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Take2 Interactive: Guilty of Mocking ESRB Ratings?

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Is it a game publishers dream? Or nightmare?

Just when you thought the controversy surrounding Take2 Interactive’s Grand Theft Auto:San Andreas was fading away, a new development has brought the game back to the forefront of news media—and likely cash registers.

According to the Boston Globe (one of hundreds of media outlets covering the story), a Dutch gamer by the name of Patrick Wildenborg, has modified (or more popularly referred to as "modded") the game by making a tiny change to a computer bit that prevented access to sexually explicit content included on the game disc.

The result from this tiny move is akin to putting glass walls on a striptease club. Suddenly sex in Grand Theft Auto that was reportedly only heard, is now seen, in full pornographic style. The mod is being referred to as "hot coffee" because you go back to the girl's house for coffee--but not in a cup.

A video circulating through reputable game reporting websites, shows one example of what the mod unleashes. A male and female character are in a room. The woman falls to her knees and performs oral sex. The next scene has the two of them in full contact intercourse. (Interestingly, he has his clothes on, while she is completely naked. So much for equality in the sexes.)

As bad as GTA was, content like this moves it far beyond its M-rating. If the ESRB were aware of this content when the game released, it would most certainly have been branded AO for Adults Only--a rating most manufacturers' shun because many large chains won't sell AO games or will limit their sales to (surprise, surprise) adults only.

However, what's really at play here is the validity of an industry controlled rating system that depends on game developers and distributors to disclose all questionable content within a game. Unlike what many may believe, no one at the ESRB takes the time to completely play every single level and possible outcome of every game. In fact, it could be argued such a feat is impossible given the incredible number of combinations and choices in a technically sophisticated game--which GTA certainly is. (Remember... I said "technically sophisticated.")

Instead, game creators provide videotapes of game play along with written descriptions of games to the ESRB. A group of three raters view the videotape, which contains the most extreme examples of content within a game, and provide ratings based on what they see and hear. Just prior to when the game is released to the marketplace, a finished copy is submitted to the ESRB where (according to their website) "in-house game experts randomly play the final games to verify that all the information provided during the rating process was accurate and complete."

Obviously, the system relies solely on the honesty of the game publisher. Yet, while you may want to toss your kid's GTA disk out the window (go ahead, you have my permission), it's important to understand how difficult it is to cast blame in this issue.

Did anyone tell an outright lie? Perhaps not... and this is why.

Let's start with the hacker, Mr. Wildenborg. I'm sure he's a little tempted to take all the glory for this scandal, but in reality all he did was flip a switch. It required a little ingenuity, but I firmly believe his statement saying, "all the material that is used during the sex scenes of the 'Hot Coffee' mod are on the official San Andreas release."

It would have been very difficult for Wildenborg to create the animation and voice talents required for the explicit sex scenes. Instead, this dormant material is likely lingering on the GTA disc that may be in your home.

(Parents may also want to know that the PC version is the easiest to modify. The X-Box GTA is more difficult because of the more restrictive technology in the X-Box console... however a mod is in circulation on the Internet for the X-Box GTA version. And you can be certain the PS2 version isn't far behind.)

That takes us to the game developer, Rockstar North in Edinburgh Scotland, a company obviously not afraid of controversy. This is their third Grand Theft Auto game, and the franchise has made a fortune. They have knowingly ventured into content areas where no game has gone before. Could we imagine this group of people putting explicit sex scenes into their GTA product? (Yes... that was a rhetorical question.)

Yet many other games have been released with snippets of code on the disc that have been disabled due to bugs or other reasons. They just didn't have one of the first examples of pornographic intercourse in a mainstream video game imbedded within them.

So the programmers deliver the game to their parent company, Take2 Interactive. In pure speculation, I can imagine a meeting where perhaps this content was discussed. Likely a "suit" said there was no way the third GTA was going AO... it would kill sales. So the sex scenes were disabled.

In good faith, Take2 delivers the tapes and descriptions to the ESRB. They take a look and apply an M rating.

But a question still hangs in the balance. Why didn't Rockstar or Take2 insist the code be removed from the final product? Did they truly believe in this hacker-crazed world that some nerd somewhere wouldn't crack this secret? Or, were they hoping someone would?

Hidden secrets in computer games and programs have been around for decades. They are often referred to as Easter Eggs, and require a series of secret button pushes to activate them. Game sites on the Internet are full of these key combinations, which are often used to open up "cheats" and other unknown aspects of a game.

These "extras" would have to be disclosed to the ESRB as part of the game's composite rating. But are the sex scenes in GTA an Easter Egg?

Apparently not, according to Patricia Vance, president of the ESRB. In the same Boston Globe article, she states ''[Wildenborg] actually had to change underlying code... It's not a cheat. It's not an Easter egg."

That means there's a good chance Take2 will get a slap on the joystick, and GTA will continue to sell with an M-rating. Meanwhile, parents with kids who want games that push ratings boundaries will have to watch closely to know what's really on the disc.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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