Sex content leads to adult rating for 'Theft'

Following heated controversy over racy hidden images, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" will now bear an adults-only rating.

After percolating for weeks, the so-called "Hot Coffee" controversy has finally boiled over.

Following an investigation by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" will now bear an AO, or Adults Only, rating, Take-Two Interactive announced on Wednesday. Previously, the game was rated M for Mature.

The re-rating comes nearly a month after reports first surfaced of the "Hot Coffee" modification for the PC version of San Andreas. After installation, the widely available modification allowed users to play a bonus sex minigame.

After videos of the modification were widely circulated, figures including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, blasted the game (Clinton also publicly equated violent games with cigarettes and alcohol as hazards to America's youth). Political heat led to a ESRB investigation into whether or not the modification was included in the original game or was made by a third party.

Who rocked the code?
Rockstar Games, the Take-Two subsidiary that develops and publishes "San Andreas," issued a carefully worded statement earlier this month stating that the racy content was not part of the original game but included in the modification. "So far we have learned that the 'Hot Coffee' modification is the work of a determined group of hackers who have gone to significant trouble to alter scenes in the official version of the game," it read.

However, reports soon surfaced that the console versions of "San Andreas" contained code for the sex minigame. Late last week, GameSpot editors unlocked the code from a PlayStation 2 copy of "San Andreas" bought in October 2004 using an Action Replay Max device and a series of cheat codes. Because console games are written on unalterable DVDs and cheat codes cannot introduce new content, the fact the minigame was playable at all means it was included in the original PS2 "San Andreas," albeit hidden. (GameSpot is a division of CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.)

The AO rating means that, according to the ESRB's official definition, the current version of the game now "should only be played by persons 18 years and older" and "may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity." This doesn't sound far off from the ESRB definition for the M for Mature rating, which says titles bearing the M must "have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language."

But the AO and M ratings are different in one big way: Most major chain stores, including Wal-Mart, will not carry AO-rated games. By contrast, M-rated games aren't even separated from games bearing the T for Teen, E10+ for Everyone 10 and older, and E for Everyone ratings.

"Rockstar Games has ceased manufacturing of the current version of the title and will begin working on a version of the game with enhanced security to prevent the 'hot coffee' modifications," Take-Two said in a statement. "This version will retain the original ESRB M-rating and is expected to be available during the Company's fourth fiscal quarter." The company will also release a patch for the currently available PC version of the game that will lock out the sex minigames.

Most industry watchers had expected a hefty fine from either the ESRB or possibly even the government. Some even speculated that Take-Two would be forced to recall all copies of the game, at catastrophic expense.

For its part, Take-Two stuck by its contention that the re-rating was "due to unauthorized third party 'Hot Coffee' modification." The publisher reminded the public that "the scenes depicted in the 'Hot Coffee' modification are not playable in the retail version of the game unless the user downloads and/or installs unauthorized software that alters the content of the original retail version of the title, representing a violation of Take-Two and Rockstar's end user license agreement (EULA) and intellectual property rights."

Paul Eibeler, Take-Two's President and CEO, also gave his personal thoughts in the statement. "We are deeply concerned that the publicity surrounding these unauthorized modifications has caused the game to be misrepresented to the public and has detracted from the creative merits of this award-winning product," he said.

Tor Thorsen reported for GameSpot.

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