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Game case study - Mortal Kombat, 1993

“The most controversial game of 1993”

The debut entry of an enduring franchise was never classified on release.

Mortal Kombat is a fighting game which centres around an otherworldly tournament which sees combatants come together in order to either destroy or save the world that they inhabit. It was released in arcades in 1992, and on home consoles in 1993, which was before the current Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 came into force (on 1 October 1994). While there was no legal classification for it, Sega New Zealand (the distributors of Mortal Kombat) nonetheless asked retailers to restrict sales to those 17 years of age or older (although there was no way to enforce this).

The game was highly controversial on its release, and concern about violence in the game was a key factor in the creation of a new game rating system in the United States (the ESRB). The series continues to be controversial today, with the 2011 reboot banned in Australia, Germany, and South Korea.

Why classify it now?

Usually older publications are submitted to the Classification Office if someone disagrees with a pre-existing classification.

However, in this case the game was classified as it came pre-loaded onto a mini console that was released in 2016. The game needed to be submitted as it had never previously been classified in New Zealand.

Classification considerations

The infliction of serious physical harm is extensive throughout.

As a fighting game it is expected that violent acts make up the majority of gameplay: players punch, kick and grapple against their opponents in order to whittle their health bar down to zero. In its official summary of reasons for the classification of the first Mortal Kombat game, the Classification Office states:

The blows result in blood spurting into the air for a brief moment or the characters fall to the ground before quickly getting to their feet and resuming the contest. The characters’ health bars decrease when struck but no bodily injuries are shown. The action is fast-paced and highly unrealistic.

The basic gameplay has remained substantially the same for subsequent games in the series.

Test your might: fatalities across the years

The hallmark of the Mortal Kombat series is the ability for players to perform fatalities, in which winners of matches are able to execute their opponents in a grisly manner. The Classification Office noted that fatalities in the original Mortal Kombat were bloody and cruel, and involved decapitating, immolating, and ripping the hearts out of their opponents.

Graphics in videogames have improved dramatically since 1993, and the Mortal Kombat series is no exception to this. As a result, the fatalities in later games have a greater impact than those in the original game. With regard to the 2011 reboot, the Classification Office concluded that:

The game's graphic depiction of serious physical harm and acts of significant cruelty, including gory finishing moves, are likely to shock and disturb children and teenagers. The way in which the game presents violence may have the effect of trivialising such behaviour, particularly upon repeated playing and viewing.

In contrast, the Classification Office noted that the original Mortal Kombat had a lower impact for technical reasons:

The impact of the fatalities is reduced to a certain extent by the game’s arcade-style graphics and low resolution.

Classification decision

What was extremely controversial in 1993 is no longer.

Context is extremely important when it comes to classifying movies and games. Had it been classified at the time, an age-restriction of R16 or R18 may have been justified for the original Mortal Kombat game (similar to the 17 years or over restriction that Sega New Zealand requested of retailers). However in 2016 a classification of R13 was sufficient to protect the public from harm:

Teenagers and adults are more likely to put this kind of material in the context of a highly unrealistic fighting game […] The low resolution graphics and retro arcade-style gameplay are mitigating factors for the game not to receive a higher restriction

There were still concerns around the potential inuring effect of exposure to constant violence, but ultimately Mortal Kombat was given a relatively low age-restriction to reflect the contemporary context of 2016.

Classification Office's R13 decision for Mortal Kombat (PDF, 100KB)

Game case studies

Cover of Mortal Kombat

The wider issue was that Mortal Kombat had arrived during an era of transition for the games industry. What was considered a child's pursuit had begun to serve the interests of young adults and teenagers. Those audience clashes had naturally begun to manifest.

Rob Crossley, BBC

Useful Links

Screenshots from the game

Character select menu from the original Mortal Kombat
The character select menu from the original Mortal Kombat
Sub-Zero performing a fatality on Scorpion
Sub-Zero performing a fatality on Scorpion
Liu Kang throws a ring of fireballs at Sub-Zero
Liu Kang throws a ring of fireballs at Sub-Zero
Sega Genesis Classic Game Console
The Sega Genesis Classic Game Console that Mortal Kombat was bundled in