The Federal Trade Commission has announced that Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar games will settle charges that the companies failed to properly inform consumers of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas‘ full content. The FTC’s investigation into the game began after the notorious Hot Coffee scandal erupted into a political frenzy, with lawsuits and chants of "think of the children!" in tow. A grandmother who bought GTA:SA for her 14-year old grandson even got in on the action.
Controversy erupted not only on account of naked bodies, however. Soon it became clear that this was no normal Easter egg. No, the offending content was enabled by a mix of on-disc content and third party modifications. The FTC’s investigation puts the responsibility squarely on the the game’s publishers and developers, however.
"According to the FTC, the companies, in advertising the Entertainment Software Rating Board (“ESRB”) rating for the game, did not tell consumers that the game discs contained potentially viewable nude female characters and a potentially playable sex mini-game. Although San Andreas players could not access or view this sexual content during normal game play, sophisticated players posted a program on the Internet, dubbed “Hot Coffee,” that revealed this content on the PC version of the game. PlayStation 2 and Xbox players eventually were able to access the Hot Coffee content by modifying or adding an accessory to their game consoles, installing special software, and inputting “cheat codes” developed by third parties," the FCC said in a statement.
The FTC charged that it was a violation of the FTC Act for Take-Two and Rockstar to market the game as being "M" when "unused, but potentially viewable" nude images and sexual content were not disclosed. It does not matter if they were enabled by a third-party.
The FTC has placed Take-Two and Rockstar on notice, but they have opted not to fine either company. It was revealed that Take-Two has already incurred US$24.5 million in costs stemming from the recall, relabeling, and other aspects of the fallout. If the FTC finds the companies in violation again, they will be charged $11,000 per incident, which in the case of game sales could prove disastrous.
The FTC also said that Take-Two and Rockstar have been ordered to establish a comprehensive review system designed to ensure that ESRB reviewers are aware of all content on the disc before making their official ratings.
The best outcome?
In a previous editorial relating to this topic, I argued that the ratings process is flawed because third-party modifications can change so much about a game. In that instance, the debate centered on Oblivion, which had just been re-rated Mature (up from Teen) on account of nudity introduced by a third-party modification.
While it behooves companies like Rockstar to be careful with what they put on their game discs, will third party modifications magically be unable to introduce nudity, sex games, or other "inappropriate content" as a result? No. It may be harder for them to do so, and the incentive may be lost, but the "problem" isn’t gone. While the likelihood of modders adding a sex game to any given title may be rather low in the absence of hidden on-disc content, it’s not non-existent. I doubt we’ve been the last of these scandals.