Too much? Too soon?

October 22, 1995

To be 14. So much to learn. So many choices. So much to do:

Aaron Wolf, at the moment, is choosing to watch TV. He’s in Silver Spring, in his house, in the den, in a recliner, with a remote in one hand and a microwave burrito in the other. On the screen, some women are rubbing their chests. “This is Shaggy. Boombastic,’ “ he says. “It’s pretty good.” He watches for a few seconds, grows bored, clicks the remote. On comes VH-1. “Janet Jackson. You Want This,’ “ he says. “I don’t like Janet Jackson.” He clicks the remote again. “Nickelodeon.” Click. “The country station.” Click. “Bette Midler?” Click. “O.J.” Click. Jenny Jones, talking to a pregnant 15-year-old. “I like Ricki Lake.” Click. Click-click-click. Back to MTV. “Jodeci,” he says. “ Every freek’n night, every freek’n day, I wanna freek you, every freek’n way’ . . . I hate this group.” Click. “I’m screwed. Nothing’s on.”

Now he’s at a video arcade, playing a fighting game called Mortal Kombat. He mashes a row of buttons, and his fighter kicks the other fighter in the head. He mashes the buttons some more, and his fighter keeps kicking as blood drops fly across the screen. “Finish him!” a computer-generated voice commands. He mashes the buttons again, and his fighter reaches into the mouth of the other fighter, roots around and pulls out his skeleton. “Fatality,” announces the voice. So much for that.

Now he’s back at his house, playing the home version of Mortal Kombat against his older brother, Nick. He has stalked Nick’s character. He has punched him repeatedly. “Finish him!” says the voice. Time for the uppercut. Nick’s character goes flying upward, off the screen, and comes raining back down in pieces. There’s an arm. There’s the torso. “There’s the head,” Nick says, watching it bounce.

Now he’s signed on to America Online, in an area called Rabbit Jack’s Casino, playing poker against a few other people, strangers all, who are also signed on. Here come the cards. He wins. Here comes a message from one of the other players. “Eat this,” it says.

Now he’s turning on the stereo and putting on one of his favorite CDs:

“I knew the girl was ready . . .

“She started getting sweaty . . .

“But all was in my head was kill that bitch like Freddy . . .”

Now he’s talking about movies, about how much he likes them and about some of the things he’s seen in them, such as shootings: “I’ve seen someone up close get shot in the head. I’ve seen just about any kind. I haven’t seen anybody get shot in the eye. Ive seen somebody do this” -- he puts a finger in his mouth and pretends to pull a trigger -- “and you see blood come out the back of the head. I’ve seen people shot in the leg, shot in the back.”

And stabbings: “In the back. In the stomach. Slice their neck. Scar their face. I don’t think I’ve seen eyes gouged out. I’ve seen after, but I didn’t see the process. I saw someone slit their wrists for a suicide.”

And sex: “Oh I’ve seen a lot of that. I’ve seen people where, like, they choke the other person in the process . . . I’ve seen someone stabbed, I guess, in the process . . . I’ve seen just about everything. I haven’t seen men and men. I have seen women and women. I’ve seen a threesome.”

And now he’s back in the recliner, back in front of the TV, this time with a bowl of Cheerios and a slice of chocolate cake, talking about the common theme of his days.

“I like violence,” he says.

He elaborates:

“I like seeing violence.”

And elaborates further:

“I just really like watching violence.”

He has a good face. He has a nice smile. He has a direct, unapologetic gaze.

To be 14 is to be a work in progress, and that’s what Aaron Wolf is.

Physically, he’s big for his age: 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, size 11 shoe. Mentally, he’s smarter than average: He spent seventh and eighth grades in a magnet school for students gifted in math and science. But otherwise, to see Aaron in a mall, or in an arcade, or in the recliner, or anywhere, is to see someone who might be any 14-year-old, especially one whose back yard is a neat suburban patch of lawn. He wears the same cap, baggy Levis, XXL Stussy shirt, and high-top Nikes as every other 14-year-old boy. He swims. He bowls. He’s interested in girls. He likes baseball. He gets good grades. In every way, he seems to be doing well enough as he comes of age, except he is doing so now, in 1995, a time when every aspect of popular culture seems awash in violence and explicitness, and there’s increasing debate over what the effects of this will ultimately be. Are we becoming more violent? Debased? Desensitized? Is American society in the midst of a moral decline? These are the questions of the moment, and there’s Aaron, at the very age most vulnerable to the sway of popular culture, in the middle of it all.

To those for whom popular culture has become a moral crusade, he’s a victim.

To those who see it as a business worth billions of dollars, he’s the marketplace.

To his parents, he’s a child to be proud of, doing fine so far.

All, in their own way, have an interest in Aaron. They want to know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, what he’s feeling, how he’s developing, because, in theory, to know Aaron is to perhaps know a thing or two about where we’re headed.

As for Aaron himself, he, at the moment, is headed no farther than up the stairs of a medium-sized house in a middle-class neighborhood. “Here’s my room,” he says at the top, motioning to the left. His brother’s room is to the right. His parents’ room is downstairs. They rarely venture upstairs, rarely go into either boy’s room. Nick’s door is open, Aaron’s is shut. He twists the knob, and the door opens a few inches. He pushes against it, and it opens a few inches more. He pushes against it with one of his feet, and it opens far enough for him to squeeze in, and then, whatever is on the far side of the door begins to push it closed.

It turns out to be piles of clothes. And sheets. And swim flippers, a chair on its side, soda cans, dishes and plastic bags of trash, so much stuff that it is impossible to tell whether the floor is carpeted or bare wood. Aaron makes his way to his bed, sits on a corner, looks down at his feet, and is surprised to see that on the top of his right foot is a lengthening trickle of blood. It must have happened when he was pushing against the door. Or when he was plowing his way through one of the piles, maybe he hit a soda can. Whatever, he ignores it and points out a few things: the desk at the far end, the stereo, the TV, the VCR, the Nintendo system. The Nintendo is one of four game systems in the house. The TV is hooked up to cable, including all the premium movie channels. The stereo system has a five-disc CD player. Now he shows off his CDs, which are mostly rap, with an emphasis on gangsta rap, one of which he decides to play. He gets up, scuffs his way through the clothing, turns on the stereo, comes back, sits down, listens to the music, nods his head, taps his foot, looks down, and sees that somewhere during the journey between the bed and the stereo, the trickle of blood has been wiped away. He keeps the sound at a moderate level. Not that his parents would say anything if it was loud. They mostly leave him alone, trusting him to do the right thing. There are no limits on what he can listen to, no limits on what he can watch. If it’s midnight, and he can’t sleep, and he wants to watch “Leprechaun 2,” the movie that showed him what it’s like when someone’s puckered lips touch the whirring metal blades of a fan, he can do that. If he wants to go to an R-rated movie, he can do that, too: In his wallet is a card, approved by his parents and issued by one of the movie theater chains, that says he can go to any R-rated movie he wants, with or without an adult.

None of this is because Aaron’s parents are uninvolved in his life, but precisely the opposite. When he was little, they took him to museums and read to him at night; when he was 9, they told him he couldn’t have a Nintendo system until he was 10; when he was 12, they told him he couldn’t see horror movies until he was 13. Once he hit 13, however, they decided he was mature enough to make his own decisions about these kinds of things, and that limiting his choices from then on wouldn’t be guidance, but censorship.

“I don’t want to cut anything off from him,” says his mother, Lynne, 45, who works out of the house doing transcription for medical practices so she can be home in the mornings, and afternoons, and whenever else might be necessary, for her sons. “I want him to experience everything he can experience.”

“I don’t believe people should be sheltered, because if you’re always sheltered as you’re learning your thought processes, how do you deal with the world?” says his father, Bryan, 49, a manager with a defense contractor. “He knows: If I can conceive of the extremes, then I know there’s a place in the middle where there’s balance.’ “

Or so is the hope. They don’t know if he knows this for sure, can’t know. It’s too early. At this point, all they can be sure of is that the world Aaron is coming of age in is far different than the one they inhabited when they were 14.

For Bryan, that was in 1960, when he was in New York City, attending a yeshiva. There was no TV in his life, no music, and only an occasional movie. Days were devoted to prayer and study, and nights were spent taking long walks around Queens with an older rabbinical student who would argue with Bryan about philosophy, about the existence of God, about evolution, about fairness. For him, 14 was an essential year in his intellectual development, and much of the reason why, years later, when he was living in Germany and visited the remains of some of the concentration camps, he decided that any limitation of information is censorship, and that he would never inflict that on his children.

Lynne, meanwhile, turned 14 in 1964, when she was living in California. “You want to know what I was trying to do? I was trying to survive,” she says. “Two years before, my sister had died, and what was left of my family after that was disintegrating. My parents were alcoholics, and this made it worse, and it was the defining event of my adolescence: Any semblance of family life we’d had fell apart.” For her, 14 was a tailspin, which is much of the reason why, earlier this year, when she saw Bob Dole on CNN and, as she describes it, “they were interviewing him about the morality of youth today, and he was saying with all the videos and movies coming at kids there’s moral confusion, I was saying, Oh, please.’ The confusion comes from kids not having someone to come home to, or give them a bowl of cereal in the morning, or hug them when they’ve had a bad day.”

Out of their own experiences, then, both Bryan and Lynne decided that Aaron, at 14, was mature enough, and felt loved enough, to be able to make his own decisions, even if that means listening again and again to the song that is now playing in his room, which includes the line, “I dug between the chair, and pulled out the machete, she screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”

“I don’t mind him listening. I do mind the lyrics,” Bryan says.

“We both mind the lyrics, and he knows it,” Lynne says.

“But how will he know what something is unless he listens to it?” Bryan says.

Of the two, Lynne is slightly less certain about all of this than Bryan. “Ninety percent of me is comfortable with this, but 10 percent of me has Jeffrey Dahmer lurking in the background,” she says one day. She is joking, of course, but unlike Bryan, who is confident that Aaron, at 14, has enough solid values in place to carry him past such lyrics, Lynne talks to him constantly, trying to add some perspective.

“When we listen to the car radio,” she says, “and they say, We’re gonna do it, do it, do it, all night long,’ or, We’re gonna yo yo yo with your ho ho ho,’ I say, What are they doing, Aaron?’ He says, They’re having sex, Mom.’ And I say, Are they using protection?’ He says, I don’t know.’ I say, Why do they have to do it, do it, do it? Why can’t they do it and have a conversation?’ I try to say things to make him think about all of this. Most of the time, what he says is, Mom, I don’t even listen to the lyrics.’ But the thing is, if I can hear them, how can’t he?”

So it is that on the way to the video store one day, when the song on the radio says, “I want to be your sexual chocolate,” she says to Aaron, “ I want to be your sexual chocolate?’ What does that mean?” And when another song says, “Yeah, baby, I like it raw,” she says, “What does he like raw? Is it life? Is it sex? What is he saying?”

Aaron, in turn, shrugs. Maybe he’s listening, maybe he isn’t. Into the store they go, and he begins searching while Lynne, standing away from him, thinking about what she would have been doing on an idle day when she was his age, says, “The only thing we had in my little town was, do you remember Andrew Carnegie? Who would go around and build libraries in little towns where they didn’t have one? Well, we had a Carnegie library. And a big afternoon was you’d ride your bike to the country store and buy a Coca-Cola and a Twinkie, and you’d ride to the creek with your Twinkie and Coke and two library books and spend the afternoon. And now, to stand here and look at all the choices Aaron has, it’s kind of overwhelming.”

Patiently, she waits. He keeps looking. He goes through the movie titles. He moves on to the video game section. It takes him 15 minutes, but at last he makes a selection.

“Jeopardy,” he says, handing it to her.

“Jeopardy?” she says.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Fine with me,” she says, surprised.

They get in the car. He turns on the radio. She’d rather hear oldies, or opera, or Bruce Springsteen, but, as always, she lets him put on what he wants.

“Who’s this?”

“This,” he says, “is Ol’ Dirty Bastard.”

He plays Jeopardy once. He plays it twice. He gets bored. So long, Jeopardy. Now he puts on Mortal Kombat, which he never gets tired of. Once, he played for four hours without stopping.

“All right, we’re starting our game,” he says, explaining what he’s doing as he presses various buttons on his controller. First he has to decide which of a dozen characters he wants to be. “I’m choosing Jax because he’s fun to use, and I like one of his moves where he pounds you to bits,” he says. Now he begins stalking, kicking, and punching the opposing fighter. “Right now I’m staying my space . . . Now I’m jumping at him . . . Now I’m trying to trap him in the corner . . . Now I got him. No I don’t. Yeah I do. There!” The other character crumples. He wins. But he’s disappointed. “I was going to do a pit move. I was going to knock him into the acid. But I was unsuccessful.”

So he tries again, again, again.

He pulls his opponent’s arms out of their sockets.

He becomes a female who kisses her opponent, stands back and watches him explode.

He becomes metal blades that chop off the opponent’s head.

He freezes his opponent, hits him and turns him into flying shards.

He does an uppercut that causes his opponent to fall off a bridge and keep falling until he hits concrete and his head splits open.

He becomes Jax again.

“Finish him!” comes the command.

This time he does it right. It isn’t the pit move, it’s one he likes even better. He stretches Jax’s arms out to the side and brings them together as if clanging cymbals, but there are no cymbals here, just two fists and an opponent’s head that is in the way. Boom! The head is crushed, and Aaron laughs. “It’s the best one.”

All of these moves are secret moves, not part of the general instructions, not known to the casual player. Rather, Aaron has learned them from scanning the Internet, and, in some cases, from reading a glossy monthly magazine Nick gets called GamePro, which shows how to perform moves such as the “head inflation,” the “skull rip” and the “death scream.” And this is where the marketplace implications of Aaron’s choices begin to emerge.

The cost of GamePro: $19.97 a year.

The cost of the home version of Mortal Kombat, which he and Nick got as soon as it came out: $60.

The cost of Mortal Kombat’s successor, Mortal Kombat II, which he and Nick also got as soon as it came out: $60 again.

The cost at the arcade, where they go at least once a week to play the latest version of the game, Mortal Kombat 3: 50 cents to play until you lose, which can add up quickly, even for a good player. Aaron imagines he easily spends more than $100 a year at the arcade; three years after the first version of the game was released, that’s how much pull it continues to have. He plays it constantly, and he, of course, is just one player in a universe that Roger Sharpe, director of licensing for Midway Manufacturing Co. in Chicago, where Mortal Kombat was invented, says includes 60,000 arcade machines, more than 10 million copies of the home versions, and 60 licensed spinoff products from posters, to calendars, to lunch boxes, to clothing, to a live-action road show, to a feature-length movie that, a week after its premiere, has people at Midway feeling a little giddy. “How are we doing?” Sharpe says into his phone, getting the daily update. “Outstanding . . . I love it!” He hangs up. “God, we’re over $30 million already. I love it.”

When Mortal Kombat was first introduced, Sharpe says, the thinking was that it would be popular, but no one in their wildest dreams expected it would gross $800 million its first year in the arcades. Likewise, the hope was that the movie also would do well, but $30 million? In one week? The No. 1 movie in the country? “Pac-Man was a phenomenon, the best-selling game of all time,” he says, searching for a comparison. “Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man together sold over 200,000 {arcade} units, plus apparel, and cereal, and Pac-Man Fever’ -- it was a hit single -- but has there been anything of this enormity? Across the board? Like this? No.”

“Thirty-two million,” says John Tobias, the co-creator of Mortal Kombat, the next day, as he sits in an office crowded with a drawing table, a computer and piles of the latest Mortal Kombat products, including Halloween costumes. Tobias, a 26-year-old artist, first came up with the idea for Mortal Kombat in 1991, and four years later, he seems as amazed by what has happened as anyone else.

The point, he says, was merely to design a new game. He was finishing up a game called Total Carnage, which was a sequel to a game called Smash TV. At the same time, Ed Boon, a programmer, was finishing a game called High Impact Football. Both wanted to do a martial arts game. Neither had anything specific in mind at first, but gradually the game developed through a series of decisions: that it should be a side-view game rather than revolving 3-D, that the characters should be a certain size on the screen, that the impact of a kick should make a certain sound, that a foot or a fist should move at a particular speed, that it should be based on digitized images of actual actors rather than cartoonish figures, that there should be flying drops of blood. The goal was realism, Tobias says, and early on they knew they were onto something. “I believe it was when we put the uppercut in, and the other character went flying in the air. It really felt like he had hit someone,” he says. “There was a generic sound in there, and it all seemed good.”

But not great. Something, they decided, was missing at the end of the game. “There was this awkward moment where the other character is standing around dazed, and then you hit him again, and that was it. It seemed anticlimactic. We wanted every ending to seem like, boom. If you win, you should get a reward for winning,” he says, which is how they came up with the idea of finishing moves, or fatalities, something that is common in games now, but, at that point, hadn’t been done.

By the time they first tested the game at a Chicago arcade in early 1992, they had come up with only one. They were sure no player would discover it. It was too well hidden. It required pushing the buttons on the control panel in too complicated a sequence for someone to stumble upon. There were no hints on the Internet or in the gaming magazines, and the machine they wheeled into the arcade on a Friday night came with no instructions to help a player figure anything out about the game, much less a fatality. The machine didn’t even have any kind of design on it or decals, just a hand-lettered sign. But that was enough to get kids lined up to play, and before the weekend was out they had of course found the fatality, and the oohs and aahs were so wonderful, Tobias says, that he and Boon went to work Monday knowing they had to think of more.

“What if he ripped his heart out and held it up? Wouldn’t that be cool?” he says of the creative process that followed that first weekend. “What if you pull off his head and his spine is still attached? . . . It was almost like Ed and I were trying to reduce ourselves to 15-year-old kids. That’s what you have to do in this industry, think like a 15-year-old or 16-year-old game player.”

In all, they thought of seven fatalities for the first version, 24 for the second, and 28 for the third, rejecting only one idea along the way that had one of the characters getting sliced in half by a sword, causing his guts to spill out. “We decided we didn’t want to see anyone’s guts,” Tobias says about that. “If it makes us queasy, there’s no way we want to push it. We already thought we were pushing it. Even we have our limits.”

In spite of that, the game was, to put it mildly, controversial from the start. It was called disgusting. It was called damaging to children’s psyches. It was accused by one U.S. senator, Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), of adding to America’s “epidemic of real violence.” It was the subject of a congressional hearing, which led to the wide use of a ratings system for home versions of video games, which led to Tobias and Boon adding something called friendship moves to the second version, moves in which, as Tobias describes them, instead of decapitating an opponent, “somebody would plant a flower, somebody would bake a cake, really stupid things.” On and on this went, and meanwhile, between the arcade versions and home versions, Mortal Kombat was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and becoming the most popular game of its time. And in spite of the criticisms, the fatalities remained an essential part of the game because, as Tobias says of the players, “They’re adamant about having violent, gory fatalities. That’s what they want.”

Including Aaron. One other thing Tobias says about the game is, “I think the violence almost, after a while, becomes transparent. I mean, the fact that there’s gobs of blood flowing out of somebody when you punch him, I don’t think that that’s the attraction any longer.” Rather, he says, it’s the fun of the game, the competition.

But to Aaron, it’s the blood as much as anything else. Competition is Jeopardy, he says on the day that he has put Jeopardy aside after two plays, while in Mortal Kombat, which he has now been playing for almost an hour, “You can do a finish move, and it’s like, yeah! Got you! And your opponent, like, dies.”

So strong is the appeal of this that when the movie comes to Silver Spring, it plays in two theaters simultaneously. Aaron, of course, is there. He goes with the rest of his family, sitting, as they always do at movies, in the second row. It’s where they sat for “Pulp Fiction,” in which a guy in a car gets shot in the head and bits of his brain go flying about; it’s where they sat for “Apollo 13,” of which Aaron said afterward: “They went into space, they had their troubles, they came back, they made it. My parents thought it was nonstop action, but I must have missed it”; and it’s where they sit now for two hours, watching one fight after another, until the last bad guy is impaled on a spike, and the credits fade, and the lights come up, and Lynne stands and says, “That’s the second worst movie I’ve seen this summer.”

“That was about exactly what I expected,” says Bryan.

“I loved it,” says Nick.

“I liked it,” says Aaron. “But I think they should have made it rated R so they could show more stuff.”

“So they could show more stuff?” says Bryan.

“Like they could show their fatalities. Like when Johnny Cage fought Scorpion? You know how he just blew up? He could have, like, uppercutted his head off or something like that.”

“Or tore him in half,” says Nick.

“Yeah,” says Aaron. “And what they should have done at the end is, you know when Liu Kang pushed him? They should have done this fatality where he did a double kick and then uppercutted him. A cartwheel, and then, bam.”

“So,” says Bryan, “you liked it better than Apollo 13’?”

“Oh yeah,” says Aaron.

“Why?” says Bryan.

“I like action,” says Aaron. “I mean, what was Apollo 13’?”

“Drama?” says Nick.

“No,” says Aaron. “More like . . .”

“History?” says Nick.

“No,” says Aaron.

“Suspense?” says Nick.

“No,” says Aaron. “It’s, um . . .”

“Boring?” says Lynne.

“Yeah. Boring.”

“So it doesn’t have to make a lot of sense to you?” she says. “It doesn’t have to challenge your mind at all?”

“I like watching them fight.”

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