Thoughts on the History of SEGA, Part 07

Welcome back, friends, to our look at the history of SEGA.  Last time, we looked at the infamous Senate hearings.  This time, we’ll look at the repercussions.

One of the most important results of the attempt to self-regulate was SEGA coming up with the Video Game Ratings Council, a board that slapped stickers on game boxes denoting a rating—G.A. for General Audiences, M.A.-13 for Mature Audiences thirteen or older, and M.A. 17 for Mature Audiences seventeen or older.  It was a great idea, and had gone above and beyond what pretty much anyone else—including Nintendo—had done before.  The most you got was Nintendo’s “Seal of Quality”, which didn’t really mean very much.

General Audiences rating by the V.G.R.C.

The problem with the V.G.R.C. is that it was essentially closed off from the public.  That is to say, who sat on the board, what the criteria were, and everything else—they didn’t tell the public.  Though there’s no official documentation detailing why, looking at the time period I think it’s safe to say it was partly that it just didn’t come up, and partly because SEGA was still trying to figure it out as they went.

Remember, there wasn’t really such a thing as content regulation at that time; by and large, publishers put whatever they wanted on the shelves.  While all had some form of internal censorship, it varied between companies, guided more by personal mores and what would sell than anything else.

There were more problems with the V.G.R.C. than it being closed off, though that’s a major one.  Another issue is that it seemed to be applied randomly.  Take the first Mortal Kombat, for example.  The SEGA-C.D. version was labeled M.A.-17, while the Genesis version was labeled M.A.-13.  Understandably, that confused the heck out of parents who were already confused about what, exactly, the ratings meant in the first place.

There were other problems, but those are arguably the main ones.  Some wondered if SEGA was even sincere in its attempts at self-regulation.  Sincere or not, however, it changed the game world at a fundamental level.

You see, whether it was sincere or not, it was the first real attempt to actually let people know what to expect from the game they were thinking about purchasing.  That doesn’t seem like a grand idea now, when we can’t walk into a burger joint—from which anyone with an ounce of common sense would know what to expect—without posters and labels detailing how bad the food is for your health, with the E.S.R.B. labels not only prominently displayed on the box, but also in the commercials, in ads in magazines, and so on.

So, the V.G.R.C was fated to last less than a year.  The Interactive Digital Software Association was formed, made up of pretty much every major developer and publisher in the United States.  The I.D.S.A. went to Congress with its plan for an industry-wide rating system, and thus, in September of ‘Ninety-Four the Entertainment Software Rating Board was born.  There were more Senate hearings that year, but they were more low-key, since the industry had presented a united front—though it was tacitly known that they’d be keeping their Senatorial eye on things.

As it stands, the E.S.R.B.—whether we like the idea or not—is what stands between our hobby and being regulated by the government.  While there are many legitimate complaints about the E.S.R.B., its ratings system and application thereof, that one fact must be remembered—it’s a system the industry submits to because it’s either that or we get people like Lieberman and Thompson deciding what should and shouldn’t be in video games.

Now, let’s step away from legalities and hearings and such things.

SEGA Channel Logo

In the same year, ‘Ninety-Four, SEGA of America came out with yet another innovation, yet another idea so striking it, too, shaped the game world in a fundamental way.  We’re talking about the SEGA Channel.

At the time it was a revolutionary idea.  For a subscription, gamers would get a special adapter for their Mega Drive/Genesis system, which would give them access not only to a special television channel, but it would let them download an insane number of games.  Though we don’t have a complete list, the list we do have is impressive.  The SEGA Channel was available across the world in one form or another, though it really only saw success in North America, partly due from the then-expected extreme advertising as well as the lack of competition.

Adapter for the SEGA Channel plugged into a Genesis II

This set the stage for what’s commonplace nowadays—downloadable content.  While, at the time, there weren’t things like special “packs” or additional levels or whatever else that are nearly ubiquitous now, just the concept—downloading games and playing them for a monthly subscription—was startlingly new and compelling.  While it’s doubtful that the current proliferation of the idea wouldn’t exist were it not for the SEGA Channel, I think it’s likely that it wouldn’t have become as popular as it did so quickly.

Popular Science even awarded “Best of What’s New”, which isn’t exactly a small honor.  It was even worthy of the cliché “it was ahead of its time”.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last.  The console was starting to wane, gamers and SEGA alike were looking forward to the new generation of console—a generation that didn’t have room for the SEGA Channel.

And—we’ll get into that next time.  Until then, have a good day and keep those thumbs in shape!


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