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Manhunt, mods and maddened mothers

How the ESRB fails at modern game ratings

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Analysis It took about 24 hours after the release of Manhunt 2 for hackers to remove filters that censor the video game's most grisly scenes.

I'm crossing my fingers this one goes away quick. It's too early to tell how much media controversy will arise from the latest video game censorship gaffe, it's clear we haven't heard the last of the problem.

It's a hole dug by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) and Grand Theft Auto developer, Rockstar. It began when they bowed to critics inflamed over a third-party game modification that unlocked sexual content removed from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Much like the clamorous "Hot Coffee" controversy that plagued benefited surrounded Rockstar's San Andreas, gamers must not only possess a burning desire to "unlock" the content, but the wherewithal to do so.

The Manhunt exploit thus far can be applied only to the PSP version of the game using a modded version of the handheld. For this one we're talking the extraction of the game's ISO and deleting specific strings in the configuration files.

The content revealed by the mod is the true "visceral killing" scenes that attracted the ire of both US and European censors — transforming the AO-rated testicle-ripping murder romp into a mere M-rated eyeball-gouging homicide tryst.

That is to say, much of the questionable content was censored with filters and effects rather than deleted entirely. By removing these filters, the scenes become as violent as they were originally when it got the AO rating. Bear in mind that Rockstar probably didn't intentionally make anything "unlockable" judging by the complexity of the hack, and the ESRB was fine with the edit job when it awarded the game an M-rating.

But the ESRB has already set a horrible precedent in its handling of the "Hot Coffee" controversy. When it was discovered in 2006 via a console hacking tool that San Andreas contained a sexually explicit mini-game removed from the game proper but not the code, they bowed to pressure from an "outraged" public to re-rate the game as an adult-game.

Effectively, game developers were made responsible for third-party modifications on their games.

Don't count on the general public to make the distinction of a mod. This journalist had the extreme pleasure of sitting at a news conference of the Los Angeles City Attorney in 2006, when the city filed a civil lawsuit against Take-Two for failing to disclose the pornographic content.

"Greed and deception are part of the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas story. In that respect, its publishers are no different than the characters in their story," City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said.

The room was filled with journalists with a vague awareness they should be outraged — but it didn't get much deeper than that. I became the unofficial pre-conference tutor for my fellow hacks.

"So they hid sex in the game?" a local talking head asked me.

"Well, yes and no. You'd need to g—"

"Could a child buy this game at any game store? Disgusting."

For those more willing to look at the controversy, a line needs to be drawn. When a game is purchased, what exactly is being bought? What is being judged for content rating? Is it the game, or the code?

The ESRB needs to be clear on this. Modding has been a huge part of PC gaming since its infancy — and as consoles become more like computers, the practice will become more mainstream. Rating boards cannot hold game developers responsible for what others do to code.

From a ESRB press release today:

"What parents, and indeed all consumers, need to be aware of is that computer software and hardware devices are susceptible to unauthorized modification. Parents should be cognizant of whether or not their children are engaging in unauthorized modification of their games, consoles or handhelds, as those modifications can change game content in ways that may be inconsistent with the assigned ESRB rating. That being said, the vast majority of consumers have not made the unauthorized modifications to their hardware necessary to view the content at issue."

Now we're getting somewhere, but the issue is too complex to tip-toe around. The game rating board must construct clear guidelines on how game mods should be handled. Until that happens, they'll be forced to put out the same fire again and again.

Hell, put another warning on the game box. It's already covered with them. The public won't read it of course, but at least it'll be something to point to when this inevitably comes up again.

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