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, in which the cases lasted from 2005 to 2011, with the 2011 case being held in the Supreme Court.  All of these cases had the near-identical narrative of the state either passing or trying to pass a law that made it illegal to sell violent video games to minors on the grounds that the games could psychologically damage them.  They all resulted in the IDSA/ESA winning on the argument that the First Amendment was being violated and that the evidence suggesting the psychological scarring from video games was not concrete enough to be taken as fact.  It may be a case of history repeating itself, but it`s repetition that is necessary to keep the freedom of the video game market, as well as the principles of the United States.

The ESA has also strived to support video games not just on a legal level, but on a public level as well.  The group`s website contains several pieces of literature about how video games have improved several assets of modern life, such as education, employment, art, family, and the economy. 

The ESA assisted in promoting education via video games when they co-founded GlassLab in 2012.  The company serves to make video games that educate students on real life issues based on Common Core curriculum.  As of now, SimCity EDU: Pollution Challenge, a version of SimCity that educates kids on city pollution and the real-life science and decision making behind it, is GlassLab`s sole contribution to the gaming populace.

They have also provided links to several independent studies on the benefits of video games, as well as disproving the idea that video games promote criminal behavior.  This effort to increase education about the medium serves as a good way to get people to understand the importance of video games on both an expressive level and a practical one. 

In closing, the Entertainment Software Association helped the video game industry grow out of its niche market status into an essential part of modern entertainment.  On this 20th anniversary, we thank the group for helping games take that step into greatness.