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Cooling Hot Coffee: Inside San Andreas' AO rating

To get an insider's view of how the industry reacted, GameSpot speaks with ESRB president Patricia Vance about the industry-shaking Grand Theft Auto controversy.


Take-Two Interactive wasn't the only organization in the Hot Coffee hot seat this past week. The industry-supported Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) took almost as much heat over the sex-infused mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as the game's publisher.

An arm of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the ESRB came in for some harsh criticism since the mod was publicized. Some politicians accused the board of colluding with the publisher, which pays dues to the ESA, which in turn supports the ESRB. In the case of the Hot Coffee mod, the ESRB was singled out by some as being deferential to ESA members and failing to act swiftly to investigate and possibly censure Rockstar Games, the Take-Two subsidiary that shed and developed San Andreas.

While that tangled web remains under scrutiny, the ESRB did act decisively yesterday, changing the rating of San Andreas from M for Mature to AO for Adults Only. Its action set in motion an expensive campaign by Rockstar to rush new versions of San Andreas into production, tweaked so that the Hot Coffee code no longer remains on discs sold with an M rating.

GameSpot spoke with ESRB president Patricia Vance shortly after the board completed its investigation.

GS: Is the ESRB investigation into the Hot Coffee mod closed?

PV: Unless there's new information that we haven't found, I consider this investigation closed.

GS: What was the dialogue like between the ESRB and Rockstar?

PV: Everybody took this matter very seriously.

GS: Did Rockstar object to your decision?

PV: No. They are respectful of the rating system. The content we found in an unmodified form on the disc came as a surprise to them as well as to us. It was undisclosed, and we needed to make sure that now that their product had been hacked into, and this content now had been made accessible broadly, that we had to take action. We took that very seriously, and they took that very seriously.

GS: You're saying the code was "hacked into"?

PV: The content was on the disc. [However,] the content was coded not to be accessible to the player. It required somebody to hack into the source code and find all kinds of files that could be unlocked. It was definitely a hack. It was a third-party modification to the source code that enabled this content to be viewed.

GS: Then this whole controversy is the fault of hackers or publishers?

PV: It all started with somebody hacking into their source code...and viewed on the PC. Later, a cheat was made available through [an] Action Replay [unit] that allowed it to be accessed on the PS2. But the reality is it was all started with somebody hacking into their source code.

GS: My read of your statement yesterday suggests that the ESRB is directing its energy toward modders, not publishers, and is, in effect, saying it's worse to unlock adult-rated content than to put it in the game in the first place.

PV: We're not saying that at all. What we're saying is that if you, as publisher, produce content that's pertinent to a rating, and leave it on a disc--risking that it might be accessed by a modder--then it's your responsibility. And if it undermines the accuracy of the rating, it's your responsibility.

It's up to publishers to take action against third-party modders, not ours. Our only obligation is to make sure that the rating is accurate. The publisher is responsible for creating content. If they then leave it on the disc and it undermines the effectiveness of the rating, then we have no choice but to take action. We're actually putting responsibility solely in the publishers' hands.

GS: Do you not find it odd that Rockstar has yet to formally state that the code was on the manufactured discs in the first place?

PV: Take that up with Rockstar.

GS: Did the ESRB vet or examine the Rockstar statement before it was released?

PV: They sent a copy to us before it was released, just like we sent a copy [of ours] to them. But we had our statement, and we stated the facts clearly and the actions that were going to be taken.

GS: Do you see your actions having any effect on efforts to create penalties enforced against retailers by federal authorities, as Clinton has proposed?

PV: The fines that she's talking about are fines that she would levy, or would have legislation levy, on retailers for selling a mature-rated game. Well, she actually put out a statement supporting [the ESRB] today, so you might want to take a look at that.

GS: Does this week's actions by the ESRB mean that the AO rating will be applied more often?

PV: We apply the AO rating often. Publishers [then] have the ability to resubmit product after it's been edited to avoid [that] AO rating. It's not because we don't assign it.

GS: Is this the first time a game has been rerated?

PV: No. We've had a handful of instances in the past where a game has been rerated. [But] it has not been of this nature. It's certainly not driven a product into an AO category, if that's what you mean. When we do find undisclosed content, more often than not, it changes a content descriptor, not a rating category.

GS: Is this rerating unique in any way?

PV: This is the first time we've really dealt with third-party modifications. We've had instances of pertinent content not being disclosed, but it hasn't involved third-party modifications.

GS: Do you believe Rockstar knew that this undisclosed content was on the disc that was submitted for duplication?

PV: That doesn't matter to the ESRB. That's never been a factor that we weigh. If it's on the disc, it's on the disc, whether you're aware of it or not. The publisher is always responsible for disclosing all the content on the disc; that [responsibility has] got to lie with the publisher.

GS: Have you been in touch with Senator Clinton?

PV: Not directly.

GS: What about other politicians?

PV: I have not been in touch with any politicians this week.

GS: Are you satisfied with the way the day turned out?

PV: Well, I'm certainly satisfied with the outcome. I am certainly satisfied that we have taken action, [and] to get our arms around the issue in general, in terms of how publishers need to treat material on the disc. I feel very good about that.

GS: Do you think this proves the industry can regulate itself?

PV: I think it's a very strong statement about the self-regulatory system and how independent it is. Look, it was hard to keep quiet while criticism was being lodged at the ESRB and the credibility of the system, not just the rating for Grand Theft Auto. [The ESRB's] credibility was being undermined. It's very difficult to sit idly by and silent while those kinds of attacks are being levied.

I think if nothing else, the industry and others view these actions as serious, as effective in terms of addressing the issues. We should all be proud as an industry that this was the outcome. It was dealt with swiftly. You know we had three to four weeks to investigate what was on the disc, investigate who modified what and how.

We also had an extensive review of our submissions process and our enforcement system, and trying to understand how we deal with third-party modifications. I don't think it is a secret this is the first time we've taken any kind of action with respect to third-party modifications, but this is a unique least unique in terms of what we've found so far.

GS: First but not the last...

PV: That's not to say there aren't going to be other instances of it, but the highly pertinent nature of this content is not something you're likely to find on other discs. [But] if we do, and they become unlocked and made readily available to consumers, we'll take similar actions. And the publishing community is now on notice.

GS: Arguably [Sony Computer Entertainment's] God of War has similar levels of violence and even more graphic portrayal of sexual activity. Rockstar could argue that its Grand Theft Auto has been singled out.

PV: I'm certainly familiar with the materials that were submitted to us, and it was rated, you know, as a relatively high M, with a number of content descriptors that indicate the game is inappropriate for anybody under the age of 17. Our action [on San Andreas] was really as a result of determining that the content--the sexual depictions--were the result of the developer creating those depictions and leaving them on the disc, coded not to be accessed by the player. Nevertheless, once they were made available and made accessible, we had no choice but to change the rating.

GS: And do you feel that what you are compelling Rockstar to do is sufficient?

PV: Where you've got virtually every major retailer exchanging product for new product, and you're requiring product to be pulled off the shelf, and anybody who wants to continue to sell it has to resticker it and wait for those stickers to come from Rockstar... I think those are very significant actions.

GS: Were you at all surprised by the response of the mainstream press to the Hot Coffee mod? The game industry got more ink in the past 10 days than it does in an average month.

PV: Well, the one positive statement I can make about that is that it certainly raised awareness of the ESRB ratings. Hopefully, parents will pay more attention next time they go out and buy a video game.

GS: Were you prompted to act as a result of pressure from politicians?

PV: This has nothing to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton, or Senator [Joe] Lieberman, or Assemblyman [Leland] Yee, or anybody else has stood up and said whatever they've said. This is about determining the status of the content that's on the disc, who was responsible for putting it there, how it affected the rating, and taking corrective measures to make sure that not only is the rating accurate, but that this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

GS: Is the controversy over?

PV: I think that this has certainly brought to light issues that the industry needs to deal with. I think that the attacks on our system were strong. Can we recover? Absolutely. I'm very proud of the rating system. I think that the ratings that we issue are accurate. I challenge anybody to come up with a better rating system or to come up with more-accurate ratings.

GS: Will there be any additional efforts on the ESRB's part to reevaluate ratings and procedures?

PV: We're always reevaluating...we're always looking at that. We have to adapt to the industry and technological developments. The actions we took today are a result of realizing that there is an active and technically sophisticated mod community out there, and it is just too risky for publishers to leave pertinent content on the disc that hasn't been submitted to the ESRB. So we're changing with the times, absolutely.

GS: Do you plan on reviewing any other games for possible rerating?

PV: If there is pertinent content that we're made aware of that has not been disclosed to the ESRB, we will certainly investigate it. And take appropriate actions, if necessary. As I said, the investigation to determine what's on the disc was only part of what we did. That's only a small part. That's all that you seem to be concerned about: "What was on the disc?" But our responsibility is to find out not just what's on the disc, but how to address this in a way that's consistent [so] we're not setting a precedent that we can't consistently enforce going forward.

GS: The overall framing of this decision is what?

PV: That we take corrective measures not just to correct the rating but to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. It was a package deal, and what we needed to be able to announce publicly was not just what we found on the disc. If that's all we did, it would raise more questions than it would answer.

We needed to be able to state publicly not just what we found on the disc but what measures were being taken, and what we as an industry need to do. That's the statement that's come out. And the fact that we got that done in three to four weeks, I think, is an accomplishment.

GS: Thanks, Pat.

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