Friday, October 28, 2005

FROM THE VAULT: Hot Coffee Scandal

For those of you who don't know (that would be most of you) I do a monthly column for The Patriot-News on video games and gaming culture called Game On (yeah, I'm not crazy about the title either). Anyway, this Sunday's column is on the fallout from the recent "hot coffee" scandal, so I thought it might be worthwhile to post the column I originally did when the whole sordid affair broke. This article originally ran on July 31st of this year, for those of you keeping score. Enjoy.

Company scalded by game's 'hot coffee'

Sen. Hillary Clinton does not like hot coffee.

Neither does noted anti-video crusader lawyer Jack Thompson. Or most of the folks in the House of Representatives.

The folks at Entertainment Software Ratings Board have a headache from all the hot coffee. And the game developers at Rockstar, though they made the hot coffee are, by now, no longer enjoying it.

As you've probably figured out, I'm not talking about hotcoffee the delicious beverage, but "hot coffee," the modification or "mod" that revealed a hidden sex game buried in the code of the ever-controversial "Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas." That discovery has led to a storm of calls for federal legislation.

But first, a bit of back story for those of you not following this sorry tale.

A few months ago, a Dutch "modder" -- one who creates patches, codes and other modifications for computer games for fun -- discovered a hidden bit of code in the PC version of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

The code revealed a hidden mini-game where main character C.J. is invited by one of his girlfriends back to her place for some "coffee." From there, the scene quickly shifts to the two having sex. Players could manipulate C.J. in order to fill up the"excitement meter."

Now, it's important to note, this code is locked off. There is no way you could play "San Andreas" and get access to the "hot coffee" game unless you hacked into the system. Which suggests that this was a section of the game Rockstar created and abandoned but was unable to take off the disc, possibly for fear of destroying the code for the entire game.

As news spread across the Internet about the "hot coffee" mod, however, Rockstar and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, issued carefully worded statements, denying they had anything to do with the sex game and focusing the blame instead on the modding community, saying it had altered the game's coding.

It wasn't until someone uncovered the same code in the PlayStation 2 version of the game that the blame could squarely be placed at Take-Two's doors.

Reaction upon hearing this revelation was swift. Legislators, particularly Clinton, who had been beating the drum against the"GTA" series for some time, called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. Then the House of Representatives voted 355-21 to ask the FTC to do the same.

The FTC was apparently listening as Take-Two confirmed this week that they are the target of a federal investigation.

Backed into a corner, the ratings board announced that "San Andreas," which had been rated M for Mature, would be rated AO, forAdults Only. Retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Target responded by immediately pulling the game off shelves. Take-Two, meanwhile, promised to create a new M-rated version of the game that would befree of the "hot coffee" content.

Having seen the footage, it's difficult to understand what all the fuss is about. Though suggestive and ribald, it's not much more explicit than your average R-rated movie or episode of "Sex and the City." And let's remember, too, that this was already a game that was already rated for ages 17 and over. Plus, recent games like"Playboy: The Mansion" have just as much sexual content, yet are rated M.

What exactly the fallout from this will be is tough to predict. Certainly one loser in the battle is the retailers, who, as the Web site GameSpot recently noted, will lose a good deal of money not being able to sell the game.

And while many have praised the ratings board for taking a stand, others are saying that Take-Two got off too easy, and the ratings board should have gone further and fined the company.

It's an odd claim, considering, again, the code was hidden and not easily accessible. "There is no way the ESRB could have known thiscode could have been there" said John Davidson, editorial director of 1UP.com, Ziff-Davis' gaming Web site.

"Because of the intense political and media scrutiny, the ESRB really had no choice," said Dennis McCauley, who covers video games for the Philadelphia Inquirer and runs the GamePolitics.com Web site. "They made the right call. This releases some of the pressure, for sure. But expect a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., and State Assembly hearings in California at a minimum. The ESRB will be doing damage control on this one for a long time."

McCauley also notes that the game mod community and game developers might suffer too. Developers might start looking over their shoulder, toning down their content and making it harder for modders to tinker with their titles. "That would be a shame because modders add a lot of value to games," he said.

If there is a villain in this, it's Take-Two; not so much for putting the content on the disc in the first place, but for trying to weasel out of the issue and blaming the mod community. If it had simply assumed responsibility and issued a sincere mea culpa, this might not have turned into a brouhaha.

Whatever the motives, the fact remains that Rockstar, and videogames in general, will be under a lot more scrutiny than ever. Perhaps we should all switch to iced tea from now on.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2005

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