Names such as Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto are longtime punching bags in an often-clueless discussion of violent video games in the mainstream. So it was no surprise to hear Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, invoke them in a rambling attempt to deflect blame from the assault weapons that gunned down 20 six- and seven-year-old children last week, to a culture he alleges inspired such acts.
Here's an examination of those two games and the three others that Wayne LaPierre mentioned, and their relevance—or lack thereof—to the neverending scapegoating of video games in America.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: Feb. 22, 2011 (North America)
Bulletstorm is a science-fiction action story about a space pirate marooned on a paradise world overrun by mutants and horrible monsters. Humanoid victims die in gruesome ways, but the violence is largely self-satirical.
Bulletstorm's most gratuitously objectionable content wasn't necessarily the blood and gore. Game critics chided Bulletstorm for frathouse dialogue saturated with references to male genitalia. The tone spilled over into in-game scoring combinations with titles like "gang bang" or "topless." A psychologist was quoted out of context in an outrageous Fox News report saying this language encouraged gamers to commit sexual violence, or desensitized them to it.
Bulletstorm sold poorly and Epic Games' then-boss Mike Capps said the series was unlikely to get a sequel.
ESRB Rating: M, for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol."
ESRB Rating Summary: This is a first-person shooter in which players assume the role of a space pirate who must escape a planet populated by mutant cannibals. Players use futuristic machine guns, shotguns, magnum revolvers, assault rifles, and chain guns to perform over-the-top kills that dismember and decapitate foes. Injured enemies emit large sprays of blood that stain the ground and surrounding walls. Specialty kills (i.e., Skillshots) represent the most intense instances of violence: enemies can be dismembered with explosives; impaled on spikes; and drilled into walls, resulting in body parts breaking into pieces.
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Series Began: 1992.
Latest Release Published: Mortal Kombat, April 19, 2011.
Mortal Kombat is a fighting game series known for its graphic finishing moves, announced with an emphatic "fatality!" from the game's narrator. When it was introduced to arcades in 1992, it was distinctive for its use of blood spray, which inspired a wave of exploitation games adding blood and gore to their visuals. Mortal Kombat is commonly associated with the violent video games controversy that began in the early 1990s, which led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
The last Mortal Kombat release by Midway was 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which scrubbed out much of the blood and gore in order to receive the T rating expected of a comic-book tie in. A sequence in which The Joker finished a match by firing his pistol's Bang! flag into his foe's temple was removed for this reason. Mortal Kombat returned in 2011 under Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and likewise returned to its roots as a no-holds-barred violent video game. Certain strikes and finishers sent the game into a slow-motion x-ray camera, showing visceral internal damage to bones and organs.
Mortal Kombat was refused classification in Australia, effectively banning it from sale. Warner Bros. was unsuccessful in appealing the decision. Germany and South Korea also refused to permit its sale.
ESRB Rating: M, for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language."
ESRB Rating Summary: This is a fighting game in which players engage in one-on-one battles against characters from the fantasy-based Mortal Kombat universe. Players compete in a series of combative rounds in order to advance to different matches throughout the game. Players use swords, guns, chains, spikes, and supernatural attacks (e.g., fire, ice, lightning) to defeat a cast of human-like characters. After an opponent is defeated at the end of a match, players have the option to perform finishing moves called 'Fatalities.'
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Series Began: 1997 (2001 in its modern incarnation.)
Latest Release Published: Grand Theft Auto IV, April 29, 2008.
Grand Theft Auto is, without a doubt, the series most referenced in mainstream media discussion of violent video games and the psychological or sociological impacts attributed to them. It originated as a driving game navigating a map from a top-down perspective. Grand Theft Auto III introduced the series as it is currently known, an enormous city that players explore at their leisure, either completing missions stringing together the game's dark, antiheroic main story or causing mayhem at random. That includes violence against innocent bystanders, including, most notoriously, the prostitutes working the game's street corners. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas even included optional missions in which the main character acts as their pimp. All of these depictions have been chastised as glamorizing a criminal lifestyle and encouraging teenagers and young adults to live out violent fantasies in real life.
Though the series has no shortage of defenders, its lowest point was inarguably in 2005, when a user discovered code left inside the game's PC version that showed a minigame in which the protagonist had sex with any of several girlfriends he could date in the game. Though this content was not surfaced in the main game it could be accessed through a modification. Its presence was enough to trigger the ESRB's AO rating, an extreme label rarely applied, much less to any mainstream game. Copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had to be recalled while Rockstar re-released a version of the game with the objectionable content removed. Dan Houser, Rockstar's co-founder considers the controversy more of an attack on the medium of video games, still considered kids' stuff in the mainstream. "The massive social decay that we were supposed to induce hasn't happened," he told The Guardian last month.
Grand Theft Auto V will arrive in the spring of 2013, returning the series to its fictionalized West Coast. For all of the controversy it engenders, the series is an enormous best seller and financial analysts frequently point to its release in analyzing the health of parent company Take-Two Interactive. It is one of the flagship brands of modern video gaming.
ESRB Rating: M, for "Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs and Alcohol."
No ESRB rating summary is available.
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Series Began: 1988
Latest Release Published: Nov. 23, 2010.
Predating Mortal Kombat but far less known, Splatterhouse began as a sidescrolling beat-em-up inspired by American slasher flicks like Friday the 13th (its protagonist wears the "Terror Mask," which resembles the hockey mask worn by Friday the 13th's antagonist.) The game had one arcade release before it was ported to home consoles in the early 1990s. Its first console port, for the TurboGrafx-16, carried a tongue-in-cheek warning saying the game was inappropriate for children, "and cowards."
Before 2010, Splatterhouse's most recent console release was Splatterhouse 3 in 1993. A version was released on the Wii's Virtual Console in 2007. Splatterhouse has never reviewed well, making its mention by LaPierre somewhat amusing to knowledgeable gamers.
Splatterhouse's 2010 release, which we called a "massive disappointment," and a "violent, excessively gory brawler," was roundly panned on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. There has been no mention of any sequel or reboot for this series.
ESRB Rating M, for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language."
ESRB Rating Summary: This is an action game in which players help a college student named Rick Taylor rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from a deranged doctor. As players explore a haunted mansion, they engage in constant melee-style combat; players use cleavers, chainsaws, machetes, and Rick's bare hands to kill and dismember enemies (e.g., zombies, monsters, demons). Players can also use severed arms and limbs as weapons to attack enemy creatures; injured enemies emit large sprays of blood that stain the ground, surrounding walls, and Rick's body.
The wildcard entry in Wayne LaPierre's tirade, Kindergarten Killer is said to have been available online as a flash game for at least 10 years. It last made news in 2008 when a Finnish web site removed the game in response to a mass shooting at a school in that country. Its creator is said to be Gary Short, an 18-year-old from the U.K. at the time. The site where it was originally launched has been inactive since 2005.
The game is a crude, point-and-click target shooter depicting a janitor gone on a shotgun rampage inside a school. Angry cartoon children fire back with firearms of their own, and their wounds spurt blood until they are shot dead.
"It's called Kindergarten Killers," LaPierre said, mistakenly pluralizing the title. "It's been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn't ... or didn't want anyone to know you had found it?" Possibly because it was a throwaway experience, not even rising to the level of the much more provocative and much more memorable Super Columbine Massacre. How come video gamers can still find something like that, and all of the NRA's research staff couldn't?
Kindergarten Killer 's almost total obscurity, to say nothing of the fact it is a flash game lumped in with four longstanding console series, makes it the most laughable inclusion in the NRA's strange news conference today, severely weakening the NRA's claim that all video games are purposefully and callously violent. As the work of a bored teenager, it is by no means representative of the "shadow industry" LaPierre condemned. Sure, it's awful, and easily accessed by children over a web browser; so is most anything violent, pornographic, or shocking to the conscience.
That is not to say that the games Wayne LaPierre mentioned are wholesome entertainment that can be discussed in polite company. But neither can many of the R-rated action or science-fiction movies and crime thrillers whose themes continue to inspire the most popular video game series.
Holden Miller contributed reporting to this story.