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GTA porn row - whose responsibility is it?

Give me some sugar, honey

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Analysis Who'd have thought that a simple cup of coffee could cause suck a ruckus? The debate over the ins and outs (no pun intended) of the 'Hot Coffee' section in the new Grand Theft Auto is still raging.

Background

The Hot Coffee mode was first discovered in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for the PC, released last month. In the normal version of the game, if the player does well enough, a girlfriend will invite him in for some ‘coffee’, a treat merely hinted at audibly.

However, a crafty PC tinkerer discovered that by changing one bit in a game data file, a whole new minigame was unlocked that allowed the player to take part in simulated sex with the (fully clothed) girlfriends. A fan-created 'nude patch' appeared soon after, allowing copulation with naked, nubile girls.

Here's where the confusion starts. Game developers Rockstar first blamed hackers for inserting code into the PC version of the game, claiming the code was nothing to do with it. But subsequent reverse engineering of the PS2 version revealed the mode in there too, rather putting the boot into Rockstar's claims.

Rockstars acting responsibly?

It's obvious to most that the game needs to be judged based on the Rockstar content, not the fan-created nude content (otherwise we get into the seriously tricky area of whether game makers are responsible for mod content, which is controversial). Frankly, it seems silly to leave the caffeine content in the game and lock it, if it was never meant to be played. Why not just remove the code? The inference is that it was designed to be unlocked, which makes Rockstar liable for its contents, and any attempt to shift blame looks irresponsible.

But by what standards is the game being judged? In the US, San Andreas originally had a 'M for Mature' rating from the ESRB. Under the re-classification, it has an Adults Only (AO) rating. The difference between the two appears to be in the degree of graphicness, and the length of the questionable content. The distinction is pretty thin, and it could hardly be said that which side of the line Hot Coffee should fall on is clear-cut. Indeed, we could almost call it irrelevant, since the ratings system in the US is voluntary and even AO games can legally be bought by anyone of any age - the ESRB rating is only guidance.

Ratings across the pond

Part of the confusion in the US ratings appears to be down to the fact that the films ratings system and games ratings system are not unified, and game ratings are not compulsory. Consequently, consumers often aren't sure of what they're getting, and it's easy for speculation and hysteria to take root. It also means that people don’t equate the seriousness of violence and sex in games with the seriousness of violence and sex in movies, meaning adult games end up in the hands of kids.

In the UK, the situation is a little simpler, with GTA simply having a legal 18 rating, as all adult-targeted games (and films) have. The adequacy of the UK system is born out by the total lack of outrage over here at the content of the game – at 18 rated, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or 9 Songs, who could be in any doubt that it's for adults?

The new AO rating for GTA in the US is equivalent to our 18 rating here, and the NC-17 film rating in the US. The question has to be, why wasn’t the title already AO rated for the violence against women, robbery, murder and, well, Grand Theft Auto? It’s as if all the violence in the world is harmless to kids, but add in a little bit of comedic copulation and all hell breaks lose. Are Americans really that uptight about sex?

Instead, isn't it really true that what the US needs is simply a compulsory legal ratings system that imposes ratings on games based on a system the public generally understands, along with a recognition from the public that games aren't just for kids, but can be for adults too?

Trends

Some will the link Coffee-gate to a growing era of parental non-responsibility. Others will point to the fact that games still lack recognition as a valid form of entertainment for adults. As Microsoft and Sony try desperately to crack the mainstream nut with their next consoles, does part of their effort need to be devoted to the creation of a public perception that games aren’t ‘default’ suitable for kids, just as movies aren’t?

While the games industry cries that the seriousness of this kind of virtual depiction isn’t on par with cinema, it also begs to be taken seriously as a mainstream activity. Surely the industry can’t have it both ways? If it wants to be taken seriously, it should regulate itself appropriately. If it wants to be frivolous and offer coffee to minors, then it shouldn't expect the market to grow beyond its state today. ®

Related links

Hot Coffee background
San Andreas at the BBFC

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