"Parents Should Read the Box," Sega and the Advent of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board

This blog post is a very small part of a much larger project that attempts to historicize and contextualize the origins of violent misogyny and toxic masculinity in video games culture. If video gaming’s masculinity was born in the arcades of the late 1970s and early 1980s, as others Like Carly Kocurek [1] and Shira Chess [2] have suggested, this project argues that it was honed and hardened by the home console market, especially by Sega of America in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when the home video console shifted from the living room into private domestic spaces and as game companies began aggressive marketing campaigns that ultimately helped to define an ideal masculinity and a path to rebellion that was attractive to both young white men and suburban teenage boys. An identity which has had a lasting legacy and becomes uniquely tied to the contemporary identity of many white male “gamers.”

Attempting to capitalize on a growing teen and young adult male market—no longer playing in arcades—Sega and other game makers hoped to convince young men that gaming consoles could provide the same or better experiences than the arcade and arcade machines. Companies made attempts to show that consoles were no longer toys but complex machines with graphics and narrative themes that exceeded the standards set by more advanced games from the arcades. Multiplayer games were highlighted, bringing “arcade style” competition to the home; violence, sexual innuendo, and misogyny were used to sell the games; and the new generation of consoles were sold as something more masculine and less mainstream than the Atari or Nintendo systems that had come to dominate the marketplace in years prior.

The ad campaigns and the new level of graphics and narrative sophistication that both Sega’s consoles and PC games were achieving, and the fact that many of these games were played outside of the purview of parents and adults, awoke within some (especially politicians looking for an easy scapegoat for violence and sexual promiscuity) old worries about violence, sexuality and the effects these games had on teens’ and young adults’ behavior. Like the earlier hysteria over the arcade and violent games [3], console and PC games were targeted by forces critical of the industry and the themes of the games. Coming under particular attack was Sega’s release of “Night Trap”[4] and “Mortal Kombat” [5] two games that for critics highlighted both the violent and sexual nature of an unregulated industry. An industry that was frequently turning it’s back on children and focusing its marketing and game development on teen and adult markets. In this fight, Nintendo, known for its family-friendly games and strict non-violence policies had much to gain if the Senate came down hard on Sega and PC games producers.   As Patrick Klepek writes in a story about the Senate hearings in 1992, “Nintendo was willing to play hardball over its philosophical differences with rival Sega, however. When the hearings were announced, Nintendo made sure Lieberman and others were aware of Night Trap, hoping to draw a clear distinction between the two companies.” [6] Unfortunately for Nintendo, the plan backfired.  Rather than back down, Sega took up the mantle and used this fight to promote their games and their consoles.

Led by Sega’s Tom Kalinske, who saw this fight as an opportunity to differentiate Sega’s systems from those of Nintendo and other “toy” makers, the industry argued for a self-regulating body that would operate much like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Sega in the year prior to the hearings had already begun labeling their games through their self created Video Game Ratings Council leveraging their more mature games as “hardcore” and making sure their advertising campaigns celebrated this expanding library of mature content.  Indeed, they had already released a port of RazorSoft’s “Techno Cop” the first Genesis (Mega Drive) game to feature an explicit content warning label. The game is a pretty a poor street fighter like 2D side scroller but instead of fists, your avatar fights with guns and when the bullets fly the enemies explode into a bloody mess that stays on screen as bodies pile up. Tame by today’s standards this game opened the door to more violent content and with its explicit warnings presaged the self-regulation/promotion that was to come.

In 1992 the US Senate, especially chairman Joseph Lieberman a self-styled moral crusader who in the late 1980s had helped usher in the Parents Music Resource Center’s (PMRC) labeling of explicit lyrics in music, had turned its attention to the video game industry. An industry Lieberman thought was tearing apart the moral fabric of America. Speaking before the hearing he said that videogames were “... a toy that can damage [children’s] minds” [7] and they needed to be regulated, labeled and made easier for parents to police. During the hearings, he said of Congress and himself personally that, “...we’re repelled, um, we’re disgusted by this material and yet it is a measure of our values in this society that we resist the impulse to do what I think, ahh let me say for myself I’d like to be able to pass a law saying you can’t produce this stuff anymore... ” [8] A sentiment he carried throughout the hearings and a crusade he continued well into the early 2000s.

Sega took the fight to its fan base. Using its self-published magazine Sega Visions (sent free to players who registered their Genesis consoles) as a platform Tom Kalinski accused the government of censorship and portrayed himself and Sega of North America as fighters for the free expression of their developers and the rights of consumers to choose the entertainment of their choice. In his appeal, he writes, “One might ask, why should there be any titles with violence? The same reason there are books, plays, operas, movies, and television shows with violence. Our audience is not only children. As with any form of entertainment, we must appeal to an older audience to succeed.”  He continues, “In fact, our average Genesis player is 19 years old. Our average CD player is 22 years old. And, 72 percent of our Sega CD market is adults over 18….Censoring interactive entertainment tor remove all violence makes no more sense than it would to censor it from Michael Crichton’s books, Steven Spielberg’s movies, or even Shakespeare’s plays.” Here Kalinske hints at the changing demographics of “gamer” and shows that the company is actively seeking to expand this male and older market in an attempt to profit from it. This argument was followed on the next page with letters from Sega players in support of Sega and its rating system and claiming that the government overstepped its regulatory role. As one featured letter proclaimed, “[9]Censorship like this cannot be tolerated. No government can call itself a democracy when it takes away the people’s fundamental right to choose.” Adding further fuel to the fire, the same magazine featured a letter from Ken Williams, CEO of Sierra Online, whose company had just released its 6th iteration of the soft core pornography game series “Leisure Suit Larry.” In his letter,  he too stands on the side of Sega and the industry’s right to police itself, suggesting that adult players have the right to play games that feature both violence and sex and that an industry rating system would allow parents to make smart decisions while protecting this new audience’s right to adult content. [10]

In the end Sega and PC software makers won and the fight and Senate Hearings that eventually led to the creation of Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), a system pushed by Sega and that allowed the industry to rate their own games, was used by companies like Sega to both suggest that their games were harmless but also, more cynically, to provide a way to highlight the mature themes of a growing number of games that they could market as more “hardcore” than those of their competitors.  The Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat, for instance, earned a self-rewarded Mature rating by the ESRB while Nintendo, at first, refused to publish the game. When it finally did, Nintendo did so without the controversial blood code that had made the game a hit on the Genesis. Sega profited tremendously from the mature rating, and gamers who played the Genesis version often belittled those who could only play the bloodless Super NES. As Sega’s famous tagline read “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” it was clear that “real gamers” preferred the Genesis.

In fact, after the fight for the ESRB and Sega CEO Kalinske’s own 2-column screed against government censorship and forced ratings that appeared in Sega Visions number 18, the letters to the editor were effusive with praise for Sega and the rating system that finally recognized the needs of teen and adult players. Letters also suggesting that beginners, and those who wanted a watered-down experience, should shift to Super NES and kids games and leave teen and adult players alone.

In this way, Sega and other game makers manufactured, catered to and profited from (Sega outsold Nintendo throughout the mid-1990s) a growing adolescent white male fantasy of masculinity that took root in teen and young adult domestic spaces and spread into the game culture at large. While there were plenty of players subverting the masculine narrative being constructed by the video game industry and performed in young white male bedrooms and dorm rooms, the power of the profit that came from the masculine ideal meant it would become pervasive. The next-gen console makers picked up on Sega’s advertising successes and the profitable market in white male teen and adult players further perpetuating and reifying the gamer ideal. From Sega and other game developers’ perspective, there was no need to court different markets or diversify the audience for games. Young white men and teens represented a very lucrative market and by helping to manufacture an identity that played to their white male insecurities, hopes, and desires, games companies garnered a tremendous amount of loyalty. This bond between the gamers and game manufacturers crafted a tenuous group identity built on the continuation of the game makers to support this white male fantasy. The fragility of this identity has been apparent in recent years, as markets shift, and the stability of what white male gamers believe their identity to be, seemingly crumbles underneath them, those who have adopted it rage against the change feeling abandoned by the very systems that once propped them up.

[1] Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
[2]Chess, Shira. Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
[3]Kocurek, Carly A. Coin-Operated Americans Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
[4] A poorly produced B movie horror game released on Sega CD that featured a 1980s teen film sorority-style sleepover, voyeurism, and random thugs that the player had to “trap” before they committed violence against the girls at the party. What made this game particularly troubling to critics was the lifelike quality of the game’s graphics (cd technologies allowed filmed scenes to be rendered into gameplay). The violence/sex in the game, as Lieberman protested was a reflection of real life.
[5] Mortal Kombat an arcade fighter that was ported to Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) with its violent finishing moves in the game. Talented players could use button combinations that when successful could, decapitate, immolate, or pull the spine or still beating heart from their vanquished foe.
[6]  Patrick Klepek  “Inside Nintendo's Plan To Save Video Games From Congress,” Waypoint, Nov 6 2016.
[7] Peter Jennings ABC News Report 1993.
[8] CSPAN recording of 1993 Senate Hearings.
[9] Kalinski, Tom. Why I want a New Ratings System. Sega Visions Magazine. April/May 1994, Issue 18, 10.
[10] Williams, Ken. Government Intervention is Not the Answer. Sega Visions Magazine. April/May 1994, Issue 18, 11. (https://archive.org/details/Sega-Visions-Issue-18/page/n15)