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'Mortal Kombat X' and why we push the boundaries of violence in video games


April 24, 2015

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Mortal Kombat X, the latest release in the notoriously violent Mortal Kombat video game franchise, was released last week, and it's gotten some squeamish reviews.

"Mortal Kombat X is the kind of game that keeps overly protective parents up at night, convinced it will turn their children into heartless killers," The Daily Beast's Alec Kubas-Meyer wrote in his review, which rhetorically wonders if MKX is "The most violent video game ever."

According to Kubas-Meyer, MKX is about little more than the shock of violence, which isn't hard to believe given the franchise's history. When the first game was released in 1992, it generated controversy for choosing photo-realistic fighters to battle to their gruesome death instead of the more common cartoonish approach. The game was even part of a congressional hearing on violence in video games and is considered one of the major reasons why video games now have content ratings.

"To my mind, Mortal Kombat was comic-book violence, but some people got upset about it. People looked at it as though we were selling it to 9-year-old children," Gregory Fischbach, who was chief executive of the company that produced the game at the time its release, told the BBC last year.

According to Fishbach, Mortal Kombat was the game that took video games from child's play to the now coveted teen market — a market that revels in explicit gore.

"At one point in time, games were just meant for children, and nobody really took them seriously. But it was with the launch of Mortal Kombat that people who controlled the media began to look at it differently," he said.

Since the release of the first Mortal Kombat in 1992, violence hasn't exactly been rare in the virtual world. Other fighting games, such as the TEKKEN franchise and the Street Fighter series, have been staples of the gaming industry since the '90s. War Games, such as Halo and Call of Duty, have also been on the receiving end of controversy because of their first-person battle brutality.

One of the most controversial game series, Grand Theft Auto, saw controversy last year for what critics believed to be glorifying violence against women. In the game, women are essentially prostituted out for the pleasure of a male lead character. If the player chooses not to remain with the woman they've purchased, they can opt to end her life.

"GTA V is certainly not the only video game, or only iteration, of celebrated violence against women. Nor can GTA V be faulted for actually causing gendered violence," human rights advocate Malika Saada Saar wrote in the Huffington Post at the time of the game's release. "But GTA V's new standard for ramped-up, graphic violence against women comfortably exists in our rape culture, and reifies the distinct ways in which women and girls are propertied, humiliated and abused."

To combat the damaging messages of the game, parents and advocates did what they've done dozens of times before in attempt to curb the use of violence in video games: They called for boycotts.

Despite the outcry, GTA V went on to become the best-selling video game of the year, grossing an estimated $2 billion and selling the third-largest amount of copies in the history of gaming. To put that into perspective, it sold 5 million more than the first Super Mario Bros. game.

That's likely why these games are so controversial. Not only are they violent, they are also astronomically popular. These are billion-dollar industries where teenagers are tasked with raping women and shooting up airports like a terrorist.

"There are two things that force us to pay attention. One is violence; the other is sex," Iowa State University professor Douglas Gentile told NPR in 2013. "Whenever either of those are present in our environment, they have survival value for us."

According to Gentile, the hormones that flow to our brains when we watch violence are the same that we get when we actually get in a violent conflict. But when we stick to video games and movies to get our violence fix, we don't have the negative ramifications of, say, actually breaking bones (or, in the case of Mortal Kombat, being decapitated).

According to sociologist Randall Collins, the search for a more controlled rush of violence is something mankind has been experiementing with for generations.

"Confrontational tension and fear make most people most of the time avoid the actual experience of violence, and act incompetently when they are in violent situations," Collins wrote in his book "Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory."

Because of this natural aversion to violence (Collins' central thesis is that contrary to common assumption, humans are hardwired to not be violent), people seek the psychological pleasure, the rush, without the negative side-effects.

"The first route (to violent pleasure) is attacking a weak victim," Collins wrote. "The second route is to confine violence in a protected enclave, staged and organized so that violence is limited or at least predictably shaped, and the social tension of confrontation is displaced by a collective concern for some other aspect of the situation."

Video games then, hopefully, fit into that second category. A fight that is so staged and organized that it isn't actually even happening. It's all virtual. Make believe made real. It has all the rush of a punch in the face, with none of the scar tissue.

But is there a limit? Should there be a limit? When does entertainment go from exhilarating to sadistic? No matter the answer to that question, Mortal Kombat X seems determined to push the boundary.

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