In early June, mere days after the PC version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas hit store shelves, word surfaced of a user-designed mod that let players enjoy a sexually explicit minigame at the point of the game where the main character enters his girlfriend's house "for coffee." Dubbed "Hot Coffee," the mod caused a stir in gaming circles but went largely unnoticed by the mainstream. It went unnoticed until last week, that is, when California State Assemblyman Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) cited the Hot Coffee mod as he lambasted the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) for not giving San Andreas an AO for Adults Only rating.
The following day, the ESRB launched an investigation into whether the sexually explicit content was in the game waiting to be unlocked or was added in as a mod. As the week wore on, Hot Coffee returned time and again to the headlines. The National Institute on Media and the Family made its position clear. Meanwhile, the Australian government's Office of Film and Literature Classification started its own investigation into the mod.
Rockstar Games eventually came forward with its side of the story, balking at responsibility for the mod and calling it the work of "a determined group of hackers." And, finally, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) yesterday proposed legislation that would fine retailers caught selling violent and sexually explicit games to minors, in addition to calling on the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation to determine the source of the "graphic pornographic and violent content" that allegedly appears in the game.
It appears Yee's vocal criticism of the ESRB triggered a chain reaction, taking what could have been an overlooked novelty mod of a hit PC game and making it the flash point of a much larger debate, with very real ramifications on a game publisher's liability for what end users do with their products, accepted practices for industry-operated ratings organizations (like the ESRB and the Motion Picture Association of America), and even what constitutes free speech, as protected under the First Amendment.
Now that his issue has caught fire and sparked a heated debate across continents, does Yee like where the things are headed now that Senator Clinton has entered the fray?
"I absolutely believe that this is going in the right direction," Yee told GameSpot. "I hope there are even more investigations. The ESRB is not an appropriate forum to rate any of these games whatsoever. There's a conflict of interest. It's the fox guarding the henhouse. ... If you have the industry paying for the rating, and your salary comes out of their money, the last thing you're going to try to do is try to upset them. The last thing you're going to do is limit their market share by rating a game AO."
Although Yee was sharply critical of the ratings board in his original statement, stating "Once again, ESRB has failed our parents," he did not propose solutions that would address his concerns.
"I'm not prepared to talk about or suggest an alternative rating system yet," Yee said. "I do want to give the ESRB their day in court, and before we say 'Let's wipe them out completely,' let's see how they perform on this particular evaluation."
As far as the gaming industry's First Amendment defense to Clinton's charges, as presented by Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Yee found that claim no more satisfactory than Grand Theft Auto and its M for Mature rating. The First Amendment needs to be carefully protected, Yee said, but there is such a thing as going too far.
"When you're talking about training kids how to kill and how to maim and demean women, you cannot cross that line," Yee said. "For them to continually defend these actions is absolutely reprehensible, and if I were part of the industry, I'd fire these spokespeople, because they don't bring honor to my profession."
Yee added that he and Clinton have learned from previous laws that sought to limit access to violent video games but were ultimately declared unconstitutional. Now, both Clinton's proposal and his own California Assembly Bill 450, a stalled piece of legislation that would levy fines on retailers who sell violent games to minors, would be considered constitutionally sound due to narrow wording.
If passed, AB450 would fine retailers caught selling violent or sexually explicit games to minors at a rate of $1,000 per infraction. In her speech yesterday, Clinton proposed a $5,000 fine, which would be imposed at the federal level. As for what punishments should be suffered by a publisher that releases a game with unsavory hidden content into the marketplace, Yee said he hadn't considered the matter as of yet.
"At the very least it warrants an AO rating," Yee said. "It warrants an apology to everyone in this world, particularly to the parents, and it warrants a very hefty fine to send a very clear message."
While the origin of the objectionable content seen in the Hot Coffee mod is still under investigation, Yee is acutely skeptical of Rockstar's insistence that the sexual content of the Hot Coffee mod originated with hackers.
"If, in fact, as Rockstar claims, these sexually explicit minigames were never in their games whatsoever, then I would assume that these hackers have violated the copyright of Rockstar games, of Grand Theft Auto, and that Rockstar should, in fact, take every action that they can to sue every single penny of those individuals who would violate their copyright," Yee said. "I haven't seen any of that at all, and that's why I'm suspicious of Rockstar's position of innocence."
While Yee hopes that legislative action on this matter is swift (he's looking to revive AB450 with renewed bipartisan support once the California State Assembly is back in session on August 15), he doesn't expect these issues to be resolved overnight. In the meantime, he's advising parents that what you see on the box might not be what you get in the game.
"What I say to parents is: If I were you, I wouldn't have my kids purchasing [these games], nor would I buy any of these M-rated games for my children," Yee said. "Right now, nobody can be assured as to what you're purchasing. Who knows what is embedded in these games? You cannot trust the rating system anymore."