On "Mortal Monday," the day the Nintendo and Game Boy versions of Mortal Kombat hit the stores, a friend and I found ourselves in a seemingly endless line at The Good Guys electronics store. We saw children who should have been in school lay down $150 for the right to play Mortal Kombat on their portable Game Boys. We beheld business men and women who should have been at work satiating their urge to play the game.
This amazing display of consumer solidarity made me feel a little left out. I was just there because my friend wanted to buy some blank tapes for her answering machine. But video games and I go a long way back.
I started with Pong at the age of five. By 10, I could navigate the mazes of Pac Man with ease. I soon became renowned for my ability to avert nuclear war in Missile Command. As the years went by, I piloted squads of starships across the most dangerous reaches of space, plundered treasure chests that belonged to dragons, and participated in countless other fantastic scenarios.
But times have changed. With rapid innovations in realistic graphics, and players demanding more and more action and fighting, the medium has moved away from games and started producing little more than killing machines.
Still, my generation is addicted to them. We've nurtured our joystick technique since before puberty. Now all we know is how to play. "Don't ponder the moral ambiguity of the situation," our highly-trained unconscious tells us. "Just kick the other guy's butt!"
Recently, I held an Uzi and let loose a hail of automatic gunfire, accidentally killing some of my own countrymen with "friendly fire." I charred fellow street fighters with my flame breath; in an incredible violation of Buddhist doctrine, the screen read "I will meditate, then I will destroy you" as we squared off for a rematch.
I've also had my share of fun playing Mortal Kombat in the arcades. I know quite well my "arsenal of unique and deadly moves." An 11-year-old sage even showed me how to push the correct combination of buttons to remove, and then brandish, a still-beating heart from my opponent's chest.
Fortunately, I've always been blessed with the ability to distinguish fantasy and reality. Mortal Kombat doesn't leave me ready to stalk the streets, looking for someone to beat up. Others are not so lucky. A young friend recently told me he didn't want to play fighting games with me anymore because "they make me want to smash your face in."
Psychologists and social scientists who research video games have come up with two conflicting theories about their effect on players. Catharsis theory claims that video games release aggression, while stimulation theory asserts that the games inspire violent behavior. Interestingly enough, studies have shown that children who are considered delinquent are actually soothed by the bloodshed, while well-adjusted children become aggressive.
Soon after my visit to The Good Guys, I got a chance to play the home version of Mortal Kombat. "Where's the blood?" I asked, dumbfounded. The fighters on the TV screen were clearly striking each other over and over again, but not a single crimson drop could be seen. This wasn't the Mortal Kombat I knew at all.
"The Super Nintendo version doesn't have any blood or fatalities," my young gaming partner informed me. "I guess they thought more parents would buy it that way or something."
That's just so America, 1993, isn't it? I imagine a cybernetic Uncle Sam awakening from a cryogenic slumber. "Let's make the most graphically violent video game of all time available to millions of households. But curb the blood and fatalities. That won't sell. OK? . . . Let's go shopping!"
But the blood will be back, if not for my Nintendo, then in another medium. Maybe in a CD ROM virtual reality version of Mortal Kombat. The market for violent video games will only get bigger and bigger. My generation has come to expect it that way, and future generations will probably grow up addicted, too.
These future players will have to make up their own rules as they go along. In the meantime, maybe Mortal Kombat should be retitled Moral Dilemma.
Patrick Macias is on the staff of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about teens produced by Pacific News Service.