They fling fire and ice. Lightning bolts shoot from their sleeves. On an other-worldly stage they fight bloody battles to become a Shaolin martial arts master.
They are the electronic competitors in Mortal Kombat II, the most popular, most controversial video game on the market and the centerpiece of Notre Dame’s Gorch Game Room in the basement of LaFortune Student Center.
Right next door is a pool hall lined with tattered old black-and-white photographs that link Notre Dame to its past. A handful of players thoughtfully circle the tables there, chalking their cues and pondering the perfect shot. In the time it takes to rack a game of eight-ball, the race car driver in the arcade next door laps the field in Final Lap 3.
The game room is strictly high-tech, a wall-to-wall assault on the senses: Gunshots echo and tires screech. Colors flash and noises clash. Crowds form around the games, the spectators standing hushed as the players try to topple previous high scores. From the bowels of Mortal Kombat II a grisly voice growls: “Finish him.”
Electronic games have come a long way from Pong.
Mortal Kombat II’s 35-inch screen dominates the Gorch. Its popularity and its controversy both stem from the same reason: violence. Kids relish seeing one fearsome warrior beat the Shaolin out of another. Some parents would relish doing the same to the game’s inventors.
“There’s a lot of decapitation and ripping people apart, take your pick,” conceded junior Kombat veteran Garrett Palmquist. On this night, Palmquist’s warrior of choice, an electronic entity named Baraka, impales his opponent, sticking a pair of swords into his chest and holding him off the ground until all the blood has spilled from his lifeless body.
Each of Kombat’s electronic competitors has a signature “fatality move.” Sub-Zero freezes his victims, then delivers an uppercut that shatters them. Katana either chops her victims’ heads off or kisses them, causing them to expand and explode. Rayden uses electricity on his victims, causing them to explode.
You need a code to log into this bloody game — an attempt to protect younger players from exposure to the violence – but Palmquist says the code is common knowledge among the game-room regulars, who include local high school and elementary school students. That makes him a little uneasy. “I think violence is OK for college students,” he says, “but on weekends a lot of younger kids come in here. It may be too much for them.”
Violence-level ratings now are published for video games, a system that began after Mortal Kombat reached the arcades. But a game room is no place for a bouncer. No ID cards are required — just quarters.
Plenty of quarters pour into the Gorch. Game fees range from 25 to 75 cents, and Paul Broadhead, operations manager of the room, estimates they average 2,200 plays a month. That amounts to monthly income somewhere between $555 and $1,665. A lot of quarters.
The facility is not subsidized by University funds, and the income is used to pay personnel and operating costs. Any profit goes into the University’s general fund.
The game room could be an even bigger moneymaker if it tried to feed on the notoriety of its most popular game, but, says Broadhead, “We’ve kept it low-key. Some schools have tournaments.”
The Gorch also pulls the plug at midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends, forcing students to find another venue for displaying their hand-eye coordination.
Kids in the '80s grew up playing electronic baseball on Intellivision or blasting asteroids on Atari. As computer technology improved, so did the games. They now have realistic graphics and mimic real sports teams and players — and, in the case of a few games, real killers.
Football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer are the most common games played in Notre Dame’s dorm rooms. Wander the residence halls during March Madness time and you’ll find groups of friends mimicking the real world with mini-tournaments. “We play with three or four guys,” says senior Glen Manzano. “One time we started an NBA Showdown tournament and played for seven hours. We didn’t realize how long it would take.”
One game can turn into three, then six, and before you know it the birds are greeting the dawn. “You know you have stuff to do,” says senior Eric Shultz. “But you can play five hours with no problem.”
But that is the problem. For some the games are an addiction rather than a diversion. Yet it’s an addiction that doesn’t seem to carry consequences as serious as those of some other student pastimes: There are no video game counseling centers on campus. Yet.
“Some people,” says Flanner Hall’s rector, Father Bill Seetch, C.S.C., ’74, ’78, “think video games are the new marijuana. And they are an opiate of the masses in a sense. But I’d rather see the guys playing these games than screwing around in town somewhere.”
Rumors pop up occasionally about students whose Sega sickness sent their grades plummeting so low that they flunked out of school. But nobody ever seems to know these people personally.
Says Seetch: “I think the rumors are started by people who see the games as a kind of social evil. There’s no way to document everybody’s study habits, and this just seems to be a good way for students to relax.”
Even if Notre Dame is in no danger of having a student body of video zombies anytime soon, some on campus remain leery about the effect games can have on grades. “If I had a system in my room, I’d never stop playing,” Palmquist tells a friend as he leaves the Gorch for the night. “This way, my budget determines how much I can play.”
It’s 3 a.m.
Dillon Hall is dark, except for room 201 where the electric blue glow from a television set illuminates the faces of Glen Manzano and Eric Shultz.
They’re serious faces. It’s Game 7 of the playoffs in Sega’s NBA Showdown. Golden State vs. Orlando. Chris Webber vs. Shaquille O’Neal. Manzano vs. Shultz.
For now, this is more than a game. The two have been at it since midnight. “Every night,” laughs roommate Troy Mick, who doesn’t share his buddies’ moonlight marathons. “The only question is whether or not they watch a movie when they’re finished playing.”
In the TV’s glow, the player’s thumbs slap their controllers, directing backdoor passes and post moves. Manzano looks for an isolation move and finds Webber at the top of the key; he clears out, leaving the rookie room to roam to the basket. Two smacks of the B-button later, Webber spins past O’Neal for the game-winning dunk.
Manzano celebrates with some good-natured insults directed at Shultz, but he knows what if feels like to be on the losing side, too. “See that stain?” he asks a visitor, pointing across the room to a brownish blob on the wall. “That’s from a banana I threw after I lost a playoff.”
Manzano is a pre-professional science major. Shultz studies economics and psychology. Neither appears to be in danger of flinging bananas because of bad grades. “We study when we have to study,” says Manzano. “But when we have free time, we usually play Sega.”
Video games are a stress pill for Notre Dame students from Flanner to Fisher. They’re about the only activity South Bend weather consistently accommodates. Many students, predominantly males, spend at least some time each week at games. Pockets of women are pushing into this male bastion, but the video game fraternity has yet to fully nurture its feminine side.
Few students, male or female, dare to challenge this pair of self-proclaimed campus champions. “Nobody plays as much as we do,” Shultz says. “It shows when we play against other people. Our skills dominate.”
Video games, designed as a diversion from the real world, seem to have acquired a peculiar reality of their own. Real flesh-and-blood athletes are now popularly defined by their Sega status.
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Eric Metcalf, for instance, laments his speed rating on the game called John Madden Football; he claims he is much faster in real life. And Detroit Red Wings all-star defenseman Steve Chiasson is a plodder on NHL ’94, slow on his skates and quick to take a fall from a good hit.
“People get an image of the players from the Sega games,” says senior Chad Tomasoski. “I’ve never seen [Chiasson] play a real game, but I hate him.”
Counters roommate Ryan Strong, “I hate Paul Coffey more.” Strong has watched the real Coffey, a Red Wings defenseman, play a couple of times. “He’s a wuss. He goes down every time he gets hit,” complains Strong.
The line is blurring between reality and illusion. Nobody ever hated Pac-Man.
It’s the evolution of a generation raised on video games. Soon the skills will be passed on to another generation of game junkies. Just push that button and hold down the joystick, son. That’s how you cut the head off your opponent.
But then, let’s not overreact. The games will never eclipse reality.
Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine. When this story was originally published, he was a sports columnist at The Observer and a recent intern at — where else? — Notre Dame Magazine.