rockstar coffee

sex’n’crime anyone—or just crime?

When I rode the tramway to work this morning at some stopover a girl entered the streetcar carrying two life-size cardboard figures depicting the cover-girl of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA). By chance she took the seat directly opposite to me. As she was quite striking I asked her if GTA:SA was retracted from the shelves in Germany now, too. “Oh no,” she said, “they just changed some scenes …” I answered that I knew that there was a patch released, suppressing the hot-coffee mod, which she quoted by: “Ah, is there?” From her posture I deduced that she didn’t know shit about hot coffee and tried to steer the conversation in a slightly other direction: “Well, I thought it was banned from the shops and you had the good sense to grab the cardboards for home improvement.” In reply she explained to me that she is working for some public-relations agency doing PR for them. ‘Them’ being Take Two Germany in that case. By careful further questioning I tried to gain a picture of how the matter was discussed at her agency. But she was reluctant to give out any information on it—maybe she suspected me to be some counter-insurgent from the morality-department. Me of all people. Anyway—I know that most of you already are fed up to the brim with the affair, but it just perfectly illustrates a point substantially related to my project. And during the chain of events a part of the modding-community itself spoke out.

On 7th June 2005 the PC-version of GTA:SA hit the shelves—the long awaited newest installment of the GTA-series. After having been away for five years the playable character Carl “CJ” Johnson returns to his hometown to find the members of his family, as well as those of his old gang, being at odds with each other. In an ambience of drugs, sex, crime, and violence CJ starts out to get things straight again. Meaning to restore family, gang, hood’n’life. A free-roaming world and minigames make up most of the fascination with the GTA-series. And GTA:SA is no exception. One of the minigames involves CJ having sex with girlfriends. In the original game the camera doesn’t catch the act, but stays away from the scene of the intercourse. Only moaning is to be heard, and slight shaking of the camera to be experienced.

Around mid-June 2005 a mod called ‘Hot Coffee’ was published on the Internet and the shit started to hit the fan. The mod—it actually is more of a tweak, or a patch—enables the player to enter the houses of sin and to a certain degree ‘control’ CJ’s sexual actions … infuriating, outrageous, scandalous, shocking—screenshots! And the politicians immediately jumped at it, Hillary Clinton head first—fatal feedback twisted and revisited. Steven Johnson wrote an open letter to her at the LA Times:

I’m writing to commend you for calling for a $90-million study on the effects of video games on children, and in particular the courageous stand you have taken in recent weeks against the notorious “Grand Theft Auto” series.

I’d like to draw your attention to another game whose nonstop violence and hostility has captured the attention of millions of kids — a game that instills aggressive thoughts in the minds of its players, some of whom have gone on to commit real-world acts of violence and sexual assault after playing.

I’m talking, of course, about high school football.

In the digital realm Dave Kramer commented the affair at gamestay:

Frankly, the politicians would have an easier time making the case that there are prolonged scenes of intense violence. The sex scenes, even with the mod, are short and harmless. Heck, they even suggest that a gentleman should let the lady finish first. Is that such a wrong thing to teach our kids?

The whole firestorm is ridiculous. Doesn’t everyone think it’s funny that all of these politicians are waving their arms in the air screaming about a little harmless simulated sex? I mean, the game is about killing rival gang members and lets you, within the first five minutes, drive over innocent pedestrians without penalty.

In defense against the ‘public outcry’ Rockstar (publisher of GTA:SA) first blamed ‘hackers’ for the hidden ingame sex acts, then had to admit that the sex scenes were built-in or forgotten, in any case never were meant to be unlocked. Finally Congressman Fred Upton [Representing Michigan’s 6th District] sprang into action and the U.S. House of Representatives called “for a federal inquiry to determine if Rockstar intentionally deceived the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to avoid an Adults-Only rating. […] The ESRB rerated GTA:SA and attached an ‘Adults Only (18+)’ onto it. In Australia the classification was revocated, meaning that the game cannot be legally sold, hired, advertised or exhibited in Australia anymore. In the U.S. e.g. WalMart and others took the game from the shelves and so on … but no strong reaction from Europe so far.

To illustrate that part of the story, and trying to lead up to my point, here’s what Upton had written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

We respectfully request that you investigate this matter, and if Rockstar Games is found to have intentionally deceived American consumers, we ask that severe sanctions are imposed to the greatest extent under the law. This type of profiteering from peddling smut to minors must not be tolerated. A company cannot be allowed to profit from deceit.

On 28th July 2005 Deborah Platt Majoras, Chairman of the FTC replied, that the FTC meanwhile has issued the ‘FTC consumer alert’ Video Games: Reading the Ratings on the Games People Play [which is a slightly augmented/commented version of the ESRB’s
Game Rating & Descriptor Guide]
to help consumers decode and understand video game ratings:

[…] In addition to explaining the ESRB rating system, the alert advises parents that with respect to some video games, software can be downloaded from the Internet that might make a game’s content more explicit than the rating indicates. […]

… or less explicit. For instance both Max Payne (blood, violence) and Max Payne 2 (blood, intense violence, mature sexual themes, strong language) are rated ‘Mature (17+)’ by the ESRB. The spectrum of released MP-mods reaches from adding a lot more blood and gore—Wook went for lengths to achieve decapitation-by-lightsaber-stroke in LS4, there are mods which literally drench the screen with blood, the latter even triggering art—to things entirely different like Sketchbook Sam. Per definitionem game-modification is about altering things, up to creating the never-seen-before. The quality of mods spans from crude technical exercises to artistic comments on, and interpretations of contemporary history and pop-/culture. In that game, playing with taboos is a must.

The bottom line is that like with California’s San-Andreas graben we are dealing here with a fracture zone, too. A culturally, and maybe a multiple one. In the end it’s all about the inability and/or unwillingness to understand the culturally alien or other. The latter in this case being the culture of computergames and gamemodding. Trying to help to correct that grievance, the GTA-modders at illspirit published a press release. Here’s a snippet:

Perhaps what is most absurd about the accusations against both Rockstar Games and the gaming industry, is that those making the allegations seem to have no idea how the technology they’re condemning works. Had they done even a moment’s worth of research, they would discover that the online mod community for GTA:SA (and many other PC games) is not only capable of recycling various fragments of game code and art to create new scenes for the game, but we do it all the time. If Senator Hillary Clinton, Leeland Yee, Dr. David Walsh, et al, were to give even a cursory glance at the websites which published the Hot Coffee mod, they would see that it is but one of thousands of modifications made by users which create new game play scenarios using the existing assets. Given the very nature of the interactive digital medium, an industrious “modder” could within minutes create things far “worse” than Hot Coffee if they so desired simply by swapping a few items and lines of code about. Then, on top of just shifting around pre-existing assets, it is also quite easy and common for players to create entirely new content from scratch.

Furthermore, the existence of such user modifications is as old as PC gaming itself. Many of the most popular PC games have had communities of fans who make and share content with each other dating back to bulletin board systems before the internet. So to look at what has been done to GTA:SA as something “new” is simply ridiculous. The concept of more mature modification such as Hot Coffee isn’t something new either. Name any PC game which features female characters, and chances are someone somewhere created and uploaded a patch to remove their clothes. Even family-friendly The Sims (which was rated Teen) by Electronic Arts had a cheatcode to remove the in-game censorship blur during scenes involving nudity (genderless, granted, but still 100% less clothes than the original Hot Coffee scenes) and adult situations. Scenes which shipped with the retail game, no less, and this was nearly half a decade ago, and have never been complained about. Yet this is all of a sudden a “new” problem which is to be blamed on Rockstar Games?

But not only the immediately concerned GTA:SA-modders talk about the game and the ‘scandal’. The members of ‘my tribe’ [the posse around Max Payne and Alan Wake] clearly are fed up with the whole politicized and morally overcharged discussion. When people from within the scene—actually playing the games and even laying hands on them, creatively building something new upon them—discuss GTA:SA it sounds completely different to the ‘public discourse’. Infinitely more professional in my opinion. Squarejawhero said:

The next-gen GTA’s going to be a bit of a shock though. Hopefully they’ll retain its cartoon look otherwise they could blow it by being too real. GTA:SA still has the edge of unreality that serves to undermine the violent aspect, but push the bar too far and it could just end up being too overbaked. ↑[…]

GTA isn’t about realism, and shouldn’t be—it’s a big violent cartoon of a game. ↑[…]

For more information on the still developing story please refer to the extensive and seemingly regularly updated Wikipedia-entries Hot Coffee mod and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Ah, I forgot—here’s some hot coffee …

hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee
hot coffee

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