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Games Under Fire

8 Aug, 2005 By: John Gaudiosi

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The not-so-hidden sex scene in Take-Two Interactive's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas may have cost the publisher more than just money — and the effect is rippling through the game industry.

• Take-Two has dramatically lowered its third-quarter guidance from $205 million to $215 million in revenue to $160 million to $170 million because retailers pulled San Andreas from shelves after its rating changed to ‘Adult Only,' and a new ‘Mature'-rated game is a few weeks away still.

• The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Division of Advertising Practices is investigating potentially improper advertising aimed at consumers younger than 17.

• Take-Two has been sued for false advertising by a grandmother in New York who bought the game for her grandson.

The controversy has opened up a Pandora's box for politicians, lawyers and the mainstream media to denounce video games as sexual and violent, game industry sources said.

“It's like everyone in the game industry committed adultery and is now wearing the letters ‘AO' [Adult Only] on their back,” said Vince Desi, VP of marketing for game developer Running With Scissors, which creates the controversial “Postal” game franchise.

Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), said the issue has been culminating for some time, and he sees it coming to a head this winter — due to the normal increase in posturing by politicians and special- interest groups, and a pending suit with the State of Illinois. The suit, spearheaded by the Entertainment Software Association and joined by the Video Software Dealers Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, seeks to overturn an Illinois state law that would make it a criminal offense for retailers to sell or rent certain games to those under 18. The law also includes signage and other consumer-information requirements.

A Political Perfect Storm
Renowned video game creator American McGee said what he sees in this debate is that Americans still have a bigger issue with make-believe sex than they do with make-believe violence. “To me, that says that this really has nothing to do with video games … this is just pure politics,” McGee added.

Halpin said he's found that party lines have been drawn on ‘Mature'-rated games. Democrats generally abhor violence, and Republicans feel strongly about sexual content. Since San Andreas offered both violence and sex, it has created a bipartisan perfect storm, he said. “The ratings discussion is likely to begin moving from a compliance discussion to a content debate in the near future,” Halpin said. “If that happens, we'll witness a moralistic discussion about the ratings of music, movies and games where the fine line between ‘R' and ‘NC-17,' ‘M' and ‘AO' is drawn.”

There's already another controversy brewing around Take-Two's Oct. 24 PS2 and Xbox release Bully, which takes place in a reform school. Florida attorney Jack Thompson is heading up a campaign aimed at stopping the release of the game, which has yet to be rated, but is expected to receive an ‘M.'

Countering the criticism
The industry is taking action to stem the tide of criticism.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), after abruptly adjusting San Andreas' rating from ‘M' to ‘AO,' is changing the ratings process. Going forward, the ESRB will require game publishers to submit any pertinent content shipped in final product, even if it's not intended to be accessed (as Take-Two stated on San Andreas), or remove it from the final disc. Furthermore, the ESRB calls on the computer and video game industry to proactively protect their games from illegal modifications by third parties, particularly when they serve to undermine the accuracy of the rating.

“This may make the review process with the ESRB more laborious and time-consuming for the publishers, but it is with the intent of the video game industry self-regulating itself, protecting the integrity of the ratings and keeping the political representatives out of the spotlight with respect to video game ratings,” said PJ McNealy, video game analyst, American Technology Research.

“We haven't gotten any indication that the [FTC] investigation extends beyond San Andreas,” said Jeff Brown, VP of corporate communications, Electronic Arts. Brown said there's a focus on sex right now, but he thinks the real issue is disclosure — specifically, San Andreas' unlocks not revealed to the ESRB in the ratings process.

‘M'-Rated Games Often Not Hits
Despite all the media attention, ‘M'-rated games make up a minority of annual releases. In 2004, 53 percent of games sold were rated ‘Everyone,' 30 percent were rated ‘Teen' and 17 percent were rated ‘Mature.'

Games that featured sex have not translated to hits. Now-defunct publisher Acclaim released BMX: XXX a few years ago, and the ‘M'-rated game, which featured nudity and strippers, was a critical bomb that wasn't sold at most major retailers. Last year's wave of ‘M'-rated games, such as Leisure Suit Larry Magna Cum Laud, Singles: Flirt Up Your Life, Playboy: The Mansion and The Guy Game failed to become big hits. The Guy Game, which featured nude spring-break coeds, was pulled from shelves after a lawsuit.

A spokesman for Midway Games, which has ‘M'-rated games shipping this fall, said the controversy won't have an impact on these games, because they stick to ESRB guidelines.

But others say they feel the effect.

“The GTA controversy is already affecting the legal side of things,” said Mike Mika, creative director of game developer Backbone Entertainment. “If there is content that is found in the game post-production that we did not formally document with the publisher, we are liable.”

“The possibility of hidden, sexual or hyper-violent content in games effectively increases risks in an already high-risk business for developers, retailers and publishers, who will have to provide assurances to business partners that such content is not in their products,” said Billy Pidgeon, video game analyst, Go Play Research. “Insurance and bond rates may rise.”

“I have a strong feeling many developers will feel the pressure from the blueblood publishers to tame the content down,” said Running With Scissors' Desi.

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