Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hillary Clinton, Wire Services, and Pixelated Sex

Wire services are very useful as clearinghouses of information. They're often good at breaking down complex situations and making them easier to understand for people who haven't been following the story. Sometimes, though, the simplification goes too far.

Such is the case with the AP's and Reuters's reporting about a controversy that's errupted over the popular video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. At issue is whether or not GTA's creator, Rockstar Games deliberately included (disabled) pornographic minigames that can be unlocked through downloading a minor hack of one of the PC version of the game's files.

After word got out of the PC hack (a PlayStation2 version soon followed), various people started getting involved including the video game industry's ratings body, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Next to step up was Senator Hillary Clinton who sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to investigate Rockstar.

In her FTC letter, the senator used the correct language to describe the situation. Reporting on Clinton's missive, however, the AP and Reuters were overly generic. While nothing the reporters said was false, it was misleading.

From the AP report:
Clinton, D-N.Y., is asking the Federal Trade Commission to probe how users of the game can access "graphic pornographic and violent content" for the game from the Internet.
Of course "access ... from the Internet" can mean a variety of things from third-party modules that can be downloaded (such as the infamous and short-lived Nude Raider mods) to unlocking disabled game features.

Reuters reporter Peter Kaplan phrased his story in more mysterious tones:
Clinton asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate the origins of a downloadable modification that allows simulated sex in the personal computer version of one of the most popular and controversial video games in history.
This is all true, but Kaplan gave no hint as to "the origins" of the game patches, or even a statement from their creator, a Dutch individual going by the name PatrickW, despite the fact that he has an official statement about the patches on the front page his web site:
All the contents of this mod was [sic] already available on the original disks. Therefor the scriptcode, the models, the animations and the dialogs by the original voice-actors were all created by RockStar. The only thing I had to do to enable the mini-games was toggling a single bit in the main.scm file. (Of course it was not easy to find the correct bit). The Nude models that are used as a bonus in the Quick action version of the mod, were also already present on the original disk.
But all this material is completely inaccesible in an unmodded version of the game. It can therefor not be considered a cheat, easter-egg or hidden feature. But is most probably just leftover material from a gameplay idea that didn't make the final release. I would really like to stress that this material is only accessible after willfully applying the hot coffee mod (or something similar) to the game.
In the end, PatrickW will most likely to be proven correct. The idea that the ESRB should monitor and rate disabled and hidden code within games is absurd. Still, though, if the bad publicity continues for Rockstar, the company may very well pull the current version of GTA San An, even though Clinton's attempt to moderate her image will likely increase the game's sales among people who somehow think that polygon sex is kewl.