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When there is no consequence, we humans have a difficult time following the rules. That’s a broad statement but one that comes with precedence and observation. This is not to say that everyone is running stop signs at 3 AM because there is no one around. Nor is it likely that we’re all ready to stab one another when we know we can’t be caught. Yet, we were all 18 when we were 9.
At least, we were in the ’90s.
Seduction of the Innocent
That “flawless” age gate that greeted us (and still does) on the web was already painted on our comic books courtesy of the CCA, looming on the backs of VHS tapes thanks to the MPAA, the fronts of CDs once the RIAA got involved, and would soon grace the packaging of our favorite video games when the ESRB was founded in 1994.
The United States Senate, by way of Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, hosted hearings about video games and censorship in America. Specifically, these hearings brought to light how video games were corrupting our youth and our society. Forgetting the witch hunt from their respective childhoods brought about by Fredric Wertham that led to the foundation of the Comics Code Authority, these senators along with the rest of the band jumped onto the cause to debate the case for the safety of our nation’s most precious resource: the children.
These hearings were largely put into play thanks to Sega’s Night Trap and Midway’s Mortal Kombat. Night Trap proudly boasts roughly ninety minutes of full-motion video, or FMV, within a game that asked the player to solve the mystery of a vampiric cult who terrorize a group of young women. While the game featured no scenes of nudity or extreme violence, it did incorporate more adult-natured themes than the masses were used to seeing in video games. The most infamous scene from the game, the “nightgown scene,” shows a woman in a nightgown being approached with an admittedly phallic weapon, with which she is apprehended and taken off stage and killed.
Mortal Kombat is a 2D fighting game that was designed as a way to compete with the then-contemporary Street Fighter II. Mortal Kombat featured 2D sprites of characters that were created in stop-motion using real footage of actors. These character sprites helped to give a sense of realism to the game and when coupled with the blood splatter and emphasis on murdering your opponent in the game, it landed Mortal Kombat right between the crosshairs of the saviors of children. Mortal Kombat was not only called into question for its violent content, but for its advertisements, one specifically where a child inflicted fear within his group of friends after beating them in the game.
As video games became the new target for the safety of kids, the Senate hearings ended with the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB. Since its foundation in 1994, the ESRB has been displaying its bold letters on the corner of video game packaging, warning our parents as to which games are appropriate for us and which ones are going to lead us to murder, steal, and take drugs.
Rated “M” for Mature
Surprisingly, it was just as easy for us to gain access to these mature games as it was for us to pass through that incredibly resistant age gate that separated us from pornography. I suppose it depended on your individual set of parents, but I found that even the most conservative of parents within my group of friends and peers seemingly did not care about the white box stamped on the front of our video games. There was a level of concern initially, from what I recall, but most times it took only a reminder that a friend owned the game and we had played it already in order for us to obtain the games that we wanted.
I remember kids coming to school and trading new cuss words like we would later trade cigarettes in high school (maybe the ESRB was onto something after all…? Neh). There was this reputation going around about which kids said which words. No one dared utter “fuck,” lest of course you were raised by criminals; but there were certain tiers that ranked from “ass” to “damn,” with “shit” and “bitch” sitting just above in terms of notoriety. When we were made to sit through anti-drug assemblies in school, I misinterpreted their demands of “Just Say No,” as something I was supposed to say when the other kids were peer pressuring us into saying the next new bad word that we’d learn. Like some weird, back-alley drug dealer with a cartoon trench coat filled with baggies, kids would gather by one another to hear these magic words and phrases uttered quietly in the lunchroom.
The ESRB rated games on a scale of “Early Childhood” to “Adults Only,” but primarily only games rated “M” for “Mature” and below would see publishing. A lot of the rated-M games that we would procure would precede our lust for foul language in the cafeteria, and they helped to encourage that need and want to grow up. Uppercutting Liu Kang into a spiked ceiling and seeing his blood rain down on the level like a Slayer song come to life was cool. I felt like the teenagers who wandered through my neighborhood. Listening to Duke Nukem say “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubblegum” in my friend’s basement made me feel like Beavis and Butthead, but not as dumb. Renting the South Park game and throwing pee snowballs- well it gave me the same feeling that I got when I would sneak watching South Park in my room.
I had always felt older than I really was, but video games in the mid-90s helped to push that further than I had taken it. I still loved Mario Kart 64, Ocarina of Time, Donkey Kong 64, and all of the games that the ESRB thought were age-appropriate. The same goes for the cartoons I was watching and the movies I was subjected to. However, I never was able to draw a line between things I was and was not supposed to see or play or listen to. Life was and continues to be a learning experience, and I pull from everything that comes my way. I’ve also always had an affinity for certain themes and genres. Watching horror movies like Friday the 13th never did anything irreversible to my brain. I knew they were fake and stupid and fun just like Castlevania was filled with fake monsters and demons. When we brought these same ideas into the video game space, where previously Sonic and Tetris blocks were the stars, our new sexualized and violent heroes made no difference to me. They were all just video games, and as always I was playing them because they were fun.
My Rare Sense of Childhood
One of the most prominent examples of my inability to differentiate what was for grownups and what was for kids was Conker’s Bad Fur Day. To continue our obsession with Mario Kart 64, we were quickly given Diddy Kong Racing. Sure, it was filled with characters we hadn’t really seen before nor did we care about them, but it was more kart racing and this time we could drive boats and planes too. A few years later one of the racers from Diddy’s game showed up in his own title that we were immediately drawn to. Conker’s Bad Fur Day released in 2001 and carried the big, black “M” on the front of it. A lot of time had passed between the N64 launch in 1996 and the release of this game. For starters, I was almost 12, instead of the 7 years I held when we first got our N64. By this time, I had given into peer pressure and much to the disappointment of those who wished to save our children, “fuck” had become a staple of my vocabulary.
The fearful boy who wore his hair parted in the middle with a dark prepubescent mustache below his rounded glasses, who couldn’t muster a measly “shit,” had transformed into a contact lens-wearing preteen who shaved, said “fuck” and kissed girls. His hair was also spiked up, but just in the front.
Along with the new attitude came a new set of games. Conker’s Bad Fur Day came packaged with references to a drunk Conker, a sunflower lady who’s chest we could jump on for money, and a giant pile of poop that ate corn and served as one of the game’s bosses. It too prominently featured plenty of violence and debauchery. The aforementioned sunflower lady was the subject of all of the male bees in the game, and you used a variety of weapons from chainsaws to guns throughout the story and multiplayer modes.
The trick of the game was that it came by way of the cute, orange squirrel who we raced as in Diddy Kong Racing. In addition to the big, black “M” on the box, there was also a big, golden “R” on the box. We had been trained for a decade to know and cherish that “R” as it represented all of the best of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong family of games. Thanks to Rare, we played Donkey Kong from the SNES through the N64, and we were excited for our little pal Diddy to get his own racing game. We followed them to the biggest of trends when they brought the James Bond license to an audience who couldn’t care less in Goldeneye 007 and again when they retooled that engine for an original property in Perfect Dark. They too gave us the greats like Banjo-Kazooie and Jet Force Gemini. So why wouldn’t we trust our big, golden “R” on the front of the box to give us something great?
The Nintendo 64 was given just as much play time as our PlayStation, a console that drove the idea that gaming had grown up home from its launch lineup. Where Nintendo tried to hide blood with gray sweat, PlayStation told us how cool it was to be grown up. Within its first year on the market in North America, PlayStation would introduce the likes of Twisted Metal and Resident Evil to an audience who were looking for the new edgy approach to video games. As a console released in spite of Nintendo’s previous rejection, Sony pitched the PlayStation as everything the Nintendo 64 was not. Advertisements pushed the idea that we “weren’t ready” for the console and that it was too intense for us to handle. When it grounded itself as a platform for the matured gamer, Nintendo had to react as it had against the same tactics from Sega just a few years earlier.
The struggle to maintain market control and popularity, especially when Nintendo had famously lost a lot of third-party support, meant that Nintendo had to pivot and force its audience to grow up just a little faster. Because of the mixed messaging and the attempt to capture as many potential dollars as possible, Nintendo along with Sega and Sony cast the widest net possible, chasing after us kids, our parents, and everything in between.
It’s tough to say that it didn’t work, because here I am writing this two decades later about how a video game platform pushed me into my teens years earlier than the generation before me. The juxtaposition of our childlike attractions and themes that we would later experience as adults happened so naturally, it’s as if they were always meant to be. The culture itself dictated it, with something like The Simpsons. It looks like a kid’s show, it has wacky moments like a kid’s show, hell it even has video games like it is a kid’s show. Yet, it wasn’t meant for us. It too fell under fire for promoting poor behavior within children and encouraging us to become the modern day menace that Bart was.
While it was a valiant effort to protect us, the ease of access that we would soon gain with the widespread availability of the Internet meant that we were bound to grow up faster than we should have anyway. The ESRB tried, but our parents bought the games anyway. Just like our parents watched rated-R movies, and theirs listened to Elvis. We’ll always do what we aren’t supposed to, because it’s fun, and it makes us feel cool. The N64 was just a piece of my history with being cool, and it helped to take our medium from its security blanket and let it grow up a little. It let me grow up a little, and I’ll always remember it as a machine that took me to the next stage in my life.