Saturday, July 09, 2005

Victorianism: Still Rearing It's Prudish Head

ESRB Rating: M for Mature, Possible Ranting, Mild Raving

After reading Greg's post over at Games*Design*Art*Culture (the topic being the GTA: San Andreas hot coffee modification) I admit to being a little peeved. Then I re-read it.

I hate that I agree with Greg on several points. But then, there are some things I disagree with, as well. Balance.

First, the idea that these minigames exist in any versions of San Andreas is questionable. The best info I can find is that some of the content for these minigames exists. How much? Nobody's sure, since the minigames utilize assets already present - CJ, some house interiors, the girlfriend models - and essentially rearrange them into a soft-core rhythm game.

The hot coffee mod itself is, well, it's a modification. By all accounts, one Barton Waterduck discovered unused code in the PS2 version and used memory hacking to suss out the minigame. Of course, we aren't sure exactly what was in this initial unlocking, because the current mod has been drastically altered by modders (anybody want to get the unaltered content and show everybody?). The PC version allowed even more editing. Such editing was necessary in order to get the content to a playable state.

In other words, the original content has been changed. The most I've seen of Rockstar's content would hardly qualify for an MTV reality show. A few later mods show the girlfriend's nipples. Woo. I know that in the US we find a wardrobe malfunction inexcusable, but give me a fucking break.

To actually get the mod to a format that could be considered even mildly pornographic you have to use the hot coffee mod in conjunction with the nude girlfriend mod (which is an end-user hack). And even then don't expect penetration.

I have a feeling that the reason for locking the content away had several justifications. That (1) Americans definitely can't handle shit like this, as is evident even when it isn't included in the game proper (2) rhythm games are boring and there are already too many of them in SA and (3) it adds nothing at all to the tone or story of the game.

In fact, it's possible that Rockstar North, located in Edinburgh, simply didn't see a problem with the content, or that they might try to release it in the European versions and simply lock it for the American version. After all, you can actually see real boobs on TV over there, and, miraculously, their civilization hasn't collapsed.

Greg's suggestion that, if this is the result of a rogue developer, that "Rockstar should dig him out, crucify him, and make a public apology" is, well, ridiculous. Maybe, as I suggested before, they simply didn't think it was a big deal. Maybe they'd tell us to lighten the fuck up and have a, well, whatever they have in Edinburgh. A pint?

I can't find any mention on the ESRB's website concerning the inclusion of content that requires special coding to unlock, since, by most software licenses, such hacking of the code is a violation of the software license.

In other words, the hot coffee mod would barely qualify as an easter egg. It's not reachable through gameplay, or a menu screen or to anybody that doesn't go out of their way to install the damn thing.

If we're trying to say that hidden code that's sexual in nature automatically demands an AO rating . . . I heartily disagree. The American Pie movies had content that's comparable (if not worse) and they were rated R, which according to the MPAA means that those under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian - which is less restrictive than the ESRB rating (which makes no mention of M content being suitable at any time for those under 17).

It certainly isn't a violation of the ESRB contract, so far as I can see.

In fact, on the ESRB's site they state that their ratings "also take into consideration how such content elements are depicted and used in the context of the game." Since the hot coffee mod is not an actual part of the game, any charge that the rating system is flawed is bogus. There is no context for the content (wow, that sounded Johnny Cochran-ish).

The ESRB's president, Patricia Vance, in response to the political fracas, said, "Assemblyman Yee has been on a crusade for years to undermine the integrity of the ESRB, and in so doing, generate support for his legislative agenda. His latest attempt to win political points is to claim, without any legitimate basis, that a game rated for ages 17 and older with explicit content descriptors prominently displayed on every box has been inappropriately rated."

Which leads to the questions - are 17-year-olds (the lowest age of the M-rating) mature enough, assuming they modify the game, to handle horribly simulated software-rendered sex? Do we really want them re-enacting the boring, mechanical way their own parents make love? Should we keep encouraging the rhythm method?

Grand Theft Auto is particularly resistant to modification - they don't release any kind of mapping tools, they lock their file format, basically they expect modders to fend for themselves. And the modders do. So when something like hot coffee comes along, it's because a very competent hacker was able to pull out worthless code and make something out of it.

And, seriously, there is no safe way to protect such content from being hacked. Not in an age where CSI posits pulling conversations off of clay that encoded as the clay spun.

So why didn't Rockstar just delete the little bit they had finished?

Greg makes the assumption that any decent version control system could have done away with the content easily. I see where he's coming from on that, but it begs some questions big time - So Rockstar can't possibly have a bad version control system (never, ever assume that displays of competence automatically exclude incompetence)? That a project so large can't have any trouble managing content? That anytime a AAA title is released that has some useless code or art assets locked away then the company has a bad version control system?

That's a lot to assume. There can be many reasons for locking away content rather than removing it. Maybe removing it causes unexplained errors. Some of the code or content could be re-used elsewhere, so rather than trying to extract just those needed bits it all gets left in. A company honestly just might not have time - small changes can make big bugs. Maybe some of the mechanics for other rhythm games were derived from the hot coffee segments, so it would've been necessary to go line-by-line, recompile and completely re-test.

The point is that there are plenty of possible reasons why the content was left in. And maybe Rockstar did figure that some enterprising hacker might draw out this information and do something with it. So?

What it comes down to is that San Andreas shouldn't be in the hands of children. If we want to argue that 17-year-olds are far too immature to handle some mild adult content, but that an 18th birthday automatically gifts them with wisdom, well . . . please hit your head against the fucking wall (obviously not even my 25th birthday gifted me with wisdom - *sigh* there's always next year).

Because we see no problem with those same 17-year-olds shooting cops and jacking cars. Or hunting down your former friends for betraying you. Or killing deliverymen with an RC airplane.

Of course, this argument goes back to the old sex vs. violence debate.

We Americans, as a whole, are particularly thick-headed about this - we like our violence extreme and our sex repressed.

People make sex dirty; Violence is always dirty, and vicious, and tragic. But somewhere we got our wires crossed. Lucky us.

I personally don't have a problem with depictions of violence. But I do find it particularly stupid that we demonize sex so fanatically while simultaneously allowing more and more blood and gore to get through. Some equity would be welcome.

Where I do agree with Greg is in his estimation of the effect that the hot coffee mod is having on the public image of video gaming. It does encourage the "censorious blue-nosed faux-Democrats" (though I would add in the fanatical far-right fascist fucks) and their political manipulations.

And I can see the reason for his claim that this could've been part of Rockstar's publicity plan. Controversy sells more units. Though it does seem a little roundabout, not to mention belated. San Andreas has already sold a shitload of copies. Stirring the hornet's nest of legislation-happy American politicians is counterproductive.

Still, maybe it's the old "any publicity is good publicity" saw.

So, no, Greg, I respect your opinions immensely, but I don't think Rockstar deserves a bitch-slapping.

The politicians? Yeah, they deserve one.

The prudes that guarantee our media stays soaking in bullets and bloodshed but won't show a bare breast? They deserve a few.

The fanatics that, while shouting their shallow mantra, "We're doing it for the children," want to control the content I have access to? Fuck 'em.

After all, that's what they're most afraid of.

Rant complete. I apologize for my horrible use of prepositions.

1 comment:

c.robinson said...

really good blog entry.