The Grand Theft Auto series of video games has become a polarizing force in the discussion of video games and their role in the cultural marketplace. A perennial sales juggernaut for Rockstar Games and its publisher, Take 2 Interactive, the GTA series has been consistently applauded by game enthusiasts for its open-ended design, richly-detailed environments and choose-your-own-adventure style of game play. On the other hand, critics and media watchdog groups revile it for its glorification of violence and culture of moral depravity.

As with many cultural touchstones, the popularity of the Grand Theft Auto series reveals a hypocritical dichotomy among American consumers. Many polls have shown considerable disapproval of these types of ultra-violent games, yet they continue to rack up leading sales numbers. As a result, a growing number of people are speaking out, in both support of and opposition to the GTA games and other similar titles. The controversy continues to pit First Amendment apologists against parent advocacy groups in the battle to define how far is too far, a debate continually argued in the court of public opinion. As the conflict evolves, it spills over into the realms of criminal justice, legislation and political discourse.

A New Controversy

Now Rockstar Games is back in the spotlight with its latest entry: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A Dutch programmer named Patrick Wildenborg recently discovered a way to, by editing one of the game files on his modified XBOX console, unlock a playable mini-game that depicts the protagonist having sex with his girlfriend. News of the euphemistically-named “hot coffee mod” (so-called because the tryst occurs after she invites him in for coffee) quickly spread over the Internet, sparking an inferno of controversy.

Several days after the discovery of the hot coffee mod, Rockstar Games issued a press release, implying that the scene’s content was created by “a determined group of hackers” who, in doing so, violated Rockstar’s software copyright restrictions. Wildenborg has maintained that he didn’t create any of the content, he merely unlocked what was already there. His claim was validated by staffers at GameSpot.com, who discovered the same content on the PlayStation 2 version of the same game. These developments have attracted the attention of California assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich who are backing legislation designed to restrict the retail sale of GTA: San Andreas and other similar titles to underage buyers.

A Checkered History

Yet this is not the first time the series has been publicly criticized by a public servant.

In December of 2003, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly called for Rockstar Games to edit some of the dialogue from a particularly inflammatory scene in GTA: Vice City, after an outcry of protest from Haitian citizens and city officials. In January of 2003, anti-violence attorney Jack Thompson represented Devin Moore, then 17, who gunned down three police officers after being arrested on suspicion of auto theft. As part of Moore’s defense, Thompson asserted that several months of prolonged exposure to GTA: Vice City trained his client to commit murder. Consequently, Thompson claimed, Rockstar Games should share a portion of civil culpability for his client’s criminal activity. While the court has yet to rule in his favor, Thompson’s suit generated concern over the potential effects of such violent games on minors. With each GTA-related headline, the rule of thumb seems to be this: when it comes to Grand Theft Auto, any news is probably bad news.

Coffeegate: Unveiled

The Electronic Software Ratings Board originally rated GTA: San Andreas as “M for Mature,” a designation meaning the game is recommended for teens 17 and older. In the normal, unmodified version of the game, the hot coffee scene is disabled, with only a few suggestive moans depicting action off-screen.

Many speculate its last-minute omission was designed to avoid an “AO: Adults Only” rating. Rockstar has enormous financial incentive to avoid AO ratings for its games, because many retailers – including behemoths like Wal-Mart – refuse to stock AO titles. However, the controversy of the “hot coffee mod” prompted the ESRB to launch an investigation into whether or not Rockstar failed to properly disclose all relevant information to the advisory panel who rated the game.

Four weeks later, the ESRB rescinded the “M” rating from San Andreas, giving retailers the option of re-labeling existing stock with “AO” stickers or trading them in for an “M”-rated version that makes the hot coffee mod inoperable.

What Does it All Mean?

Ultimately, the board’s decision is good news.

It’s good for the ESRB, because when the heat was on to bring sanctions against Rockstar Games, the board responded. While the investigation crawled along, popular opinion was beginning to sway against the ESRB. It was starting to look like a toothless watchdog, all bark and no bite. This notion was undoubtedly fueled by the fact that the ESRB receives its funding from the Entertainment Software Assocation, a game company trade group. The fear was that when it came right down to it, the ratings board would only act in the best interests of the game companies involved, rather than the interests of the general public.

Skeptics can point to the imminent legislation and claim the board was forced into action to prevent even harsher federal penalties. They have a point, but it doesn’t change the verdict. We have no way of knowing how the ESRB would have responded without the media exposure and political pressure, but in this situation, it did the right thing.

It’s good news for parents, because they can be more assured that the ESRB will step up its game in trying to effectively monitor and evaluate game content. The discovery and subsequent media exposure of the hot coffee mod was a major embarrassment for the ratings board. Much like the TSA after Sept. 11, the ESRB will most likely overhaul its procedures to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Most importantly, it’s good news for gamers. While there will certainly be those in the gaming community who will defend GTA and Rockstar/Take 2 and their apparent proclivity toward depravity, these gamers are a vocal minority. On the other side of the philosophical spectrum, there are probably others whose beliefs compel them to completely shun any game that depicts any kind of violent, illegal, antisocial or supernatural activity. The rest of us probably reside in the middle, freely enjoying games that stimulate our senses and engage our minds, while choosing to reject titles that violate our convictions.

Sometimes games with objectionable content can serve a valuable purpose in helping us to grapple with important moral and ethical issues of the day. The Splinter Cell series by Ubisoft comes to mind. Inspired by the work of political-thriller novelist Tom Clancy, the games follow the work of Sam Fisher, a covert CIA operative who conducts critical intelligence-gathering missions in order to bolster national security. Killing is involved, but it’s part of the way the protagonist and his remote team navigate through the complicated layers of espionage and counter-terrorism. Playing a Splinter Cell mission can be a great way to stimulate conversation about the complex moral issues that beg for answers to important policy questions:

  • How do we balance our right to privacy with our desire for a safe homeland?

  • How can our foreign policy advance the cause of democracy without succumbing to terrorist tactics?

  • When does killing another human being constitute a legitimate means to achieving a political goal?

Knee-jerk reactionaries who cry foul over the “hot coffee” scandal might be tempted to lump all popular video games together. Those who do should take a healthy step back and look at the whole picture. Any game rated “M for Mature” should never fall into the hands of anyone under 17 to begin with. And clearly a video game can never substitute for a good civics class, but games like Splinter Cell (rated “T for Teen”) are nowhere near the digitized debauchery of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. To imply that they are would be ignorant, on the level of equating Bambi with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films because they both involve guns and killing.

Hopefully, the “hot coffee” scandal will help illuminate the public as to the difference between the two kinds of games, and maybe people will know not to associate the former with the latter. For gamers, that might be the best news of all.

[special thanks go to Dennis McCauley of GamePolitics.com for extended coverage of the scandal that contributed to this report.]


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