In the late 1980s, toy company Hasbro was adding to its slew of entertainment offerings with games like Battleship. Video games were still treated with suspicion by much of the general public, but Hasbro started pursuing a different kind of interactive experience: a movie that could be influenced by audience decisions. In the process, while attempting to make a nonviolent family game that could be enjoyed by nearly everyone, Hasbro helped create some of the creepiest vampires in video games — and the star of the 1993 U.S. Senate hearings meant to address violence and video games.
Night Trap began development with a company called Axlon, with help from Nolan Bushnell, as a means to explore creating games with a brand-new video playback technology called NEMO. The multiple-track video playback technology could play up to four video tracks simultaneously, allowing for a cinematic adventure with multiple branching paths. The plan was to develop and film sprawling visual experiences that could bridge the gap between video games and Hollywood, and have it all put together into an interactive experience.
Members of what ultimately became Night Trap developer Digital Pictures had previously created for Hasbro a prototype called Scene of the Crime using the NEMO technology. The game featured an in-home burglary that players were meant to solve, after switching between different camera feeds on a home’s security system and witnessing the actions of every person leading up to when a safe was robbed.
After failing to secure the rights to A Nightmare on Elm Street, development shifted into expanding the premise from Scene of the Crime into an even bigger mystery and interactive experience.
The original idea for Night Trap was for a scenario where players would need to watch a billionaire’s house through multiple video security feeds to protect a massive sum of money, along with a group of teenage girls throwing a slumber party inside the house, from a group of formidable ninja burglars. These ninjas eventually became vampires instead — until Hasbro reached out to the team and asked for some changes.
“There was this thing called reproducible violence … and Hasbro in particular was very concerned about that,” James Riley, the game’s director, writer, and co-creator, said in a 2017 interview. Avoiding any kind of reproducible violence was a big deal for Hasbro. “We went into kind of this supernatural realm with the vampires and they said, ‘No, no, we didn’t want to see vampires biting the girls,’ so these were toothless vampires.”
It wasn’t just their teeth that had to go. Hasbro wanted the vampires to move slower and to be less agile than the vampires of most popular fictional media. “[The vampires] could not move too quickly, so they actually had to be kind of sick. So they had to be toothless, sick vampires [laughs]. I mean, it just kept getting worse.”
Ultimately, they couldn’t even be called “vampires” at all. “And the ‘Auger’ term [for the vampire enemies] came because they really needed blood and the only way they could get it was to auger in with a device like the trocar, which was that neck thing with the drill,” said Riley, describing a sharp surgical tool that you wouldn’t expect a vampire to need. “That cleared as non-reproducible violence [laughs]. Well, it turned out to be really gruesome, frankly. I mean, I thought that in our effort to homogenize this thing and make it more friendly and less scary, it actually was pretty creepy in terms of these, you know, strange characters walking around with the trocar.”
Night Trap was ready to be released in 1989, but Hasbro backed out, deciding the hardware cost would be too high to produce and convince families to bring into their homes. Ultimately, Night Trap was published by Sega for the Sega CD in 1992.
Politicians seemed to share Hasbro’s fears about video game violence, and Night Trap became the face and scapegoat for much of the 1993-1994 U.S. Senate hearings on violent video games. Taking place over two sessions, one in December 1993 and another in March 1994, the congressional hearings were held to determine what kinds of restrictions should be placed on video games and who should do it.
Senators Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman, who led the hearings, both stated that video games were dangerous and that something needed to be done, whether that was removing games from shelves or subjecting them to strict censorship. Key speakers and testimony providers included politicians, children’s group advocacy researchers, professors, and others who hadn’t really played the games on trial, with their most violent scenes being shared on a TV screen for everyone to see.
Politicians asked questions of executives from game publishers and video game retailers (like the now defunct Babbage’s), as well as witnesses like Marilyn Droz of the National Coalition on Television Violence. Much of the hearings centered on the idea that games were aimed at children, ignoring that the average gamer at the time was age 22, a statistic cited later in the hearing by Bill White, vice president of marketing at Sega of America.
Night Trap is ultimately a cheesy and tongue-in-cheek game where the player is meant to prevent harm from coming to a group of girls alone in a house at a sleepover when weird vampires show up. But it didn’t look like that on the Senate floor in 1993; the first scene shown from the game was one where a woman wearing only a towel is killed with drills and carried off by masked monsters, lacking the context of the scene being an undesirable fail state in a game that wasn’t even aimed at young children. But that didn’t stop scenes likre this from Night Trap and decapitation fatalities from Mortal Kombat from being the face of video games that many Americans saw on their TVs while watching the hearings.
If you’ve never seen what Night Trap looks like, I’d like to encourage you watch this clip while you read the following quote from Kohl, where he describes Night Trap as if it’s the most terrifying thing human beings have ever created, instead of just a schlocky, cheesy vampire game.
“Mortal Kombat and Night Trap are not the kind of gifts that responsible parents give. Night Trap, which adds a new dimension of violence specifically targeted against women, is especially repugnant. It ought to be taken off the market entirely or, at the very least, its most objectionable scenes should be removed.”
Lieberman suggested that maybe games like Night Trap shouldn’t be made at all, for any age group. White responded, “A winning effort within Night Trap saves the women. Your job as the player is to identify the villains and to trap them. If you are a good player, you keep the villains from the women and men who are potential victims. This game is an appropriate game for adults that choose to entertain themselves in this way, shape, and form.”
The hearings ultimately led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (commonly referred to by its acronym, ESRB), which game publishers still use today to rate games for consumers, while retailers and parents are trusted to do their part once the games have left the studios.
Despite the seeming intentions of Lieberman, Kohl, and other politicians who spearheaded the hearings, Night Trap, Mortal Kombat, and other violent games received a huge boost in sales, thanks to the news cycle putting on the best commercial for games that they’d ever had.
No games were ever banned, including Night Trap, but the creation of the ESRB resulted in the game receiving an M rating, which restricted the game for sale to those over 17 years old. The description on the back of the box, next to the M rating, indicated it featured “realistic violence,” despite the game’s slow, toothless vampires and their bloodsucking tools.
The 25th anniversary re-release of Night Trap in 2017 finally brought the game a deserving T rating, but because of the 1993 hearings on violent video games, its legacy in “violence in video games” discourse remains what it was 30 years ago.