But when the hidden, X-rated "Hot Coffee" scenes were discovered in GTA, touching off a storm of indignation that made headlines across the country and raged all the way to, not everyone thought the brouhaha was an all-around disaster for the industry.
"I think 'Hot Coffee' had one good side effect..." said Brenda Brathwaite, chair of the International Game Developers Association's sex, or Sex SIG. "It woke up millions of people to the fact that there is sexual content in video games and that they should pay attention to the ratings (given to games by the Electronic Software Ratings Board). People who knew nothing about games knew about 'Hot Coffee.'"
Though there have long been video games with sexual content, many people are only now discovering that fact, in the wake of the Grand Theft Auto "Hot Coffee" scandal.
Millions of people are beginning to understand that many games have mature or adults-only content and parents should be extra careful to read and understand the ratings on games before buying them for their children.
Indeed, the GTA scenes were just the highly publicized tip of the adult-oriented video games iceberg. In fact, there are dozens of games that address sexual issues, sexuality and sex itself, ranging from Cyberlore's "Playboy: The Mansion" to Sierra Entertainment's "Leisure Suit Larry." Downloadable nude "skins" have even been created by third-parties to (un)clothe characters in Electronic Arts' best-selling "The Sims."
And while some people--particularly politicians--may find the existence of adult video games a worthy target for criticism, others feel that when properly labeled as "mature" or "adults-only" by the ratings board, such games shouldn't be treated any different than other forms of media, such as movies, magazines and the like.
"I think there are different standards that are applied to our industry, particularly by nongamers," Patricia Vance, president of the ratings board,in August. "I think most of the time that's based out of (people) just not being familiar with the facts and not being gamers themselves."
Partly because of that dynamic--as well as to help developers of adult-oriented games coordinate efforts and find a community of like-minded people--the IGDA's Brathwaite created the Sex SIG. And though it officially launched in August, it had been in the works for months.
"The plans were under way, but it was announced shortly after the 'Hot Coffee' scandal broke," Brathwaite said, "so it was very timely. But we didn't plan that."
Brathwaite was a natural choice to run the Sex SIG. When not running the group, she's the lead designer on "Playboy: The Mansion," which stars a sort of "Sim Hugh Hefner"--players take on the persona of the Playboy magazine founder and live out his everyday, sex-soaked life in and around his famous Los Angeles mansion.
Of course, Brathwaite's game and "Leisure Suit Larry" are far from the only adult titles available. There's also porn star Jenna Jameson's "Virtually Jenna," numerous strip poker games, sex-charged versions of "Tetris" and "Wheel of Fortune" and many others.
Though no specific sales figures exist for mature and adult-oriented games, Brathwaite estimates that they account for 12 percent of all games rated by the ESRB, with adults-only games making up only 0.1 percent of that total. Some estimate the worldwide game market is about $20 billion, which would mean that as much as $2.4 million worth of adults-only games are sold each year.
Dave Potter is a principal at Ensign Games, which publishes "Dream Stripper," a 3D stripping title in which players are tasked with coaxing a stripper to remove her clothes. He explained that the game's forums have ended up being a place where "Dream Stripper" users have said very clearly what they want.
"One of our pushes early on was to ask, 'What breast size do you want to see for a model?'" Potter said. "Thousands of people were coming and voting and saying they want superlarge (breasts). Now reality has come back and people are saying, 'No, keep them realistic.'"
But Ensign's troubles getting media coverage for "Dream Stripper" when it was released may help explain why so many people were surprised by the "Hot Coffee" situation.
"We thought we could go out to (game-review and news sites like) Blues News or Shack News, and say, 'Hey, we've got this new game out, give us a news item," Potter said. "But they wouldn't even touch it because it was" adult-oriented.
Another reason for so many people's surprise at the availability of sexual content in games is that big-box retailers, which according to Brathwaite account for more than 60 percent of all video game sales, won't carry most adult-only titles.
"We generally do not sell AO-rated product in much the same way that our members don't normally sell X-rated movies," said Hal Halpin, president of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association, which represents large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
Meanwhile, Brathwaite thinks one of the most interesting elements of the dynamic involving sexual content in video games is when such content occurs in open-ended online games like "World of Warcraft."
"In 'World of Warcraft' and even in 'Ultima Online,' one of the very first things that happened was an emergent sexual thing," said Brathwaite, referring to how players of such massively multiplayer online games figured out how to conceive of sexual situations in what are otherwise mostly medieval fantasy titles.
In an interview for this story, the ratings board's Vance told CNET News.com that there is little her organization can do about designating mature or adults-only ratings for games in which sexual content cannot be predicted and is based entirely on users exploiting titles' open-ended tools.
"We can't do anything, nor can publishers, with user-generated content," said Vance. "And we can't rate user-generated content. So our solution is we provide an online rating notice on (online games) that says 'Game experience may change during online play.'"
And Vance also suggested parents must get involved when there's the chance their children may encounter sexual content in online games.
"If parents are concerned about kids being exposed to inappropriate content while they're playing online," she said, "then they should not allow their kids to be playing online."
In any case, while a number of politicians like Sen. Hillary Clinton leaped at the opportunity to attack Rockstar Games--the publisher of GTA: San Andreas--for the "Hot Coffee" scenes, some think the scandal was overblown and that parents need to take on more responsibility for monitoring what their children play with, regardless of whether the content involves sex or violence.
"That is why the ratings are in place," said David Strom, editor-in-chief of the PC products news and reviews site Tom's Hardware, which has run several articles about things like nude skins for mainstream games like "Tomb Raider," "Half Life 2" and "The Sims 2."
"Maybe it is time that the adults who buy these games for their kids should pay attention to the ratings on the box," said Strom. "The interesting thing is when we ran the screenshots on Tom's of some of the ("Hot Coffee" scenes), we got complaints from several readers who thought that the pictures were offensive. But we don't get any complaints when we show screens of violence in the games."