Battle of the XXX-Box

The recent ruckus over the "Hot Coffee" hack for the popular computer game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Fault, which allows users to play a mini-game involving illicit animated sex scenes,  brought to mind an awkward moment I experienced while shopping for computer games a  while back. It was a few years ago. I was standing in the middle of Electronics Boutique, at a D.C. area mall, perusing the shelves and trying to decide what — if anything –  to buy. At that time, Electronic Arts had just come out with a new expansion pack for The Sims, called Hot Date. The name was a hint at what the the expansion offered. The characters in the game, called Sims, now had the ability to "play in bed" (now a standard feature in the 3D sequel to the original game, Sims 2).

I’d bought the expansion pack and tried it out, but hadn’t thought much about it until I overheard a conversation between a mother and son who were standing nearby while I perused the shelves. The kid really wanted the expansion pack, and I figured he must already have the game. He lied somewhat unconvincingly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he tried to convince her that there was nothing unobjectionable in the game. The mother was less than certain she should buy it for him, and was looking at the box trying to make heads or tails of it. The kid, meanwhile was rushing the mom along, hoping she’d buy it and just give up trying to screen the game before he played it.

I was torn. I wasn’t a parent at the time, but I felt pretty sure if I was I’d want to take the time to screen what computer games my kid played. At the same time I sympathized with the kid, who probably knew enough about sex that he didn’t need protection from a computer simulation of it (particularly one that takes place under the sheets with the non-existent "naughty bits." (Sims don’t have genitals, a fact revealed by a "nudity hack" that circulated among the online community of Sims enthusiasts.) I must have looked like I was listening to the conversation and knew the game they were talking about. The kid looked at me as if asking for help. I gave a look I intended to say "you’re on your own, kid." And left the store.

My how times have changed. When I was growing up the Parents Music Resource Center was trying to protect us from raunchy lyrics. Now simulated sex in a computer game has Hillary Clinton in full Tipper-Gore mode.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is calling on federal regulators to investigate the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, a popular video game series that allows players to go on simulated crime sprees.

In a letter she is sending Thursday to the Federal Trade Commission, Mrs. Clinton expressed concern over reports that anyone who used a free code downloaded over the Internet could unlock sexually graphic images hidden inside the game, called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Mrs. Clinton asked the commission to determine "the source of this content," especially since the game can fall into the hands of young people. The game industry’s self-policing unit, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, is investigating whether the maker of the game violated the industry rule requiring "full disclosure of pertinent content."

Mrs. Clinton also asked the commission to look into whether the industry erred in giving the game a rating of M, or mature, for players 17 years and older. National electronics store chains sell M-rated games but tend to avoid adult-only titles.

Rockstar wasn’t exactly a rock star in the accountability department on this, first claiming that hacks  created by outsiders added explicit sex scenes to the game, only later to admit that it happened in house.

Rockstar’s parent, Take Two Interactive, also admitted for the first time Wednesday that the sex scenes had been built into the retail game — not just the PC version but also those written for Xbox and PlayStation2 consoles.

Company officials had previously suggested that a modification created by outsiders added the scenes to the game, last year’s best seller in consoles.

"There is sex content in the disc," Take-Two spokesman Jim Ankner told The Associated Press. "The editing and finalization of any game is a complicated task and it’s not uncommon for unused and unfinished content to remain on the disc."

For an explanation on how and why the content remained in the game, we have to turn to an actual game  developer, like Michael Russell

A large part of game development is prototyping. That’s when you’re tossing new things into a product in a skeletal manner to see if it will add to the final product. This process often goes up until just a few weeks before a product goes "gold".

Sometimes, the features are cut but the files and code remain in the product. Why? Because developers don’t want to introduce new bugs by pruning out older stuff.

And it’s not always sex games, as Russell points out, that end up remaining a part of the game, without being "called" by it (meaning it’s not part of the course of regular, unenhanced game play). As any gamer will tell you, the internet is full of "Easter Eggs" and cheat codes that unlock unfinished levels, test levels, or game features designed for the developers own use in testing the game. (Though ya hafta wonder just what use Rockstar’s developers got out of the "hot coffee" hack.) So it’s not as though there’s a nefarious plot on the part of game manufacturers to scandalize America’s youth. 

Still, I can hardly blame Hillary. It a great chance to enhance her moderate creds. And who knows how many teenagers are holed up in their rooms right now simulating sex on a computer screen? (Though it’s worth noting that, so long as their hands are on the game controllers or keyboards, they’re not actually having.) But that’s just it. If kids are holed up in their rooms, playing a hacked version of this game, then that’s a sign of a bigger problem that neither Hillary or the game manufacturers can do anything about. 

Plainly put, maybe parents need to drag the computer out of the kid’s room and into the common area of the home.  How else do you expect to monitor what your kid’s doing on the computer if you can’t see him/her or the computer? 

Next you’ll be telling me that they have internet access in their rooms too. 

What? Um. We need to talk. 

If you ask me, most of the time kids don’t need to have totally private access to a computer. There’s stuff out there on the internet that makes the "hot coffee" scenes in GTA look like Sesame Street. (Of course, I’d make an exception for teens in Zach’s situation.) Parents who give their kids unlimited and unmonitored access to the internet are potentially inviting trouble. (Two words. Chat. Pedophiles.) 

And as long as I’m addressing grown-ups, the folks who are gunning for Grand Theft Auto and Rockstar Games are missing one important factor. A surprising number of adults are part of the audience for these games. They’re adults, yours truly included, who grew up playing computer games and have kept the habit upon reaching adulthood. I know I have. I tried Grand Theft Auto in its first incarnation. (I usually shy away from games with a lot of violence, but I’ve found that a round or two of Quake or World of Warcraft goes a long way towards burning off the frustrations of the day.) If some adult wants to turn his X-Box into an XXX-Box with a code he finds on the internet, that that ought to be his business, and I don’t think anyone should try to stop him. If it’s a question of protecting kids, well I refer back to the aforementioned responsibility of parents in things kid-and-computer related. 

And, anyway, just what are the the new cyber Cromwells protecting kids from? Violence? As Steven Johnson points out, kids are already exposed to violence-as-entertainment outside of computer games.

I’d like to draw your attention to another game whose nonstop violence and hostility has captured the attention of millions of kids — a game that instills aggressive thoughts in the minds of its players, some of whom have gone on to commit real-world acts of violence and sexual assault after playing.

I’m talking, of course, about high school football.

I know a congressional investigation into football won’t play so well with those crucial swing voters, but it makes about as much sense as an investigation into the pressing issue that is Xbox and PlayStation 2.

Johnson goes on to point out that kids also gain certain benefits from playing computer games, in areas like hand-eye coordination, problem solving and creativity. (Trust me, succeeding in the Sims without cheat codes requires some problem solving and creativity.) Turns out you might be saving them from skills they’ll need in order to compete in what Johnson calls "the digital workplace of tomorrow," which I can assure is already here today.

The battle has been joined, and it’s probably too late to stop it now. Recall petitions are circulating. Retailers are pulling the game from their shelves. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating. Jack Thomspon, the Miami attorney who spearheaded the action against Rockstar and and Grand Theft Auto is already gunning for The Sims 2 — despite the fact that nudity in the game is pixeled out, and removing the pixels doesn’t reveal anything kids won’t see anyway if they take Barbie’s clothes off. Most recently, a lawsuit has been launched.

Chances are it’ll end pretty much the way the PMRC’s heyday ended, with all the stuff it railed against still being as available as it was before (because, let’s face it, if there’s a market for it we’re not about to stop producing it), but probably with a incredibly ugly lable on it. 

Meanwhile, there are more pressing things we could be worried about, but apparently aren’t. 

Meanwhile, just down America’s street, countless thousands of young U.S. soldiers are hobbling home from Iraq and Afghanistan, wounded and disabled and limbless and traumatized to the bone, eyes deadened to the world and permanently scarred to their cores and in interviews and documentaries and various news stories you often hear many of them say this one weirdly similar thing.

They say, wow man, yeah, it sure was amazing over there, totally surreal, killin’ all those people with rapid-fire machine guns and firing rounds of mortar shells into buildings that might’ve been, for all we knew, hospitals or schools, and using night-vision goggles to invade decimated towns to hunt down crazed guerrillas and riding in those tanks and blowing the crap out of those Iraqi villages and hearing those women scream and watching those bodies burn.

This is what they say: Oh man, you know what it reminded me of? You know what it was like over there, what with all the killing and the violence and the guns? It was just like, well, it was just like a video game.

To which you may now reply, huh. 

Huh.  Hey, can I still get a copy of that game?

Yeah. Sure. It’s everywhere.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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3 Responses to Battle of the XXX-Box

  1. Katharine says:

    Good post, Terrance. And I have always said that I don’t trust either of the Clintons as far as I can throw them: it surprises me not at all that she’s doing whatever she can to curry favor with the middle in full “Tipper Gore mode” as you succinctly put it.

    The irony of it is that I cannot imagine that she thinks she’s fooling anyone: nobody on the Right believes that she’s anything but a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and she’s only annoying her loyal Democrat constituency by not standing strong on “blue” issues.

    Are there any ethical politicians remaining on either side of the political aisle?

  2. Thanks for the link.

    I’m not defending Rockstar’s content in any way whatsoever, but I completely understand how the content could have ended up in the game even after references to it had been removed/disabled.

  3. Mark says:

    Actually, there’s a good explanation of what happened here:
    http://illspirit.com/press_release.html

    Basically, Rockstar did have certain elements of the mod in the game, but hackers actually re-wrote the code in order to get to it. In other words, this wasn’t something that Rockstar intended on ever being found, nor was it a way to get around an “AO” rating.

    Also, where was the push to have the game banned based on it’s violent content? You can pretty much kill anyone in the game, at any time, but no one got upset until AFTER sex entered the equation.

    Just proof that some Americans can stomach all kinds of violence (real or imaginary), but are still incredibly prudish.

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