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How Sega and a Hedgehog Paved the Way for an Era of Video Game Violence

In an effort to unseat Nintendo, the company of Sonic tried to offer an alternative to their competitor's family-friendly image. It worked—and then some.
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(Photo: quintanomedia/Flickr)

(Photo: quintanomedia/Flickr)

Every few months, another study comes out, focusing on the amount of violence in video games and how it is destroying the children of the world. In February, one such report, which focused on 100 13- and 14-year-olds, found that those who played games in which their characters killed or maimed people displayed a lack of empathy and an inability to discern between "right and wrong." The key conclusion: "Spending too much time within the virtual world of violence may prevent [gamers] from getting involved in different positive social experiences in real life, and in developing a positive sense of what is right and wrong."

That's not great, obviously, but also not particularly surprising. While young teenagers playing violent video games isn't the end of the world, it's probably not the best thing for them either. A better question, then, is how did we get to the point where violent video games dominate the market? For that, we need to travel back in time.

"The Sega people are really proud of how they opened up the video game industry. It was inevitably going to become more violent and more sexual, and even though they ushered in that era, they did so in the most responsible way possible."

In the late 1980s, Nintendo completely dominated the American video game market with a roughly 90 percent share. Then along came a certain hedgehog who mucked everything up. The story of the rise (and fall) of Sega is told in Console Wars. Blake J. Harris' tome chronicles the period around the release of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo gaming systems during which Sega managed to eat into Nintendo's market share so much so that Genesis was actually bigger than SNES for a brief while. It's a good story, extremely well-researched by the author, with many interviews from the principals in the tale.

But the most interesting aspect for our purposes here is how Sega very intentionally positioned itself as opposite Nintendo. Sega was brash, aggressive, and more than a little bit obnoxious. The strategy worked. "Part of what Sega did that was so great and what wounded Nintendo so much was that they really embarrassed them and put them in this corner where they weren't cool and they were a kid's toy," Harris told me when I called him up a couple of weeks ago.

As a result, some of Sega's games, like Street of Rage, were extremely violent for the time. In Console Wars, Tom Kalinske, head of Sega America, has a number of scenes in which he frets about the path he is leading the company down, ultimately deciding that giving the consumer the choice makes him or her the ultimate arbiter of taste. Kalinske doesn't feel great about his decision, but the sales figures show that it's the right one.

The Sega marketing campaign also forced Nintendo to retrench with what it did best. "I think it's possible that another company would have come along with a great game, but it wouldn't have created the dichotomy that you had to pick one or the other," Harris says. "Nintendo has really accepted and positioned themselves as that kid-friendly company. If Sega hadn't come along, I don't know if Nintendo would have identified themselves as that company and doubled down on that identity."

Perhaps the best example of the Sega/Nintendo split is the example of Mortal Kombat. Sega's version featured a "blood code." When gamers turned it on, every connected punch, kick, or other move would result in blood spewing from the opponent's body. In the SNES version, it was only sweat. Naturally, the consumers purchased the Sega version in much larger numbers. Violence was seeping into the video game world faster than ever because of Sega's exploits.

In 1993, a group of politicians, led by Joe Lieberman, convened the Senate Committee Hearings on Violence in Video Games. They piled on to Sega, leaving Nintendo more or less unscathed. Knowing this blowback was coming, Sega executives had already begun working to create a rating system, similar to the one used for movies. The rating system helped calm the worries of the politicians, but it did little to stop the influx of violence in video games. They would continue to get more aggressive, more violent, more bloody, despite the fact that, eventually, Sega as a company struggled to keep pace.

"The Sega people are really proud of how they opened up the video game industry," Harris says. "It was inevitably going to become more violent and more sexual, and even though they ushered in that era, they did so in the most responsible way possible."

A couple of weeks ago, Nintendo reported a loss of nearly $500 million due in large part to the failure of its family-friendly Wii. Sega's hedgehog might have lost the battle, but the revolution he inspired won the war.