A news story developed over the weekend of July 9-10 that could have easily flown under the gaming radar. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas attacked for offensive content. Gee, haven’t heard that one before! The GTA series has been a lightning rod for everyone from the press to parent groups, legislators and everyone in between since its inception. This story, however, could have deeper implications than just another puritan assault on American freedom; it could change the way gamers form communities around the games they love.
The trouble concerns some code, which has essentially become a mod called Hot Coffee, credited to Dutch gamer Patrick Wildenborg. It changes some of the game’s graphics to include sexually explicit content allegedly so steamy that it may exceed the games’ ‘M’ rating granted by the ESRB, pushing it to an ‘AO’, Adults Only. The obvious effect would be on availability; national chains like Best Buy, Circuit City, Target, and Wal-Mart are loathe to stock AO-rated games.
This particular battle against GTA is being led by California assemblyman Leland Yee, quoted by the New York Times as saying “…it has been uncovered that the game [Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas] also includes explicit sexual scenes that are inappropriate for our children.” This is a ridiculous statement on its face, as not only is the age of the average gamer well into adulthood (29, according to the Entertainment Software Association), but GTA: SA obviously isn’t intended for or marketed to children — hence the already present ‘M’ rating. But what the real argument centers around is the seemingly innocuous word “includes”.
When most of us hear the word mod, we think of a game being altered. We think of it being modified in some way, whether graphically or with increased functionality like the addition of new maps, weapons, or quests. Wildenborg claims that Hot Coffee is different, that it only allows the player to unlock content that is already in the game but unavailable without his key. If true, this means responsibility for the existence of the images lies with Rockstar Games, even though they aren’t available to players of the off-the-shelf game. Rockstar themselves haven’t commented except to say they’re confident the ESRB will uphold the ‘M’ rating upon further review. The fact is, whether Wildenborg actually added the content or it was preexisting — this fight is preposterous and could change how modding communities treat games.
Since it’s the more reasonable scenario based on the information of the moment, let’s stipulate that the content is actually in the game but sealed from the consumer. It’s actually not uncommon for developers and programmers to write code for a game that’s not implemented in the final product even though it remains in the program, and the result is “dead code” that the consumer never even knows exists. This is very different from an Easter egg, a hidden feature of a program that can be accessed through specific actions by the user, like the famous hidden initials in the old Atari game Adventure or John Romero’s head hidden in the final stage of Doom II. Easter eggs are found by design, while a user can never find dead code unless the program is tampered with, as Hot Coffee does.
If this is the situation, should Rockstar Games be held liable? It’s true that they would have placed the content there, but they attempted (though not as much of an effort as they could) to remove it from the game. It is also worth mentioning that the game is different from the program; the player doesn’t see the program, they see only the interface. It takes a concerted effort on the part of the player to find the content in question, and specifically becoming aware of, finding, downloading, and installing Wildenborg’s code. Blaming Rockstar for this is like blaming Google for a child finding a porn site; sure, Google indexed the site, but the kid had to actively attempt to find the content by searching for specific keywords and turning off Google’s content filter.
If we assume that Wildenborg actually modded the game and added his own graphics, as many in the gaming community do, the implications are scarier. Is it morally objectionable to alter one’s own copy of a work to make it more enjoyable? If legislators like Yee stir up fear among their constituents over downloadable game content, many good modders may decide it’s not worth the trouble and either stop releasing their designs to the public or stop modding altogether. Any fan of FPS’s on the PC will tell you new maps, weapons, and other features keep them returning to games that are otherwise as bland and repetitive as Mariah Carey. These mods are currently more widely available on the PC than on consoles, but as the line between the two blurs, this issue could affect downloadable content of console games as well. Imagine not being able to download a new map for Halo 3 because Bungie and Microsoft don’t want to deal with liability issues.
The truth is, nobody is to blame here. There is no scandal. Let’s not forget that those who’ve bought GTA: SA in the first place are theoretically 17 years of age or older. That is, unless other institutions, such as retailers or parents, have already failed. Rockstar may have neglected to completely remove some offensive subject matter (assuming that the mod is deemed offensive), but those who access it not only had to make an effort to do so but they had to be aware of the nature of the mod in the first place. Nobody is going to stumble upon Hot Coffee, download and install it, and then act surprised at what they see. They already know what it’s going to do, and they already understand the concept. To suggest that this will shatter the pristine sensibilities of our nation’s children is disingenuous.
Let’s face facts: this is just another skirmish in the battle against “offensive” video games. Some legislators, including Yee, are continually pushing to curtail or ban outright the sale of certain games based on content. But video games are no less an artistic expression than film or music, and game creators know this. They’re smart, putting in things like the threesome in God of War, a scene that would fit right into any PG-13 movie with the action happening off-screen and only a soundtrack of ecstatic moans. As with any art, video games comment on society, not the other way around. The creators of the GTA series only pick up where other popular media have left off, and judging by sales records they’re doing a pretty good job of it. The fight against game content is really a fight against protected speech, and while efforts are afoot to regulate those who create, sell, and mod games, they’ll never be silenced. Although when you look at the AO rating that was just given the game, things seem to have gotten a little harder.