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Won't somebody think of the children?

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Decapitations for the YouTube generation

When I was a little boy, Mortal Kombat was a tough sell around my home. Like most pre-adolescents of the era, I was darkly attracted to the idea of ninjas and movie stars decapitating each other in bouts of gladiatorial combat. After years of family-friendly games, MK's edgy aggressiveness seemed like tantalizing forbidden fruit and I ate it up. I played it in the arcades every chance and I couldn't wait for a home version where I could practice fatalities in the privacy of our den.

Unfortunately for me and my desire to rip the beating heart from my opponent's rib cage, my mom watched the evening news. Night after night, MK was described by reporters and senators as a murder simulator; a malicious product designed by sick men for the express purpose of desensitizing and warping young minds. It all seems hilarious and idiotic in hindsight, but at the time the concern was real. These were respected authority figures after all, why wouldn't she believe them? Soon I was banned from playing MK at the arcade, and the notion of getting a home copy was dismissed out of hand. There was a dark period of time when it looked like I'd be doomed to never enjoy the simple pleasure of hurling another Kombatant to the spiked bottom of the the Pit ever again. Tragic.

Thankfully, I had a secret weapon to get MK off the black list in my home. Aside from being a nightmarish murder simulator, I knew that MK was also fucking ridiculous; a fact all those self-serious senators stumping on the public decency ticket always seemed to forget to mention. Despite all the media hubbub, my mom was, thankfully, still inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to reason. We struck a deal, I'd be allowed to rent the neutered, bloodless SNES version under the condition that she would watch as my brother and I played it. If she felt it was too violent for our sensibilities or somehow mentally damaging, she would banish it straight back to the Netherrealm of Blockbuster Video and the veto would stand.

In the end she didn't watch for more than an hour before realizing that MK was just too stupid to be considered harmful.

When you break it down, MK is a game about karate men fighting each other one-on-one to save the world from a four-armed claymation monster and his boss who looks suspiciously like Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China. Even the famed gore of the series, when not breathlessly described by a dour parental advocacy spokesperson, was too dumb and cheap looking to take seriously. The production values on those original fatalities were a joke, character sprites awkwardly sticking into and through each other at angles and depths that don't line up quite right. The obvious cost-cutting steps of re-purposing animations and sprites stole a certain degree of gravitas from the executions. MK 1 has the same disarming flimsiness of a student film effort about zombies. It's hard to take stumbling freshmen in thrift store clothes splattered with red food coloring seriously -- the effect is more slapstick than sinister.

My brother and I were left alone to throw fireballs and exchange uppercuts with the understanding that we weren't to tell anyone we were allowed to play MK (because who wants to have to explain that to the other moms) and that any attempt to actually rip a sibling's heart out would result in a summary grounding. I thought it was a pretty fair compromise. I felt mature. I was proud that I was able to hold my ground and defend a piece of media I thought was being unfairly vilified. But more than that, I was gratified that my mom believed in my ability to separate fantasy from reality. To know my own boundaries and limits and be able to compartmentalize what was totally rad in a game, but horrific in real life.

Which is why I feel like the biggest, shittiest hypocrite in the world when I worry about kids playing MK X.

It makes me feel like a crusty old man shaking his fist at those damn kids for doing the exact same thing he did when he was younger. I want to be able to extend the same charity, the same vigorous defense I gave MK 1 to MK X of the difference between fantasy and reality. But holy shit, have you seen this game? It is CRAZY. The way bones snap and break during x-ray moves, how skin will peel and tear to reveal musculature and ligaments, the fully detailed models of organs and intestines that are ripped apart and strewn about during fatalities, it's just so -- ewww. You can't say the game is too silly to take seriously anymore. If anything, if I were a kid now trying to convince my mom to let me play MK X, I think I'd probably focus on how it would be a great way to study up on human anatomy for biology class.

Now don't get me wrong, this isn't the twist ending where I say it turns out all those senators and other finger wagglers from back in the day were right all along. They were wrong (and hysterically stupid) then, and they're wrong now. I still don't think MK X is intrinsically harmful. I don't think that the kids who weasel their way into playing it (and I absolutely guarantee they will) and watch Scorpion cut Sub-Zero's face off to let his brains slide out on the pavement will turn into a generation into of serial face-slicers.

But I also know I'd hesitate to let a nine-year-old play MK X, especially a nine-year-old I was in charge of raising and ensuring didn't turn into a complete sociopath. I also know I'd probably feel a certain brand of ugly judgmental smugness, a lofty “tsk, tsk,” over any parent or guardian who didn't. There is a disconnect there that I can recognize but have trouble explaining, even to myself.

Because at its core, I don't think MK X is really all that different from MK 1. Ed Boon is honestly just making the same game he has been making for 20 years. I don't think he is a different person now, that over the past two decades he really has taken the villain's part and is trying to corrupt young minds. The tone and intention of the MK series hasn't really changed at all, it's still all about silly ninja-men killing each other in completely ludicrous ways.

But the technology behind that intention HAS changed. With two decades of graphical advancement and a production budget that dwarfs the cost of anything imaginable in 1992, MK X has reached a point where the fatalities and violence really ARE as gory and disturbing as the moral hand-wringers always claimed.

This is the source of that disconnect for me. I've always defended the MK series as campy fun under the guise of gritty violence, and I still absolutely believe that is true. While the fatalities are not as outwardly silly as Johnny Cage uppercutting a guy so hard three heads pop off, they still rely on a completely over-the-top kind of violence that goes so far it loops back to comedy. When Kano cuts open his opponent's ribcage mid-match, only for his victim to promptly stand back up and continue fighting like nothing happened, I think there is still a sort of winking-at-the-camera comedy there. “Don't worry, none of this is too serious.” But the joke isn't as plain to see anymore, and it's even more difficult to articulate to others. There is a small shitty part of me that worries that kids won't “get it.”

Ironically, part of the technological advancement that has made MK X slightly uncomfortable compared to its predecessors also ensures that there has never been an easier time for kids to circumnavigate any attempts to keep that material away from them. I mean, not that any of those efforts have ever worked. When I was a kid trying to play MK in 1992, my back-up plan if mom did ban the game was to just sneak off to the arcade or go over to a friend's house who had slightly less strict parents and play it there. Now, thanks to downloads, YouTube clip reels, and streaming Let's Play series, kids won't even have to leave the house to sneak a peek at a few fatalities.

And overall, it's probably for the best. You can't stop culture or technology. Games will get gorier and crazier, and kids will find their way to them younger and younger. If little Johnny is going to eventually see a bisected brainpan or a perforated liver in full anatomical exactitude, he might as well see it in MK X; a game that is ultimately stupid and non-hateful (and I mean that in the most affectionate sense).

So won't somebody think of the children? Well I have, and it's complicated and uneasy and difficult, but at the end of the day the old tricks are probably still the best tricks. Kids will play MK X, and it's going to be a little fucked up. But with proper parental oversight and a good explanation of boundaries and the divide between fantasy and reality, it shouldn't be anymore harmful than watching a 16-bit Johnny Cage awkwardly stick his foot kinda, sorta, into another digitized sprite.

With that off my chest and out of my brain, I can get back to feeding Quan Chi to a buzzsaw-hat -- guilt free.

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Nic Rowen
Nic RowenAssociate Editor   gamer profile

(formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for more + disclosures


 


 


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