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LB Opinion: Hillary, Hot Coffee, and the ESRB

LB Opinion: Hillary, Hot Coffee, and the ESRB

Friday - July 15, 2005
Based on the media coverage and political discourse surrounding the latest GTA scandal, the M-rating plastered on the cover of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas means absolutely nothing. The discovery of the sexually explicit "Hot Coffee" mod, which may or may not have been created by the makers of the game, has suddenly turned a product the ESRB deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of 17 into a product politicians deem unsuitable for persons under the age of 17. So, why the big hubbub? Because keeping violent and sexually explicit video games out of the hands of kids is a very popular platform to stand on, as everyone supports it. The problem, however, is the politicians don’t have a clue what they’re talking about when it comes to video games, so they end up undermining the only hope we have at realistically keeping kids away from these games, which is the ESRB.

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Yesterday, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate who was responsible for the “Hot Coffee” mod, despite the fact that the ESRB, the video game industry’s ratings board, is actively investigating the matter. Keep in mind, the FTC regularly praises the work of the ESRB, referring to the agency in 2000 as, “the most comprehensive of the three industry systems” (the other two being the movie and music industries), and in 2002, the FTC said of the agency, “there is much in the game industry's rating disclosure requirements that merits duplication by others.”

Clinton, who couldn’t even wait for the ESRB to report their findings before calling on our federal government to get involved, wanted to make clear her stance on violent video games and stated, “The ability of our children to access pornographic and violent material on an M-rated video game is spiraling out of control.”

Now, we could get lost in the minutia of this quote and pick apart this make-believe “spiral”, but what’s important here is Clinton, along with so many parents, has an inability to separate video games from children, even when those games have an M-rating. The children she’s speaking of shouldn’t have M-rated video games in the first place, let alone blind access to the internet, which is needed to download these pornographic mods. That’s not to say kids don’t have access to these games, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of M-rated video games are, in fact, purchased by adults, meaning adults are purchasing these games for themselves and their children. And the reason why parents continue to purchase these games for their children is because our leaders are constantly attacking and undermining the ESRB, turning the agency into something that is confusing and not respected by the masses.

Take, for example, California Assemblyman Leeland Yee’s comments about the “Hot Coffee” issue: “Clearly the ESRB has a conflict of interest in rating these games... Parents cannot trust the ESRB to rate games appropriately or the industry to look out for our children's best interests.”

So, according to Yee, the ESRB has a conflict of interest in doing its job of applying and enforcing video game ratings. What would that conflict of interest be? The ESRB is a non-profit agency that rates games. How would they benefit from soft ratings? It sounds to me like Yee is suggesting the ESRB gets a kickback of sorts by giving games lower than warranted ratings.

When the “Hot Coffee” mod was brought to the ESRB’s attention, they launched an investigation into the matter. They have, in the past, changed the ratings of video games when previously undisclosed material was brought to light. They are now trying to figure out whether the coding for the mod was actually something Rockstar inserted onto the game’s discs, or something created by an independent coder. If it was created by an independent coder, then what can the ESRB do about it? Must they be forced to rate every game AO (Adult Only), because someone out there might get frisky and create porn that could be inserted into the game? Let’s see, I could download and insert porn into my DVD copy of “Forrest Gump”, should the Motion Picture Association of America change the rating to “NC-17”? I don’t’ think so.

The ESRB needs to determine from where the “porn” code came. If it did come from Rockstar, they must then determine if the extra code is, indeed, pornographic, therefore warranting an “AO” rating. They must then create a policy concerning hidden code in games. Despite Rockstar’s claims that the code was not on the sold discs, many have suggested that it was there, but was “dead code” and was never meant to be discovered. Well, it was discovered (within a week of the game’s release, no less), and the ESRB needs to create a policy for hidden code in future games. Personally, if Rockstar is responsible for this, then I’d like to see them punished in some way, as allowing the ESRB to rate your game without disclosing hidden porn within the game, also undermines the agency, which hurts the industry.

Politicians need to get a grip. They must stop trying to pass legislation banning the sale of M-rated video games to kids, because, even if the laws pass, they will always come back as “unconstitutional” and will, therefore, have to be reversed. This all to familiar process has proven to be a waste of precious time and tax payer money and hasn’t done a thing to keep violent video games out of the hands of kids. Yet, politicians keep pushing for it, while vilifying the ESRB, which is all we have in terms of the regulation of video game content. Is it no wonder why we can’t solve this problem?

As I’ve stated before, the way to ensure M-rated video games will continue to find their way into the hands of kids is to continue to undermine the ESRB. The only people this cycle benefits are politicians who use the anti-violent video game platform to get votes. If politicians really cared about the issue, they would pull up their sleeves and ask the ESRB how they could help. A public service campaign would be nice. A few “The More You Know”s would enlighten many. Publicly thanking the ESRB for their hard work would be lovely. Point being, as long as politicians continue to feed the beast, the politicians have a beast to battle. Sure, it will be a bloodless and boring battle, but it gives them something to stand on without doing a thing. It’s time we all started to recognize that, and call our politicians, even those we like, on it.

Posted by Allison at 02:22 PM |

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