‘Finish Him!’: When ‘Mortal Kombat’ Caused a Moral Panic

The bloody brawls of ‘Mortal Kombat’ led to congressional hearings in 1993 and 1994.
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 Scorpion
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 Scorpion / Torne

Captain Kangaroo had seen enough.

At a press conference on December 1, 1993, the kids’ television host joined Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman and other officials to raise awareness of what the two perceived as a growing public health crisis: violent video games. The chief offender was Mortal Kombat, an arcade fighting game that was being released in home versions for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles. Players could maim their digital counterparts via spine detachment, edged weapons, or worse, all while geysers of blood sprayed across screens.

“We’re not talking Pac-Man or Space Invaders anymore,” Lieberman said, invoking two popular titles of the 1980s that skipped decapitations. The politicians argued that Mortal Kombat and its kind were sacrificing morality for money.

Captain Kangaroo may not have held the rank to do much about it, but Lieberman did. Soon, he would organize congressional hearings on the matter, forcing video games into an existential crisis. The controversy around Mortal Kombat was more than just another moral crusade: It managed to turn an industry against itself in a fight that was just as metaphorically bloody as anything onscreen.

A Fighting Chance

The arcade version of Mortal Kombat, developed in 1991 and released in 1992, was intended to seize some of the quarters being fed into the arcade hit Street Fighter II. But the glut of fighting games meant that Midway, the company behind the game, had to conceive something that would stand out—and do it in an expedited 10-month window.

Game developers Ed Boon, John Tobias, John Vogel, and Dan Forden had a solution. The game used digitized actors that were recorded performing a variety of martial arts and fighting techniques, taking the game away from the pixelated or cartoonish style of other combat titles. They also decided to lean heavily into gore by featuring a series of “fatalities,” or finishing moves accessible via button combinations, which allowed players to rip each other apart.

When Mortal Kombat was released in fall 1992, it was met with a highly enthusiastic reception. Players—particularly teens and young adult males—flocked to the arcade cabinet to see if they could tear characters apart like rotisserie chickens. Midway offered arcade operators the option of turning off the excessive violence, but hardly any of them did: The outlandish violence was the selling point.

“I like it,” one player told The Reporter in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “He pulls the guy’s heart out. You can’t get much better than that.”

“I love the blood and violence,” said another.

Despite these endorsements, Mortal Kombat quickly became a source of contention. Inevitably, the media turned to child psychologists and invited them to consider the consequences of kids playing an active role in simulated bloodshed.

“Videos like this may well have the same type of effect on children as TV violence because we are exposing them to violent models,” Michael Wexler, a family psychologist, told The Courier-Post of New Jersey in November 1992. “A recent study of 900 third graders found exposure to violence was a predictor of later aggressiveness and criminal behavior … when you put the realism and other factors like frustration and poverty together with it, this can lead to [violence].”

Violent video games were not a novel concept. In the 1970s, an arcade hit, Death Race, angered adults for offering high scores to players who ran over pedestrians with their (virtual) car. A Sega game series, Splatterhouse, took its cues from ‘80s slasher films and featured plenty of gore.

But Mortal Kombat seemed uniquely suited to strike at the heart of moral pundits. Unlike Death Race and Splatterhouse, it was a runaway smash hit. It was also about to hit home consoles backed by a $10 million marketing campaign.

Midway licensed Mortal Kombat to game cartridge distributor Acclaim, which planned to release the title in September 1993 on the two most popular home video game systems of the day: the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. (Nintendo’s Game Boy and Sega’s Game Gear portable devices would get the game as well.) The family-friendly Nintendo blanched at releasing an uncensored version, insisting Acclaim strip out the fatalities and depict the blood as green instead of red.

“To my mind, Mortal Kombat was comic book violence, but some people got upset about it,” Acclaim chief executive Gregory Fischbach told the BBC in 2014. “People looked at it as though we were selling it to nine-year-old children.” Nintendo’s demand to change the blood color was, he said, “pretty stupid.”

Unfortunately for the gaming industry, Joe Lieberman didn’t come across the sanitized version of Mortal Kombat. It was the unvarnished Sega Genesis edition, where characters could rip out an opponent’s still-beating heart. Metaphorically, at least, that's just what Lieberman wanted to do to the violent games.

The Government Counterstrikes

Joe Lieberman might never have had first-hand knowledge of Mortal Kombat if not for Capitol Hill aide Bob Andresen, whose son sought out the game for his Sega Genesis. When Andresen saw the gameplay, he asked Lieberman about it.

Lieberman, who saw his congressional role partly as one of a moral adjudicator, was astonished. He called a press conference on the steps of Capitol Hill and invited Captain Kangaroo (real name Bob Keeshan), who had expressed similar sentiments. (The kid-friendly host was outspoken against violent programming.) Their objective: To put the video game industry on notice.

“Few parents would buy these games for their kids if they really knew what was in them,” Lieberman said. “We're talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.”

Joe Lieberman is pictured
Joe Lieberman led a Congressional fight against violent video games. / Alex Wong/GettyImages

Lieberman was candid: He preferred to see such games banned but recognized that would be a thorny First Amendment issue. Instead, he urged game companies to institute a ratings system. If not, he threatened government oversight would be next.

In fact, Sega had already done just that. In August 1993—just in time for Mortal Kombat—the company introduced a labeling system that rated their titles from GA (General Audiences) to MA-17, which warned against kids under 17 from making purchases. One of the earliest titles to earn the severe rating was Night Trap, a game that made use of the live-action capabilities of their Sega CD peripheral and featured a sorority under attack by blood-letting assailants. (Mortal Kombat got an MA-13.)

But Sega’s system didn’t apply across the industry. To placate Lieberman, gaming’s other giant—Nintendo—had to get on board. Rather than assign ratings, Nintendo was prone to scrubbing games of any potentially offensive content. But it was affecting their bottom line. Gamers were resoundingly voting with their dollars for Sega’s faithful Mortal Kombat game, which outsold the more docile Nintendo edition by a wide margin.

If Nintendo believed their self-censorship would give them a political pass, they were mistaken. When Lieberman convened his congressional hearing on December 9, 1993, he and other lawmakers assailed Nintendo for releasing what he considered “still a violent game.”

“This version does not have the death sequences, and instead of red blood spurting out, there’s …well, there’s some other liquid,” Lieberman said, referring to the green goo of the Nintendo game.

The panel decried both companies for equipping players with toy guns. Lethal Enforcers for the Sega CD was packaged with a Dirty Harry-sized handgun that fellow Senator Herbert Kohl warned “teaches our kids that a gun can solve any problem with lethal force.” As in Death Race, pedestrians were sometimes collateral damage, a facet of gameplay Kohl found abhorrent.

Various representatives from advocacy groups spoke in support of Lieberman and Kohl’s views. Nintendo senior vice-president Howard Lincoln and Sega of America marketing executive (and one-time Nintendo employee) Bill White were primarily left to defend the video game industry. Lincoln pointed out that Nintendo lost money by sanitizing Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo; White stressed that the market was gearing more toward adult players.

Though Lincoln and White were united in a common cause, neither appeared to bend over backward to acknowledge it. Instead, the hearing devolved into a public forum for the two gaming giants to lash out at one another.

Finishing It

Lincoln appeared annoyed at White’s suggestion that adults increasingly made up more of the gaming consumer segment.

“I can’t sit here and allow you to be told that somehow the video game market has been transformed from children to adults,” Lincoln said. “It hasn’t been. And Mr. White, who is a former Nintendo employee, knows the demographics as well as I do. Further, I can’t let you be subject to this nonsense that this Sega Night Trap game is only meant for adults. There was no rating on this game at all when it was introduced. Small children bought it as Toys ‘R Us, and he knows that as well as I do.”

White then brought out the big guns—literally. In an effort to elbow Nintendo out of the panel’s good graces, White produced a comically oversized bazooka sold by Nintendo for shooting games that worked like their Zapper light gun. Lieberman remarked that it “looks like an assault weapon to me.”

In clawing over each other to appease the Senate, both Sega and Nintendo did themselves few favors. It was clear the industry would have to embrace self-policing.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, was proposed in July 1994, several months after the initial congressional hearing and a second hearing, which was held in March 1994. The industry association’s ratings system, which eventually ranged from E (for everyone) to A (adults only), wasn’t ready in time for another Mortal Kombat marketing blitz, this time for Acclaim’s Mortal Kombat II in September 1994. (The ESRB didn’t begin rating games until November.) But due to the pending label—and likely because they lost millions on a sanitized version of the original—Nintendo opted to release the sequel without any redactions. (In a nod to the earlier controversy, the new Mortal Kombat allowed players to gift each other birthday cakes instead of fatalities.)

While the ESRB may have eased congressional tensions, it came a little too late for Nintendo, which saw itself cede majority market share in the home gaming market for the first time to Sega. It also did little to satiate concerns that violent entertainment leads to violent behavior, though a definitive link has yet to be identified.

“If we’re talking about violence, then the evidence is very clear that there is no causal link to violent video games,” Stetson University psychology professor Christopher J. Ferguson told The New York Times in 2018. “That’s pretty established at this point.”

The ESRB rating system remains in use today. When the 12th iteration of Mortal Kombat was released in 2023, it received an M label. Again, there was criticism over the game’s violence, but it didn’t come from politicians this time. Streamers who monetize playing games have complained the gore narrows their audience.

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