Mortal Kombat controversies
The Mortal Kombat series of fighting games, created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, has been the subject of various controversies since its creation in the 1990s. In particular, Mortal Kombat has been often criticised from a broad spectrum of political and other positions for its excessive use of graphic and bloody violence (in both the regular combat and the Fatalities, finishing moves which allow the player to kill or otherwise maim opponent characters), which remains a popular draw of the series. The violent nature of the series, one of the earliest of its kind, has led to the creation and continued presence of the ESRB and other ratings boards for video games. Various Mortal Kombat games have been censored or banned in several countries, and the franchise was the subject of several court cases.
Controversies and censorship
The series' violence and especially its "Fatalities", a gameplay system of lethal finishing moves featured in the Mortal Kombat series, was a source of major video game controversy during the early 1990s.[note 1] A moral panic over it resulted in a U.S. Congressional hearing and helped to pave a way for the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) game rating system in 1994.[note 2] To illustrate why a government regulation of video games was needed, Democratic Party Senator Herb Kohl showed clips from 1992's Mortal Kombat and Night Trap (another game featuring digitized actors; violent but hand-drawn games such as Doom or Eternal Champions were not even mentioned in the hearings), with Professor Eugene F. Provenzo commenting that such games "have almost tv-quality graphics [but] are overwhelmingly violent, sexist and racist." Nintendo, due to their policy of screening games for content such as blood, has refused to allow gore in the game's release for their home system, while their rival Sega released it with their MA-13 rating, resulting in a great commercial success for them when millions of consumers chose their version over Nintendo's. Nintendo then attempted to use that fact to attack Sega during the hearings[note 3] and Sega's Spanish division cancelled the release of their version of Mortal Kombat in Spain, stating that they feared the game would stir up as much controversy in Spain as it had in the USA and UK. Conservative Democrat (later independent) senator Joe Lieberman was one of the first politicians to voice concerns over Mortal Kombat in 1993. He also later referenced it and Doom in his 1996 statement when he joined Kohl and the psychologist David Walsh for a campaign to inform the Congress about the new wave of violent games such as Resident Evil. TIME commented in 2012 that "the reason the 1992 classic remains seminal is because it broke an implicit taboo about what was okay to put in a game."
As in the case of the first Mortal Kombat game, the absurdly bloody content of Mortal Kombat II became the subject of a great deal of controversy regarding violent video games. In 1994, Mortal Kombat II was put in the index of the works deemed harmful to young people by Germany's Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons (Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien, or BPjM). Next year, all versions of the game except for Game Boy were confiscated from the German market for violating §131 of the country's penal code, that is for showing a gruesome violence against humans (the ban ended in 2005, due to the ten-year limitation for confiscations). In 2010, Swiss Social Democrat politician Evi Allemann campaigned to outlaw Mortal Kombat, Manhunt and video games displaying interactive "cruel acts of violence" in Switzerland. Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon said in 2012: "I've always had the position that the rating system was a good idea and should be put in place. Once Mortal Kombat II came out, there was a rating system in place [in North America]. We were [having] an M-rated game, and everybody knew the content that was in there, so it became almost a non-issue." It was also an unique case of video game violence being censored in Japan, where Nintendo insisted to change the game's blood color to green and the screen would turn black-and-white for all character-specific Fatality moves. Midway Games was also later forced to tone down the Joker's finishing move to secure the ESRB T-rating for Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.
In 1998, a showing of video tape recording of gameplay from one of Mortal Kombat games helped to pass the Democratic Party's Barry Silver sponsored Florida House of Representatives bill to regulate video game violence that Silver said has "affected the moral fiber of our youth." The bill was first urged by the Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles and the Florida State University professor Murray Krantz, a specialist in children development, and then gained support from more than 50 lawmakers and various groups ranging from the Florida Parent-Teacher Association to the Christian Coalition of America; Chiles alleged that such games can become "an instruction manual for murder and mayhem." The House Governmental Rules and Regulation Committee passed the bill unanimously after seeing the tape, the content of which was described by an AP reporter as follows: "After a male warrior repeatedly pummels a female opponent, the game urges him to 'finish her'. He then punches his hand into her chest and rips out her heart as blood gushes to the floor. At other times, the winning warrior instead pulls out the entire spine." The bill's critics such as the Interactive Digital Software Association founder and president Doug Lowenstein regarded it unconstitutional as violating the free speech provision in the First Amendment. Video game magazine Next Generation called it "a serious threat to video games in Florida" and expressed concern that the measure "might lead to the removal of all public video games in the state and possibly start a national trend."
Mortal Kombat 's advertisements have also received criticism and were subjected to censorship. During the 1993 hearings on violent video games, Senator Lieberman criticized the video game console manufacturer company Sega for one of its TV commercials, saying that it promotes violence. The video, as described by Weekly Reader, "shows a boy gaining the respect of his friends after winning Mortal Kombat. At the end of the commercial, the boy angrily knocks over a tray of cookies given to him by friends now frightened by the boy's fighting ability. The boy roars, 'I said I wanted chocolate chip!'" The 2011 edition of Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition awarded the Mortal Kombat series with a world record for the earliest video game poster to be censored: "On April 22, 2003, Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) took the then unprecedented step of condemning the poster campaign promoting Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. They claimed that the poster - which showed a 'hoodie' wiping his bloodstained hand on a businessman above the words 'It's in us all' – was 'irresponsible' and 'condoned violence'. The poster was unsurprisingly withdrawn." Blood on the Carpet, a TV commercial for 2005's Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks created by London-based company Maverick Media, was "slammed by the Advertising Standards Authority as condoning and glorifying violence." The video, as described by The Register, "features a boardroom scene in which a Mr Linn, the mysterious trouble-shooter at a sales meeting, instructs two men to fight. Punches lead to a pen being stabbed into an arm; then a water jug is smashed over an executive's head – before his heart is ripped from his chest. Mr Linn concludes proceedings by decapitating another executive with his hat." The result of the complaint was, as quoted from the ASA report: "We told Midway not to repeat the approach and told them to consult CAP Copy Advice before producing future ads."
In the aftermath of 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the Democratic U.S. President Bill Clinton stated that "video games like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, and Doom, the very game played obsessively by the two young men who ended so many lives in Littleton, make our children more active participants in simulated violence." Attorney Jack Thompson, a Republican and Christian conservative activist against sexual themes and violence in video games and other entertainment media, has previously represented the families of three of victims of the shooting, who unsuccessfully sued the producers of Doom, Quake and Mortal Kombat, saying he intends "to hurt" the video game industry. In 2006, Thompson also ordered a cease and desist to Mortal Kombat developer and publisher Midway Games, writing: "It has today come to my attention that the newly recently [sic] Mortal Kombat: Armageddon contains an unauthorized commercial exploitation of my name, photograph, image, and likeness within the game." Midway did not respond. In fact, what Thompson thought was an actual character put by the developer into the game, was actually just created by a player who used the game's "Kreate-a-Fighter" mode to construct a likeness of Thompson and demonstrated it in a video clip posted online. Instructions how to make a "Jack Thompson" character, described there as "the most violent man in America," were published two days earlier by video game website Gaming Target. Thompson had the offending video successfully removed, but the article has remained online in an unaltered form. He was also interviewed in the 2009 documentary Spencer Halpin's Moral Kombat.
Some have attributed the series' supposed influence in particular cases of real-life lethal violence other than the Columbine massacre. In 1999, Brazil banned Mortal Kombat, Postal, Carmageddon, and four violent first-person shooters for allegedly inspiring twenty-four-year-old medical student Mateus da Costa Meira's deadly shooting rampage in a cinema in São Paulo, which was primarily blamed on Duke Nukem 3D. In 2007, after twenty-year-old Patrick Morris used a shotgun to shot five times and kill fifteen-year-old Diego Aguilar in Klamath Falls in what prosecutors alleged was a drug-deal related killing, the defense was reported as having said that violent video games such as Mortal Kombat "may have blurred Morris' ability to distinguish reality and the consequences of his actions." In 2008, the series was liked to the so-called "Mortal Kombat murder" case in which seventeen-year-old Lamar Roberts and sixteen-year-old Heather Trujillo were accused of fatally beating Trujillo's preteen half-sister, Zoe Garcia. The pair told investigators they were acting out moves from a Mortal Kombat game; prosecutor Robert Miller stated at a preliminary hearing: "Zoe Garcia was the object of abuse by both Heather Trujillo and Lamar Roberts caused these injuries with Mortal Kombat [sic]." Roberts and Trujillo were convicted for murder, but the victim's parents said they were convinced the Mortal Kombat story was made up by the killers.[note 4]
In 2000, two related studies on the effects of media violence by psychologists Craig A. Anderson and Karen Dill, which involved notably violent games including Mortal Kombat and Wolfenstein 3D, concluded that playing such games makes players, especially male, act more aggressively. Mortal Kombat then again came upon a year-long "flurry of new scrutiny" from U.S. media and lawmakers. During the 2000s, however, the controversy surrounding the series had wound down significantly. AP writer Lou Kesten wrote in 2006 that Lieberman has remained "one of the video game industry's most persistent critic, but Mortal Kombat is no longer the flashpoint of the game violence debate. Its brand of mano-a-mano brawling is seen as kind of old-fashioned today, now that the likes of Grand Theft Auto are serving up the indiscrimate slaughter of innocent civilians." When Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, blamed violent video games, including Mortal Kombat, as an allegedly contributing factor in a rise of shooting killing spree incidents in the United States in wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, several commentators felt that LaPierre's choice of Mortal Kombat was an outdated "pop culture reference." In his statement, LaPierre said: "Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media and Obama’s budget kill people. ... And here's another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse."
In 2005, TIME noted that the Democratic politicians such as Lieberman and the conservative-liberal Hillary Clinton "lambasted Mortal Kombat, highlighted violent games more than a decade ago (...) but members feel the party has ignored these issues in recent years, allowing [the] Republicans to seize the high ground on moral values." The 2011 California state ban on selling violent video games to minors, proposed and advocated by a Republican and former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was struck down in a 7:2 vote against it the Supreme Court of the United States case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association on the grounds that "video games qualify for First Amendment protection." The Justices' majority opinion declared: "Reading Dante is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat. But these cultural and intellectual differences are not constitutional ones. Crudely violent video games, tawdry TV shows, and cheap novels and magazines are no less forms of speech than The Divine Comedy, and restrictions upon them must survive strict scrutiny." Justice Elena Kagan was quoted as calling Mortal Kombat "an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing."
The series' 2011 reboot game Mortal Kombat was banned in Australia, Germany, and South Korea. The Australian Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor asked to be briefed on the decision, citing "public disquiet on the issue". Previously, the original MK game, along with Time Killers and Night Trap, and its media coverage contributed to the Australian Senate setting up an inquiry that led to the Commonwealth Classification Act, which came into force on March 1, 1995. The Act has introduced the Australian Classification Board almost exactly 18 years before the 2011's Mortal Kombat game was finally banned by the Board for its "explicit depictions of dismemberment, decapitation, disembowelment and other brutal forms of slaughter." The publisher Warner Bros. Interactive's appeal was repealed, but following the introduction of the adults-only rating, the ban was overturned in Australia and the game re-rated R18+ uncensored.
A 2011 study conducted by Dr. Brock Bastian from the University of Queensland's School of Psychology and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology claimed to having "found evidence that playing violent video games leads players to see themselves, and their opponents, as lacking in core human qualities such as warmth, open-mindedness, and intelligence." The study's participants were playing Mortal Kombat, fighting against each other and against AI-controlled opponents. Bastian said he believes "the findings of this study point to the potential long-term effects of violent video game play and suggest that repeated exposure to these dehumanising experiences may result in chronic changes in self-perception." An earlier laboratory experiment conducted by psychologists Brad Bushman and Bryan Gibson and using Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and two other violent games (Resistance: Fall of Man and Resident Evil 5) appeared to indicate "that the aggression stimulating effects of a violent video game can persist long after the game has been turned off, if people ruminate about the violent content in the game."
Some others have condemned the games from other perspectives, such as feminist and racial activists. Guy Aoki, the president of the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans, rebuked Mortal Kombat II in 1994 for allegedly perpetuating existing stereotypes of Asians as martial arts experts with the game's portrayal of characters such as Kitana, Kung Lao, Liu Kang, Mileena, Raiden, Scorpion, Shang Tsung and Sub-Zero. Allyne Mills, publicist for Acclaim Entertainment, answered: "This is a fantasy game, with all different characters. This is a martial arts game which comes from Asia. [sic] The game was not created to foster stereotypes." In 1995, crtitical studies professor Marsha Kinder denounced Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3 for allegedly allowing what she termed "a misogynist aspect of combat." Kinder was quoted as saying that in MKII, "some of the most violent possibilities are against women. Also, their fatality moves are highly eroticised. One of the women characters kills her opponent by inflating him until he explodes, another by sucking him in and spitting out his bones. Talk about Spider Woman!" In media scholars Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins' 1999 book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, the series was used to represent "the basic boy cyberworld of aggression, action and dead bodies." Liberal journalist Ellen Goodman commented while reporting about the book: "Much as we want little girls in the computer circle, it's hard to lament the fact that our daughters are not drawn to Kombat bootstraps."[note 5] Maddy Myers of The Boston Phoenix charged in 2011 that Mortal Kombat "represents everything that's awful about video games. It's trashy, it's corny, it's gory, it's sexist, it's racist — and it's deceptively addictive."[note 6] In 2013, video game commentator TotalBiscuit took on to Twitter and reddit to defend Mortal Kombat from accusations of misogyny, citing the term's dictionary definition and other arguments. On the other hand, game journalist Patrick Klepek (Giant Bomb) argued that "designs might not be misogynistic if we’re going by the baseline definition of 'hatred of women,' but they’re certainly tainted with sexism. (Of which the second Oxford Dictionary definition is 'attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on gender.') Every single woman in Mortal Kombat is wearing the equivalent of a bikini."
- Actor Daniel Pesina (Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Smoke and Noob Saibot) sued Midway Games, Williams Electronics Games, Inc, Acclaim Entertainment, Nintendo and Sega in 1996, alleging "that all defendants used his persona, name, and likeness without authorization in the home version of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II and the related products." The conclusion of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois case Daniel Pesina v. Midway Manufacturing Co., presided over by Elaine E. Bucklo, was that "alleged use of martial artist's name, likeness or persona in a martial arts video game did not violate his common-law right of publicity."
- In 1997, actors Philip Ahn (Shang Tsung), Elizabeth Malecki (Sonya Blade), and Katalin Zamiar (Kitana, Mileena, Jade) jointly sued Midway Games, Williams Electronics Games, Acclaim, Nintendo and Sega for using their likenesses in an unauthorized way, seeking "a constructive trust on all monies defendants received and continued to receive from their alleged breach of their duties to [the] plaintiffs." Ahn, Zamiar, and Malecki alleged "that they were only modeling for the coin-operated video game, not the subsequent home video, home computer, and hand-held versions of the game." The conclusion of the Northern District of Illinois Court case Philip Ahn, Elizabeth Malecki, and Katalin Zamiar v. Midway Manufacturing, et al., presided over by Robert William Gettleman, was that "the plaintiffs lost on all counts because they had all consented to the videotaping and because the choreography and choice of movements used in the game were not jointly 'authored' by the individuals."
- In 1997, thirteen-year-old Noah Wilson was killed by Yancy Salazar, also thirteen, when Salazar stabbed Wilson in the chest with a kitchen knife and severed his aorta, leaving Wilson to die after an hour of massive blood loss. The victim's mother, Andrea Wilson, alleged that her son was killed due to Salazar's strong interest in Mortal Kombat, and claimed that Salazar was so "obsessed" with the game that he thought he was actually the Mortal Kombat character Cyrax who, according to her claims, uses a Fatality in which he grabs the opponent in a headlock and stabs his opponent in the chest, a nonexistent finisher that the character has never actually performed. The verdict of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut case Wilson v. Midway Games, Inc., presided over by Janet Bond Arterton, was that "Wilson's complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."
- In 2009, Lawrence Kasanoff, producer of the Mortal Kombat films, TV series, soundtracks and live tour, and his company Threshold Entertainment sued Midway in bankruptcy court over what he claimed were his intellectual property (IP) interests in the franchise in order to preserve his IP rights including copyrights to certain MK characters and to retain the right to create derivative film and television projects based on the franchise. Kasanoff attempted to block a $33-million bid for MK assets by Warner Bros. company. The complaint claimed: "The Mortal Kombat series, as it stands today, is far more a creation of Threshold and Kasanoff than of Midway. Midway's creative input was almost entirely limited to the videogames. On their own, the video games provided only minimal backstory and mythology, and only flat, 'stock' characters. ... Kasanoff and Threshold were responsible for virtually all of the creative input that went into turning the videogame concept into a multimedia enterprise." Two other lawsuits related to millions of dollars of unpaid royalties were filed during the periods of 2000-2004 and 2005-2008. In 2011, Los Angeles County Superior Court judge Ronald M. Sohigian awarded Kasanoff only $14,981 and dismissed his other claims, while ordering Threshold to pay Warner Bros. $25,412 in legal fees after determining that Warner Bros. was the "prevailing party." Kasanoff appealed against the ruling and the denial of a jury trial.
- According to The Realm of Mortal Kombat editor-in chief and site manager Jeff Greeson, as cited by GameSpot, "everything was over the top. From the pools of blood spewing from your character, to the outrageous gruesomeness of the game's fatalities. Mortal Kombat not only shocked anyone who had ever played the game, but those who simply walked by the game were mesmerized by its gore. Mortal Kombat was generally quiet in the arcades, at least as far as lawmakers were concerned. Once Acclaim received the rights to bring the game to the home console markets, they brought [it] into the spotlight of the general public. The media picked up on the fears that the public had of bringing such violent imagery into their homes through a device that children played with. ... When you pinpoint and highlight the game's violence and nothing else, it was hard to be a defender of the game during that time."
- Years later, in 2010, Ed Boon revealed that he had actually sympathised with much of the outrage and admitted, "I wouldn't want my ten-year-old kid playing a game like that."
- As narrated by Greeson, "in the hearing, a Nintendo representative attacked Sega for its release of violent games and said his own company had tried to mitigate the industry's worst excesses. In response, the Sega representative pulled out a prop--a bazooka-style gun accessory used by some Nintendo games--and asked if that was the appropriate means to teach nonviolence to children."
- Video game website Destructoid editor Jonathan Holmes commented: "So, if you are anything like me, the first thing you thought when you read that headline is 'Who the hell still plays Mortal Kombat?' A natural reaction, even in the face of such a evocative and depressing news story. But it's not a reaction that most adult Americans will share. Most adult Americans will think 'When the hell are they going to ban those terrible things, how many more children must die?' Those terrible things, or course, are not stupid teenagers, or liquor stores that sell to minors. Those terrible things are video games."
- In another 1999 article, Goodman also mentioned the game negatively by writing that while "you're worrying about violence and gratitious sex" and "may want to get Mortal Kombat off your computer," the "folks on your right" are "worrying about [issues such as] keeping the sexes in their designated roles," when arguing that left-wingers should not join up with conservatives into a common "anti-entertainment, anti-Hollywood brigade and assume that we are all singing the same key."
- Myers wrote, "most of the fighters represent some sort of racial caricature. Nightwolf the Native American warrior leads the pack. ... The entire game is an alienating reminder that if you're not a white, heterosexual male, it's not 'for' you. Or perhaps the intended message is, 'Violence is sexy'? Either way, I'm uncomfortable."
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