top of page
  • eframss

Blood, Sweat and Fears: When the Supernatural Fighting Game Mortal Kombat Spurred on a Video Game Censorship Revolution

Updated: Jun 26

In 1992, the supernatural fighting game Mortal Kombat took American arcades by storm. By the end of the year, Mortal Kombat was topping the arcade charts. It is estimated that the game grossed in excess of 300 million dollars by the end of 1993.


CAPTION: The Cover for Mortal Kombat


That’s some serious dough, and what these earnings indicate is that millions of people in the USA were playing Mortal Kombat during the first year of its release.

 

Today many people remember Mortal Kombat because of its violent, and at times, excessively gory gameplay. Due to its highly gruesome nature, Mortal Kombat has been embroiled in controversy since its rise to the top of the gaming world in the early 1990s.

 

With so many gamers flocking to arcades for a chance to play this grisly video game, American lawmakers started to take notice of Mortal Kombat. By the end of 1993, Mortal Kombat, along with Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers (two other games deemed excessively violent), were entangled in a censorship scandal that resulted in a government hearing between December 1993 and March 1994.

 

But why did the American government get involved in these discussions in the first place?


In short, it all began when Bill Andersen, the chief of staff for Senator Joe Lieberman, bought a copy of Mortal Kombat for his son to play on Sega Genesis. When Andersen saw how bloody and violent Mortal Kombat was, he immediately raised concerns with his boss Lieberman. Appalled by the gruesomeness of the game, Lieberman, with support from Senator Herb Kohl, headed a congressional hearing on violence in video games.

 

It is important to remember that the controversy surrounding Mortal Kombat arose during a period when moral panic about violence in popular media was still a major issue.


In addition to growing fears about gun violence in the USA, it was also the era of Satanic Panic. From the early 1980s straight through to the late 1990s there was a genuine fear across Middle America that devil worshipping was becoming widespread.


Emerging out of this paranoia was the idea that American Satanism’s rise was spurred on by a range of so-called "dangerous media," including horror novels and films, as well as violent games like Mortal Kombat.


CAPTION: Advertisement from 1988 for an Episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show on Satanic Worship.


Ultimately, the political debates that video games like Mortal Kombat generated led to the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. This group remains the official body responsible for providing video game ratings in the USA.


CAPTION: An Example of an Entertainment Software Rating Board Warning Label


Today, the Mortal Kombat franchise has produce 24 different titles and sold over 80 million copies worldwide. It continues to be known for its violent and bloody gameplay, especially the infamous finishing moves that every character can inflict on their opponents. These are known as “fatalities.”



CAPTION: Fatality Finishing Move Performed by the Character Sub Zero in Mortal Kombat (1992)


In addition to the gory gameplay that attracted many players to Mortal Kombat, the game also had a killer storyline.


Mortal Kombat is set in a fictional universe that consists of multiple realms that were created by divine beings. The “Earthrealm,” where the game is set, is under threat by a powerful malevolent being known as Shao Khan, the emperor of the “Outworld.”

 

Shao Khan seeks to control the Earthrealm and has set a challenge: every generation there is a tournament where the Earthrealm’s greatest warriors compete against other fighters from the different realms, including the Outworld and the “Netherrealm,” for their freedom. The Earthrealm’s warriors are given ten chances to defeat Shao Khan’s warriors. If they lose all ten tournaments, Shao Khan will assume control of the Earthrealm.

 

The tournament portrayed in Mortal Kombat is supposed to be the final attempt by the Earthrealm to repel Shao Khan’s advance. By this point in the story, The Outworld’s chief combatants Goro, a muscly half-human and half-dragon boss, and Shang Tsung, a dark sorcerer with incredible skill in martial arts, have won the previous nine tournaments. If the Earthrealm’s warriors lose again, Shao Khan will become the world’s new evil overlord.    

 

Fortunately, for the good guys, Raiden, a thunder god charged with the duty of protecting the Earthrealm, has decided to intervene. Not only is Raiden competing in the tournament (in mortal form), but the thunder god is also mentoring a young Shaolin warrior named Liu Kang.


CAPTION: Image of Liu Kang Fighting Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat


Good prevails in the story and Liu Kang manages to defeat both Goro and Shang Tsung to save humanity from the clutches of the evil Shao Khan.


Like other video games, Mortal Kombat draws inspiration from other broader cultural influences. For example, Mortal Kombat’s chief game designers Ed Boom and John Tobias based the profile of Shang Tsung on the archetype evil sorcerer character routinely used in Chinese martial art films. The character Raiden is also based on Raijin, a Japanese deity associated with storms.


The occult narrative of Mortal Kombat did not go unnoticed by American conservatives. And its was certainly a contributing factor to the game's eventual censorship.

 

So, there you have it, Mortal Kombat was one of the biggest hits of the 1990s. It is partially because of its violent gameplay and occult references that lawmakers ultimately pushed for a video game rating system in the USA. The concern was that Mortal Kombat, along with other problematic games like Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, could negatively influence young impressionable gamers and lead them down more dangerous paths toward real crime or Satanic worship.

 

There is a lot of debate about whether there is a strong correlation between playing violent video games and committing acts of violence. However, that is a conversation for elsewhere.


For now, I encourage you all to download a version of the original Mortal Kombat and see for yourselves what all the fuss was about it. I highly recommend playing as Raiden. The thunder god is a total bad ass!


CAPTION: Mortal Kombat Character Selection Screen. Raiden can be Found at the Bottom Right.


REFERENCES

 

David Church, Mortal Kombat: Games of Death, (University of Michigan Pres, 2022).

 

Martin Delrio and Kevin Droney, Mortal Kombat, (Tom Doherty, 1995).

 

Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, (University Press of Kentucky, 2000).

 

James Fink, Brady Games, Richard D'Angelo, and Greg Kramer, Mortal Kombat Mythologies Official Guide, (Brady Games, 1997).

 

 Sarah A. Hughes, American Tabloid Media and the Satanic Panic, 1970-2000, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

19 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page