Videogame Rating Council
The Videogame Rating Council (V.R.C.) was introduced by Sega of America in 1993 to rate all video games that were released for sale in the United States on the Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, Sega CD, and rarely, some computer games. The rating had to clearly appear on the front of the box and on all the advertisements for the video game. It was later supplanted by the industry-wide Entertainment Software Rating Board.
As the 16-bit era of video games began in the late 1980s, their content became more realistic. The increased graphical and audio fidelity of the products made violent scenes appear more explicit, especially those containing blood. As controversy stemmed around the realism of this violence, 1992 games Mortal Kombat and Night Trap entered the limelight. Mortal Kombat is a "brutal" fighting game and Night Trap is a full-motion video Sega CD game where players protect a slumber party from vampires. The games were at the center of federal hearings held from December 9, 1993 to March 4, 1994 by United States Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herbert Kohl.[note 1] As a result, the video game industry was given a year to create its own classification system or to otherwise have one imposed on them by the federal government.
Prior to the hearings, Sega had created its own Videogame Rating Council (VRC) in June 1993. The council consisted of experts in education, psychology, and sociology as appointed by Sega. The VRC was one of several ratings groups to appear (among, e.g., 3DO's 3DO Rating System). The VRC classified games that worked with Sega's consoles into three categories based on age: GA ("general audiences"), MA-13 ("mature audiences"), and MA-17 ("for adults"). It was criticized by journalists and consumer groups for vagueness and inconsistency, and other companies did not want Sega to be in charge of the ratings organization.
Following the hearings, the games industry created the Interactive Digital Software Association in April 1994, which made a proposal for a rating system. The proposal was adopted by the United States Congress in July 1994 and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was founded in September to execute the plan. The VRC ultimately folded that year when replaced by the ESRB. VRC ratings had been used on several hundred games made by Sega and others.
The three different ratings were as follows:
|GA — General Audiences: Appropriate for all audiences. No blood or graphic violence. No profanity, no mature sexual themes and no usage of drugs or alcohol.|
|MA-13 — Mature Audiences: Parental Discretion Advised. The game was suitable for audiences thirteen years of age or older (or teenagers). Game could have some blood in it and more graphic violence than a "GA" game.|
|MA-17 — Mature Audiences: Not appropriate for minors. The game was suitable for audiences seventeen years of age or older. Games could have lots of blood, graphic violence, mature sexual themes, profanity, drug or alcohol usage.|
|NYR or, Not Yet Rated: This rating only appeared in advertising and indicated that the game had not yet been rated by the V.R.C. The modern equivalents would be ESRB's RP (Rating Pending) rating and PEGI's TBC label.|
The rating symbols appear above in their standard black and white format, but were typically recolored when appearing on actual box art.
Before the Videogame Rating Council
While rival console manufacturer Nintendo enforced strict content guidelines for games released on its hardware, Sega differentiated itself with a more liberal content policy, allowing for the depiction of blood and graphic violence in software released on its home consoles, provided that the publisher label the game's packaging with a generic "Parental Advisory" warning.
The first company to take advantage of this greater levity was publisher Razor Soft. In 1990, they released a Sega Genesis port of the 1988 home computer game Techno Cop, which depicted criminals and civilians (some of whom were children) spraying what appeared to be blood when shot at. The game had limited commercial success.
In 1991 Razor Soft released a second home computer port for the Genesis titled Stormlord, a fantasy adventure game centered around the rescue of female fairies from an evil queen. The nude fairies found in the original release were edited for the Genesis version, wearing revealing clothing instead. Like Techno Cop, Stormlord found limited critical and commercial success.
That same year Tengen released the popular arcade game Pit Fighter for the Sega Genesis. The fighting game's characters were created by digital filming. The characters looked realistic and the game was a preview of what Midway Games would perfect with its Mortal Kombat arcade game. Pit Fighter had limited success because while its fighting looked more realistic than anyone had ever seen before on the Genesis, the animation was choppy and control did not provide the player with many fighting moves. Razor Soft would try and create a popular fighting game when it released Activision's Mondu's Fight Palace for the Sega Genesis, under the title of Slaughter Sport, which created characters through the traditional means of animation, however the game's alien characters had a certain subtle mature allure. One of the characters was a female punk that would attack with her mohawk hair.
In 1992 Namco released Splatterhouse 2 for the Sega Genesis. The game featured a male character who wore a cursed mask and had to fight the forces of evil to save his girlfriend. The blood in the game was green ooze that came out of the monsters the player killed. As with the case of the two Razor Soft games, Splatterhouse 2 had a parental advisory label on the game's box in tiny, red print. Splatterhouse 2 was a commercial success and led to the release of Splatterhouse 3 in 1993.
These games represented a small trickle of pre-V.R.C. games for the Sega Genesis. Most games were suitable for all audiences and most of these more mature games had limited commercial success because the blood or partial nudity was treated as a gimmick. Yet, two Sega Genesis games in 1992 created a national debate over the content of video and compelled Sega to develop the Videogame Rating Council.
Mortal Kombat was not the first arcade fighting game with graphic violence and gore, but it was the first to achieve widespread success.
However, Sega allowed the player to restore the controversial content with a secret code, announced the creation of the Videogame Rating Council and gave Mortal Kombat a MA-13 rating. The result was that the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat outsold the Super Nintendo version. However, the commercial success of the game, including a marketing campaign by Acclaim to prepare consumers for "Mortal Monday", and the fact that the Videogame Rating Council opened the doorway for games to be sold on a Sega console system with adult content promoted national outrage.
Mortal Kombat was not the only game to prompt Sega to create the video game rating.
In 1993, Konami ported the popular arcade game Lethal Enforcers to the Sega Genesis and Sega CD platforms. In this first-person shooting game, players shoot at digitally-created images of criminals. The game worked with a sophisticated prop shaped of a gun called the Konami Justifier that was packaged with the game. The player would simply point and shoot targets as opposed to using a general controller.
The major difference in each game was the setting and the introduction of games on a Compact Disc (CD). A CD could store much more data than memory on a cartridge and thus replaced the digitally created characters with streaming, full motion video. In 1993, American Laser Games ported their laserdisc arcade game Mad Dog McCree to the Sega CD system. This game was set in the Old West. In 1994, Who Shot Johnny Rock? changed the setting to the era of 1920's American gangsters, while Drugwars was set in the contemporary environment of the US Drug Enforcement Administration's War on Drugs.
Digital Pictures entered into the first person shooting genre with zombies Corpse Killer in 1994 and space aliens in Ground Zero: Texas. Sega even got into the genre with enemy aircraft in Tomcat Alley. These full motion video Sega CD games had cheesy actors, low budget special effects and the Sega CD video capabilities were nowhere near film quality. Often the full motion video was not full screen and it looked grainy and pixelated due to the hardware limitations of the Sega CD. Yet, the graphics were realistic enough to ensure that the games automatically received an MA-13 or an MA-17 rating.
Games such as Lethal Enforcers restricted game play to shooting digitally created criminals, zombies and aliens. In 1992 Digital Pictures released a second type of full-motion video game based on voyeurism. The premise of Night Trap was borrowed from slasher films. The game has not aged well,[according to whom?] as full motion video games quickly became an "interactive" fad that died quickly.
Yet, in 1992 Night Trap's extensive full motion video was groundbreaking and while it had scenes with red liquid in jars and another scene with a female in a nightgown being attacked hinted at what full motion video could do in the future. Sega gave Night Trap a MA-17 label (1992) and the video game industry soon forgot about full motion video games because consumers grew weary of playing games that were a format of a first person perspective shooting game.
Night Trap is remembered by many[who?] because it was the game most often cited by media watchdog interest groups and members of the U.S. Congress that the video game industry was allowing games with graphic sex and violence in them.
Many video game reviewers and consumers saw the introduction of the Videogame Rating Council as a sign that Sega of America was no longer going to censor the content of video games sold for a Sega home console. While Sega had tolerated blood and graphic violence in video games pre-V.R.C., nudity, profanity, and homosexuality had remained prohibited themes and were often removed before an original computer game or a role-playing game was released for the English speaking Sega market.
In addition, Sega of America never released brochures to the public or explained the qualifications for a game getting a particular rating and thus there seemed to be inconsistencies. For example, the Sega CD editions of two computer games; Rise of the Dragon and Snatcher both got the MA-17 label and it was assumed that it was because of the violence, profanity, and sexual innuendos that existed, but Sega never explained. Another example, would be the fact that the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat was given a MA-13 label, while the Sega CD version of the game was given a MA-17 label, with the only major content difference between the two games was that the player needed to enter in a secret code to enable the blood and graphic violence in the Sega Genesis edition. In the Sega CD edition the player had to enter in a secret code which would actually tone down the blood and graphic violence.
The game Castlevania: Bloodlines was rated GA despite scenes of blood and gore (zombies being cut in half, or having their upper torsos burst into bloody messes, and Harpies that can be decapitated with the wounds gushing blood), not to mention the dripping blood in the intro sequence of the game.
The game Mega Man: The Wily Wars was rated MA-13 despite there being no blood or graphic violence.
Further complicating the situation was that games sold for the Sega home console systems were still being censored. Despite the MA-17 label, both Rise of the Dragon and Snatcher had some of the mature images edited. Even Sega of America did not seem to be taking its own rating system seriously as it radically altered Streets of Rage 3 before it was sold outside of Japan, including the removal of a playable homosexual character. One game Corpse Killer received a MA-17 for "Zombie and Voodoo themes" though there was very little blood in the game.
Notes and references
- Budziszewski, P. Konrad (2012). "Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)". In Wolf, Mark J. P. Encyclopedia of Video Games: The Culture, Technology, and Art of Gaming. ABC-CLIO. pp. 196–197. ISBN 978-0-313-37936-9.
- Caron, André H.; Cohen, Ronald I. (2013). "7: The History of the Regulation of Video Games". Regulating Screens: Issues in Broadcasting and Internet Governance for Children. McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 91–94. ISBN 978-0-7735-4210-5.
- Foerstel, Herbert N. (1997). Free Expression and Censorship in America: An Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press – via Questia.
- Media related to Videogame Rating Council at Wikimedia Commons