Musings on Mortal Kombat's cultural significance from a biased observer. As absurd as it might sound, Mortal Kombat was a formative experience for me, both in terms of my relationship to video games and my broader cultural and political identities.
Last month, I wrote a short piece for a PopMatters feature about great games for summer. In it, I praised the newest Mortal Kombat game's approachable, yet sophisticated fighting system as well as the game's respect for the series' roots. Mortal Kombat is a game that wields nostalgia with surprising subtlety. Familiar characters perform trademark moves and spout classic taunts, but nods to the past generally avoid crossing over into the territory of exclusionary in jokes. The game's violence and camp sensibilities are presented in such a way that communicates the game's mixture of both the shocking and the silly to new players, just as the original did nearly twenty years ago.
But twenty years is a long time, both in the video game world and in society at large. People change, politics change, and the medium changes. Despite its deference to the past, Mortal Kombat cannot fully recapture the essence of what made the original special for me and a generation of players. This is not necessarily a weakness; many of my fond feelings towards Mortal Kombat are linked to troubling times that I am happy to leave in the past. This is simply a personal story about the role Mortal Kombat played at a specific time in history, at a specific point in my life. As absurd as it might sound, Mortal Kombat was a formative experience for me, both in terms of my relationship to video games and my broader cultural and political identities.
Mortal Kombat's controversial history is well documented. If you have the time (and you aren't worried about your blood pressure), you can watch the 1993-4 U.S. Congressional hearings on video game violence. For a time, the people who were supposed to be worrying about violence in Somalia and the ramifications of the North American Free Trade Agreement were obsessed with video games.
As a kid, I didn't fully comprehend the debate, but I did take a perverse pleasure in its existence. Although the ignorance with which my Baby Boomer overlords discussed video games made my skin crawl, I was satisfied that my favorite hobby had somehow assumed national prominence. In addition to being a fun way to spend my weekends, Mortal Kombat, along with other games like Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, were now "gratuitous and offensive and ought not to be available to people in our society," (U.S. Congress, Senate, S. Hrg. 103-887, Rating Video Games: A Parent's Guide to Games, 103rd Cong., 1st sess., GPO, 1995, p. 58). Suddenly, picking up a controller was subversive; it became a small act of rebellion for a middle-class white kid leading an otherwise unremarkable life.
By their own admissions, Senators Lieberman, Dorgan, and Kohl knew very little about the games that they criticized besides the video footage that their office assistants fetched for them. They were ignorant of the way games like Mortal Kombat alluded to other media. They failed to understand the way that each button press built on the previous one to tell a story as meaningful as the one laid out a game's instruction manual. They knew nothing of the burgeoning culture surrounding games or the people for whom Super Mario Bros. was more important than Sgt. Pepper's. They claimed to be worried about "a collapsing of values" in America (U.S. Congress, Senate, S. Hrg. 103-887, Rating Video Games: A Parent's Guide to Games, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. GPO, 1995, p. 31). I'm sure they were also worried about the next election cycle; no one ever loses any votes by claiming that they're protecting the children. Additionally, it's much easier to pontificate on morality than it is to fix a savings and loans scandal.
Looking back on it now, it seems there was some genuine fear behind the political opportunism. Time had caught up to the Boomers: Newspapers and magazines heralded the "Attack of the Video Games". Lieberman warned parents that "We’re not talking Pac-Man or Space Invaders anymore [. . .] We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable" ("Senator Calls For Warnings on Video Games", The Washington Post, 2 December 1993, p. C9). How quickly they forgot the things that their parents said about their precious rock and roll. How conveniently seminal films like A Clockwork Orange and The Wild Bunch (whose dark messages put Mortal Kombat to shame) were ignored. A generation that prided themselves on their perpetual relevance found themselves quickly sliding into a well-worn rut: those damn kids were getting into strange and scary things and they needed to be saved from themselves.
Viewed from this perspective, the classic commercial for the console version of Mortal Kombat takes on a new meaning. Corny as it may be, the ad is a visual representation of what the anti-game crusaders feared: youths, worked into a frenzy by a cultural force beyond their parents’ control, were running wild in the streets. They were interacting on a medium largely inaccessible to outsiders and the enthusiasm they exhibited was both confusing and frightening.
Thankfully, my parents were (and still are) pretty cool about all the video game stuff. Occasionally, they got a bit irritated that I could more easily rattle off all of Raiden's special moves than I could state capitals, but they were wise enough to see that video games were not the threat to American society that others thought they were. Even so, Mortal Kombat was more than a video game for me; it was Independence. It was a piece of culture I could call my own. The vast majority of the older generation either would not or could not understand it, which left us impudent youth free to bask in the glory of our new, subversive digital medium.
The pixelated, digitized figures. The rough, compressed sound of the announcer's catch phrases. The hokey gore and gleeful violence. The secret codes and hidden features passed by word of mouth behind the school cafeteria. Our rapid, third-round heartbeats and our subsequently sore thumbs. These were the sights, sounds, and feelings of a generation taking its first steps out of the shadow of their parents' shadows.
When the new Mortal Kombat game came out this spring, it was more than just a re-imagined version of a classic game for me. Underneath the modern graphics, slick interface, and complex fighting system was a vessel carrying echoes from my past. Riding the line between frantic button pushes and elegant combos brought me back to the realization that video games were a sublime mess of performance and storytelling. As the fight timer descended towards zero, the familiar tingling excitement at the back of my neck brought me back to the point in my life when the lines between sports, games, and art began to blur. The extreme "blood and guts" aesthetic reminded me of venturing out into uncharted cultural territory and the subsequent political awakenings that resulted.
Time moves swiftly and the world changes just as fast. To someone new to the series, the earnestness with which Mortal Kombat embraces extreme violence might seem more quaint than rebellious and rightfully so. The position of video games within the broader culture has changed since the early 1990s and nothing stays shocking forever. The latest Mortal Kombat game does its best to impart the ethos of the original, but part of what makes it special is its ability to conjure old memories in the minds of players who have grown up alongside the series. As my fingers furiously danced across the buttons, they summoned wistful, nostalgic spirits -- fleeting reminders of what it was to be a youth in the age of Mortal Kombat.
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