Update on responsibility for hidden material

Well, the US Entertainment Software Rating Board has decided that the sexually explicit content that can be unlocked on GTA: San Andreas, despite not being part of the game without a hack being applied, is still part of the game and so have reclassified the game as being for ‘Adults Only’, AO.

More info:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/07/21/gta_reclassified/

So this means that in the eyes of US ratings a developer is responsible for every piece of code in games that they release.

How exactly are they going to enforce this? The adult scenes were removed from the flow of the final game, so they don’t feature unless you use the mod, so how were the ratings office to know that it exists? And how are they going to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future? Maybe ‘Play With The Teletubbies’ has a hackable set of scenes with the fur off but no-one’s found it yet…

This is very much a new-media problem. If you buy a book you’re not likely to discover hidden pages after you’ve read it a few times, and this only confirms the status of electronic media as being unlike previous industry models. People are constantly comparing games to the film industry, but the level of interaction and the ability for players to change the events means that developers are going to be increasingly out of control of the content.

I don’t know whether the unlocked scenes are in any way interactive (‘press alternate keys to pump’…?), it’s more likely that they are cut-scenes, premade but then left on the cutting-room floor. And there again we have the film industry metaphors leaking through.

It’s entirely possible that there is code lurking in many games to make the deaths of enemies more bloody (except perhaps in the case of the brilliantly enjoyable God Of War UK link US link where it’s unlikely that they could make the deaths of the mythological creatures any more violent!) but instead a toned-down version was eventually used. If these could be used instead, by applying a mod, does that mean that the game should have been rated differently?

I use the example of violence here on purpose. Partly because I’m British and our rating system views sex as natural, although still adult, so doesn’t go insane if a nipple accidentally slips out on national television (we all giggle and feel embarassed for the performer), but sees violence as something to be kept away from children where possible. I also use it as an example because it’s easier to draw a line between mild and extreme violence.

Beside the point of levels of acceptable sexual content (is flirting sexual? When does something become ‘adult’?) we also have the decision about the responsibility of developers to examine the ways that their code can be used. Clearly in this case explicit scenes were simply unlocked, but this was still not available to your average user of the game but the really big question raised by this case is how much modification does a mod have to make before its results are no longer the responsibility of the developer? I think that this is going to be an increasing problem as the gaming industry grows and the games become ever-closer to being photorealistic.

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