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The ESRB and Grand Theft Auto Round 50… Or Something Around There

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What does the ESRB do right? Everything. Unfortunately, there are those people out there who would like to think other wise, and the controversy over the recent Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee sex sequence is about far more than sex in a single video game. It’s a deep look at what the ESRB does, and who they are.

After a few failed attempts at a video game rating system, the ESRB was formed, and they’ve consistently improved their methods. This year, a new rating was added, to further designate appropriate software. The ESRB is funded by the game companies, who submit their games for approval. A random selection of people, both gamers and non, rate the game after viewing the most extreme footage, provided by the game maker.

That part is causing the most controversy. Leland Yee, an aggressive critic of the system, said this in an interview with Gamespot:

“The ESRB is not an appropriate forum to rate any of these games whatsoever. There’s a conflict of interest. It’s the fox guarding the henhouse. … If you have the industry paying for the rating, and your salary comes out of their money, the last thing you’re going to try to do is try to upset them. The last thing you’re going to do is limit their market share by rating a game AO.”

The MPAA follows, roughly, the same method (Yee fails to address this). The studios pay to have the rating. The biggest difference is that the MPAA has an established board, and they view the entire film, not just the worst content. There’s a reason the ESRB doesn’t work the same way, and it’s common sense. There are 1100 games being released within the next year or two. Video games have average playtime of around 10 hours, some much longer (40+), some far less (5-6). There’s simply no possibility of playing through and entire game and determining a rating. The ESRB plays fair, by allowing even non-gamers to make the call.

What happens if the “worst content” isn’t shown to the ESRB? The same thing that gamers are already sick of hearing about: an investigation. The responsible company can be fined if the non-submitted content is severe enough.

In the case of the latest , it’s an odd situation. The segment of the game causing the problems as of late cannot be accessed, in any form, without either a modification of the source code or without an external cheat device, as recently discovered. However, the content is on the retail copy of the disc. It was, obviously, never meant to occur through the course of normal play.

Things simply don’t add up. The most obvious problem is that Rockstar claims to have never put the code in the game. Knowing the backlash they receive, lying is the worst possible situation for them to be caught in. It’s a PR department’s worst nightmare. It’s depressing that one single game and a one-minute sex act can do so much harm to the industry, but it does, and it’s beginning to look like Rockstar will face the brunt of a federal investigation.

The game has been out now for over one year. This just recently surfaced. Someone, somewhere, should have found this earlier. That’s the biggest discrepancy, and the reason things just are not adding up. It was the PC version of the game, not the PS2 or recent Xbox release, that started the controversy. Once the PC version was cracked, it was found on the PS2 as well afterwards, in a standard retail copy.

Knowing that, what should be done? If the content was intended to be seen by players, what does that change? In gamer’s eyes, nothing. The game already features graphic fatalities against police. Why is a sex scene so controversial, especially one as dry as Hot Coffee?

The ESRB describes its strongest rating (of which very few games have received, all on the PC) like this:

“Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.”

Mature is described as this:

“Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.”

Grand Theft Auto carries the latter rating and this descriptor on the box:

“Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Use of Drugs”

It’s already marked for the sexual content. With this latest development, does it deserve to have a new rating? GTA fits into both categories, almost perfectly. Does this mod, or unlockable content with an outside device, constitute a higher rating? Does it change the fact that if your child has this game, he has already blown away countless police officers? No. If you’re old enough to play GTA at 17 with the included content, this one minute sex sequence (in a game some people can muster 100 hours or more in) isn’t any worse. If GTA doesn’t pull in an AO rating, what does?

The bigger question at hand, aside from the integrity of the ESRB, is whether it should be government regulated. Hilary Clinton, who failed to say anything about the game’s violence content, has proposed fines for retailers, set up by legislation.

This is where things have gone to far. There’s something obvious at work here. Parents in America, somewhere, have lost their touch. There are millions of fantastic, caring, and loving parents out there, raising their children properly. Unfortunately, it only takes a single lackluster one to start a debate after their children go on a shooting rampage. These parents are then lured in by video game chasing overpriced lawyers to sue the game companies, only to have the case tossed out of court (if you ever see Jack Thompson spouting off his same boring tirade on TV, that’s exactly what he has done multiple times). It’s that process that pulls in politicians and money-hungry lawyers, and scares parents all over this country.

All of this debate, and it’s over one single game. There are thousands of video games out there, and it’s completely irrelevant if GTA sells by the millions. That’s a sign that three things are happening:

1. Gamers have grown up. Kids who grew up on Pac-Man have moved on.
2. GTA is the new scapegoat for an entire industry.
3. It’s a scare tactic to earn voters trust and viewer ratings.

The only statement that is important is the first one. It’s also the one TV news stations, politicians, and general media fail to mention. The recent presentation on World News Tonight about this mod didn’t feature anyone involved in the game industry. It’s a one sided war, and gamers are stuck, being forced to watch as their hobby is being shredded on the inside. If you’re asking yourself why they’re not putting up a fight, they have. There was a recent incident involving a gaming journalist being invited to a talk show, only to be ambushed with the violence debate.

If video game violence is such a concern, why are the opponents only fighting against one game? Why are they not going after God of War? It also features nudity and a sex scene, very early on, and it has the M rating. Should it have an AO rating? Possibly. There are problems here as well.

Retailers, like Wal Mart and Best Buy, refuse to carry games with the AO rating. It’s hypocritical. Close to or directly in the same section, they offer unrated and NC-17 films. Why are they refusing to carry video games with the equivalent rating? Because of this absurd controversy, their PR departments don’t want any part of it. In other words, if the media and certain politicians would stay out, there may not be any concern over the AO rating.

Does that mean the ESRB is doing something wrong? Should the AO be used currently? Does it show they’re corrupt? No, they’re not corrupt. They’re protecting themselves and an industry. If that rating is handed out, the criticizers still will complain and debate, even louder this time. It turns into “Video game ratings too lenient” into “Video game ratings equal that of porn.” The difference between the two ratings is negligible anyway. Is viewing a one-minute sex scene going to make an impact if you’re 17 and not 18? No.

If the AO rating is put into play, should stores be fined for selling such an item to a minor? Again, the answer is no. The average retail employee is not responsible for what a child is purchasing. The guardian of the child is. Fining a retailer for selling a violent video game to your child is not the fault of Best Buy, it’s is YOUR FAULT as a parent. If you are completely unaware of where your child is, especially with $50 in his pocket, why is the store being blamed? How difficult is it to read the front of game box and look for a giant bold letter? Why is it impossible to simply sit down and discuss the differences between fantasy and reality with your children?

We live in a country where people are now consistently getting away with things, simply because they can blame it on something else. It’s the easy way out. We are desperately in need of laws to make people responsible for themselves and their actions. If a 15-year old walks into a school and shoot his classmates, the person who pulled the trigger is responsible, no one else. If there is any other method of thinking here, it’s one that breaks the most common laws of sense.

So, if you’re reading this, and you’re agreeing with Mr. Lee or the former First Lady or Jack Thompson, stop. Re-read this piece. Understand what’s going on here. It’s about so much more than a video game. It’s a very long, drawn out process of censorship. I’ve been writing on the video game violence debate for roughly seven years now. They haven’t, and besides the president’s wife, you likely never heard of any of them before Grand Theft Auto.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • web user

    If I was Rockstar I would have hidden all of the violence, gore and sexual themes from Grand Theft Auto. Then have ESRB rate my game an “E” (for everyone). Then secretly distribute passwords for these contents under the disguise of mods. Hense, selling my true ADULT ONLY (ultra violent/porn contents) video game to the public disguised as a wholesome E rated video game. ESRB would not be able to fine/punish me because the Porn I added was not meant to be accessed without a password/mods. I would sidestep ESRB and make a fortune.
    I think this is the problem with the current ESRB system.

    Who knows, maybe the dutch moddler who made “hot coffee” secretly works for rockstar but they didnt expect the public to react the way they did.

    In my opinion Mature video game was meant for 17+ audiences. Everyone (including developers) is not disputing this fact. So what is the problem if they just make it a law stating that you need to show ID before purchasing? This will get the damn politician off the industry’s backs.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    Your example is way off the mark. The key is that there’s a brief sex scene, not even involving genetailia, in a game already rated M. It’s not a major problem when compared to the other content. If it was E rated, I would be all over the company.

    And like I said, there’s no reason for a retail establishment being responsible for what a kid is playing, especially for something as harmless as a video game.

  • web user

    “If it was E rated, I would be all over the company. ”

    Here is the problem. Rockstar is denying they had anything to do with the added sexual materials in GTA (technically corrent). If Rockstar can get away with this, what is preventing them from making GTA 4 without all the MATURE rated materials (violence, gore, sex) and having ESRB rate them an “E”? They can just secretly release the mods/passwords later on. IF ESRB and the public gets upset, they can just say “Oh, that was not intended in the original disc and blame hackers.” This is exactly what Rockstar is saying to the public.
    The current ESRB system is flawed.

    AS for fining retail stores, I agree that is not fair for the stores. The reason why they want to try this is because “technically” by fining retail stores for not checking ID on Mature video games, you will not compromise on first amendment rights (This still needs to be proven in court if this holds up).

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    Ok, I see how you’re taking this and where you’re going.

    Simply put, there’s no possible way to know what’s on a game disc entirely. It could take years to investigate every line of code. That’s simply the nature of the medium. As it stands, the game is rated appropriately. NO governing body, even one that’s regulated by legislation, could do anything to change that.

    Leland Yee among others are bashing the system, yet their doing the oppostite of what they want. It’s illogical and stupid. They’re scared to admit that it’s a parents responsibility, limiting their votes come election time.

  • Cypher

    Why should the government be bothering with this? If GTA were causing enough real damage it would not be profitable, and the private sector would sort itself out. People have been blaming everything but themselves for their problems for 100s of years. In the 30s and 40s there were groups that tried to blame cartoons for violence. What parents and children need to wake up and realize is that they are RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN ACTIONS! Email me and I can send you my essay on violence and video games.

  • Zentraed

    A mod is fundamentally different from a cheat or password; they should not be used to mean the same thing. Rockstar decided not to include the scenes in the game but left them in the binary, and some hackers found it and unlocked it. It’s not accessible unless you take it upon yourself to crack it and you can’t do that on the Xbox or PS2 w/o breaking copyright law (DMCA anyone?). The game’s already rated M, who cares!

    The politicians seem to be ignorant of the fact that the video game market now is targeted primarily at adults. Nevermind the fact that there are plenty of other places to see real sex and violence in our society. Since when does a fully clothed guy and a nude cg woman warrant a media frenzy? Meanwhile, we’re all “familiar” with Jenna Jameson’s work.

    Insanity…

  • Bluntz4ever

    I know what your trying to say but kids like me love this game more than any other games because its fun and sex and no sex scenes id buy this game preferably with the scenes and all other illegal shit and even if it was rated AO i would still buy it just like kids buy cigarretes & drugs and no ID card or ESRB can stop kids from getting what they want

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    What’s your name? Bluntz4ever?

    Yep, now it all adds up.

  • http://www.sphinxmontreal.com SphinxMontreal

    Have I missed something here? What’s all this fuss about? Looks like some politicians are trying to grab some quick cheap votes from a bunch of ignorant drones.

    If these so called parents groups spent as much time raising their kids the correct way, as they do bitching about the dark forces in society, maybe they wouldn’t have to worry about a damn video game ruining their kids’ lives.

    Why are these Puritanical hypoocrites going after the video gaming industry anyway? Maybe because it is one of the few sectors of society that actually has some creativity?

    These thought police facists should finally realize that censorship always creates more problems (example: repressed assholes) than it solves.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    Because it’s still an industry in its infancy. We have an entire generation of people in office who don’t “get” it, and they’ll do anything to declare it evil, like comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, and rap.

  • another web user

    “If Rockstar can get away with this, what is preventing them from making GTA 4 without all the MATURE rated materials (violence, gore, sex) and having ESRB rate them an “E”?”

    Well… if Rockstar did that, kids would buy GTA 4 and find that it consists of walking around the streets of Denver purchasing hot dogs. Chances are, only a small percentage would ever think to look for a crack for content that wasn’t advertised.

    Thus, the market for GTA 5 would be… limited.

  • Mike S.

    Hillary’s attempt to become a Tipper Gore clone reflects very poorly on her and the Democrats in general – she has lost my vote, and not just in the primary. Meanwhile, win, lose, or draw, she has illustrated that a company can and will be dragged into a morass if it permits ‘mods’ of its software to be distributed — which means that from now on, we can expect these companies to prohibit and attack any efforts by anyone to extend their functionality. I am completely disgusted.

    — someone who voted Nader in 2000 on account of Tipper Gore

  • jcousins

    What’s going on and why? This seems to be the question(s) many here are asking. Here are a few parts of some answers:

    1. The USA has moved so far to the right politically and socially, that the New York Times is now seen as the “liberal” media. The values of the ultra-conservatives have become the values that are being promoted by government at every level, inundating the social structure and forcing those values into every aspect of our daily lives. (Remember the uproar over Janet Jackson’s half second of nipple exposure?)

    2. The ususal protections from such abuses of power that we typically have enjoyed in our country, are not operating as they have in the past, and it is getting worse as each month goes by. On an emotional level, the reaction to this shift is fear. And not just fear in those that do not share the conservative values, but in those who do as well. And fear will not set us free, but rather enslave us and keep us aware of the jangling of our chains.

    3. With the above in play, an opportunistic environment is created; one that becomes a playground for those among us who operate well using their lizard brain (advantage, ends jutifies the means, me first, use whatever opportunity presents itself to scramble just one inch higher).

    Thus we are treated to the spectacle of Hillary Clinton. A person who should be championing social causes that matter, a person who lives with a man, who as President of the US had a 19 year old intern perform fellatio on him in the Oval Office while he smoked cigars that he had inserted into her vagina, condeming a video game that includes a few moments of R rated sex scenes. And she does this because she thinks that there is some political advantage in doing so.

    What to do with what is facing us as a society and a nation? The most effective action for any of us is to get involved at the local level in our communities. There are things that we can all be doing that will create enough social weight to drag the US back toward the moderate center where most of us believe we want to live. It can’t be done without our participation. Stay disengaged and the conservative momentum may carry us all to places that we really do not want to go.

  • web user

    A password is the same as a mod that unlocks content already in the game. It is like if developers decides not to release a password in a game to the public. People will not be able to access them on their own, unless hackers are used to discover these passwords (or in other words the same thing as mods unlocking content already in a game).

    AND I totally agree, parents should be more resposible in raising their own kids. But reality is they are not doing a good job of that. If they were then why are laws made preventing children from viewing/buying porn, buying cigarettes, laws preventing underage buying of a can of damn SPRAY PAINT. In a perfect world I wish these frivolous laws do not exist, but they do because there are alot of parents out there that are total idiots.

    To be completely honestly I dont care what laws mrs. hillary clinton makes as long as they dont affect me (as this one doesnt). Im 25 and love my mature video games. If her law requiring that underage kids need to show ID for some games then so be it. Everyone, including developers all agree they think Mature video games are intended for 17+ so what the problem requiring them to show ID. I think that this will actually help get those politician off the developers backs so they can create some awesome adult games.

    If you are under 17 years old and reading this and complaining, live with it kid. When you turn 18 you can buy all the porn, cigarettes, and adult games as your heart desires. If you are the author of Bluntz4ever post and get these adult items anyways with your fake ID or through your parents or friends, then you wouldn’t really care about this checking ID bill because it doesn’t apply to you.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    If they were then why are laws made preventing children from viewing/buying porn, buying cigarettes, laws preventing underage buying of a can of damn SPRAY PAINT.

    Games aren’t real, they’re entertainment. There are no laws preventing the sale of movies, books, music, or newspapers. All of those can be just as violent, if not more so. The music and movie industry chose to put in their own system (and honestly, I’m not sure if there is a fine for selling music with the PA sticker). Hillary, and anyone else in her position, has no right to bith. They don’t belong here. That’s the problem.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    The ESRB today ordered retailers to stop selling the current version of GTA: San Andreas or sell it under Adults Only: 18+ AO rating

    # ESRB assigns “Adults Only 18+” (AO) rating for current version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas due to unauthorized third party “Hot Coffee” modification
    # Rockstar Games to cease manufacture of current version of title and offer a downloadable patch to prevent modification of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for PC
    # Company lowers third quarter and fiscal year guidance to reflect the expected negative impact on the title’s retail performance

    I love a second para in this report:

    The scenes depicted in the “hot coffee” modification are not playable in the retail version of the game unless the user downloads and/or installs unauthorized software that alters the content of the original retail version of the title, representing a violation of Take-Two and Rockstar’s end user license agreement (EULA) and intellectual property rights. “We are deeply concerned that the publicity surrounding these unauthorized modifications has caused the game to be misrepresented to the public and has detracted from the creative merits of this award winning product,” said Mr. Eibeler. Take-Two is exploring its legal options as it relates to companies that profited from creating and distributing tools for altering the content of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

    – Hot Coffee indeed!