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Mortal Kombat - A Book Excerpt from Replay: The History of Video Games
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Mortal Kombat - A Book Excerpt from Replay: The History of Video Games

June 10, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

The first day of the Senate inquiry into video games was set to take place on the 9th December 1993, just eight days after Liberman's press conference with Captain Kangaroo. Ahead of the hearings Nintendo, Sega and the other video game publishers in the firing line suddenly realized just how poorly connected they were in Washington, D.C. While many of them belonged to the Software Publishers' Association, its focus was on supporting business software companies such as Lotus and Microsoft rather than video game publishers.

Under fire: Senator Joseph Lieberman wields a gun controller during the Senate inquiry into video game violence (AP Photo / John Duricka)

With the political pressure mounting, Sega and Nintendo found themselves forced together to try and come up with a strategy for tackling the hearings. The two harbored conflicting views of what should happen.

Sega, with its more teenage audience, wanted an age rating system so it could carry on publishing games featuring violence. Nintendo, on the other hand, saw little need for an age rating system as it had its own family friendly policies that it applied to all games released on its console.

But with the pressure on, the U.S.'s leading game companies agreed to back an age-rating system that would be managed by the industry itself in the hope of defusing the row.

This opening gambit took some of the heat out of the situation, but the proponents of video game restrictions at the hearings still tried their best to land some blows on the game makers. Marilyn Droz, vice-president of the National Coalition on Television Violence, asked senators how they would feel if their teenage daughter went on a date with someone who had just played Night Trap.

Eugene Provenzo, the University of Miami professor who had already annoyed the game business with his critical 1991 book Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo, also made the case for intervention. Drawing on his research, Provenzo told the hearings that 40 of the 47 games he examined for his book were violent. Video games were also "overwhelmingly" racist, sexist, and violent, he added.

There was some truth in Provenzo's claim. Female and black video game heroes were a rarity and this absence was still pronounced years later as a 2001 report by US children's charity Children Now discovered. Children Now's report revealed that women accounted for just 16 per cent of playable human characters in the 10 most popular games of 2000. It also reported that 58 per cent of playable male characters were white, but that if they had excluded sports games the proportion would have been much higher.

"Video games do seem to do worse than other mediums, particularly when it comes to the representation of women," said Patti Miller, director of the charity's children and the media program. "The lack of racial diversity in video games seems to be on a similar level to that of U.S. TV."

It wasn't just a matter of ignoring women and black people. A few Japanese games had descended into racist stereotyping of black people, partly because the country's more homogenous racial make-up meant such racism was rarely confronted.

For example, the 1989 role-playing game Square's Tom Sawyer, based -- somewhat ironically -- on the Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, portrayed black characters as blackface-style caricatures with giant lips. It was never released outside Japan.

Many Japanese games did, however, seek to avoid portrayals of race altogether, through the use of "mukokuseki" characters that are drawn in such a way to obscure their racial origin, so that while they could viewed as white or Asian, but were neither.

In the West the racism in video games was more subtle and behind-closed-doors, with some game publishers pushing designers to "whiten" the skin tone of black characters or remove them entirely. "It all boils down to money," Shahid Ahmad, a British Asian game developer, told Edge magazine in 2002. "Publishers believe that games with black or Asian characters could lose them money, although they won't openly say it."

Homosexuality, meanwhile, remained largely taboo in video games throughout the 1980s beyond Japan's yaoi, or boys' love, titles. The few that did mention the subject usually did so in a negative way. It took until the 1995 adventure game The Orion Conspiracy for the subject to be tackled in a less prejudiced way. Created by UK developer Divide by Zero and published by Domark, The Orion Conspiracy cast the player as a father who travels to a space station to investigate the death of his son.

While searching for the truth, it emerges that the son was gay. "When I first read the script I was quite surprised," said "Tardie", an artist who worked on the game. "It was a very daring thing for Domark to do. The gay character was embedded into the game and you found out about it as you questioned people and discovered more about your son. It got quite charged as the father did not know, so you got to see how he handled it."

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