The rating system devised by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is the video game industry's first line of defense against politicians and parents who are critical of game content. But what happens if game companies don't play by the rating rules?
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one of the most popular - and most reviled - video games of all time. Fans love it for its depth and gritty realism. Critics, who point to the game's extreme violence, sexual themes and simulated gang activity, complain that too often GTA:SA finds its way into the hands of younger players.
Legislators seeking to limit children's access to violent games invariably focus on the Grand Theft Auto series. Hillary Clinton ripped it. So did Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and Washington, D.C. Councilman Adrian Fenty. In the face of such criticism the video game industry consistently falls back on two lines of defense. As mentioned, the first of these is the ESRB rating system. Grand Theft Auto series titles have always earned "M" (mature) ratings, indicating that the games are intended for players 17 and older.
But game modders recently demonstrated a tweak to the GTA:SA code that allows players to watch graphic animated scenes featuring oral sex, nudity, and simulated intercourse. The so-called "Hot Coffee" mod reveals erotic scenes which are not part of the unmodified game play experience. The animations are so explicit that they likely would have earned GTA:SA an "AO" (adults only) rating - had the ESRB only known about them. An "AO" rating would severely impact sales, since most large retailers would decline to carry a game with an adults only rating.
The question remains, did naughty coders at Rockstar, developer of GTA:SA, slip the hidden sex animations into the game for modders to unlock, or were the animations created by the modders themselves? In an exclusive e-mail interview, "PatrickW," a Dutch modder, told GamePolitics how he unlocked the sex animations, which he claims were placed on the game disc by Rockstar. Our contact with PatrickW started when he commented on a June 17th GamePolitics feature on the GTA:SA sex animations.
"Hi everyone, my name is PatrickW from the netherlands, and I created the HOT COFFEE mod for San Andreas. I can confirm (and proof if needed), that all the code, models, textures and animations for the XXX interactive scene's are present on R*'s release DVD. The only thing that is needed to unlock it, is toggling a single bit. Also the fully nude models that are featured in a seperate version of the HOT COFFEE mod are present on the R* DVD. In addition to to the scene's that are featured in the movie that is circulating the internet, there is also a S&M type game that has been unlocked..."
In recent days GamePolitics asked PatrickW to furnish more proof that the animations were on the disc and not created by either himself or other modders. Here is his reply:
"Well how do you prove such a thing... it depends on how sceptic your
editor is. For a 100% proof I would recommend the following scenario:
* Do a clean install of San Andreas.
* Get hold of a savefile, where you have a high-relation level with one
or more of your girlfriends
(use your own savefile or gtagarage.com has some savefiles available
* On a different PC patch the savefile with the sacensor.exe tool (
giving the name of the savefile as only commandline parameter to the
* If needed, confirm with a binary editor that only 1 or two bytes have
changed in the savefile
* Move the savefile to the PC with San Andreas on it, and load the savefile.
* Go on a date with one of your girlfriends, and you when she invites
you for coffee, the animations will be shown.
An easier way is to invite me, put me behind a PC with the original SA
dvd and a hex-editor. and I'll patch the game with you guys as my witnesses :)"
What is Rockstar saying about these animations? Nothing. A voice mail left with their New York press contact was not returned. How about Take 2 Interactive, publisher of GTA:SA? They're not saying much, either. A press contact for Take 2 offered only this: "We don't comment on the work of the mod community."
It's worth pointing out that neither Rockstar nor Take 2 ever confirmed or denied placing the sex animations on the disc, despite being given ample opportunity to do so by GamePolitics.
Does the existence of the Hot Coffee sex animations trouble D.C. Councilman Fenty?
"It absolutely does," Fenty told GamePolitics. "I'm wondering if there is a real thoroughness to the review process." Fenty also expressed concern that game publishers could slip questionable content past the ESRB.
So what is the ESRB saying?
Executive Director Patricia Vance told GamePolitics in a June 20th e-mail, "We are currently looking into this situation. We do not know the source of the content nor the code that was created to access it. As always, we will ensure that all ESRB rules and regulations were properly followed by those participating in the rating process."
A few days later the ESRB's Public Relations Director Eliot Mizrachi added that the organization has taken action against publishers in the past for violating terms of the rating submissions system. He would not, however, elaborate on which companies or which games he was referring to.
"ESRB does not discuss the specifics of enforcement actions," he said. "However there are various means by which ESRB can hold publishers accountable. These include monetary fines, penalties, and/or corrective actions, such as re-stickering, and even a full product recall, if deemed necessary."
GamePolitics also asked for a copy of the questionnaire which the ESRB requires game companies to complete when submitting a title for evaluation. Mizrachi declined to release the document, but did agree to talk about it.
"The questionnaire is comprehensive and legally binds a publisher to fully disclose all pertinent content. This includes, but is not limited to content containing violence, language, sex and sexuality, gambling, alcohol, tobacco and drug references, etc. The content rated by ESRB includes any elements found in the gameplay itself, including all characters, dialogue, lyrics, props, backgrounds, full-motion videos, starting and ending sequences, advertisements, product placements, as well as bonus materials and hidden elements such as Easter eggs, cheat codes and locked levels. It is important to emphasize that the questionnaire is only one component of submission materials, which also requires a videotape of all pertinent content disclosed in the written questionnaire, and can also include soundtracks, scripts, lyrics sheets, game builds, etc. All of these submission materials are reviewed by ESRB for completeness."
So what shape would the ESRB's investigation take? Mizrachi wouldn't say.
"These types of circumstances are obviously dealt with on a case-by-case basis since they are all unique, he said. ESRB will do whatever is necessary to enforce its rules and regulations."
As this GamePolitics investigative report wraps up, here is what we know:
- a knowledgeable modder describes his method and claims that Rockstar left the sex animations on the game disc of all three versions (PS2, Xbox, and PC) of GTA:SA
- the developer (Rockstar) has not returned a phone call and the publisher (Take 2) will not comment, not even to deny that the sex animations were intentionally or even inadvertently left on the game disc
- a privately run rating body (ESRB) is investigating, but won't reveal what it finds. Perhaps that's not surprising, since the companies that it is investigating essentially pay its bills. The ESRB is not answerable to parents, to government, or to the media.
- the ESRB rating system is the lynchpin of the video game industry's voluntary content compliance program. And until the game industry explains just what happened here, and more importantly, what they are doing about it, parents may have a very difficult time relying on the ESRB system in the future.