Wicked Games, Part 3: Caution — Contents May Be Hot… and Hidden
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon
Case Study #3: Grand Theft Auto’s “Hot Coffee” Controversy
In our first column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. In our last column, we made a similar argument about the cultural landscape surrounding the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994 and, specifically, the ways in which the gaming industry’s own marketing missteps led to the necessity of self-regulation. In both cases, we argued that the fears of “dangerous play” are always lurking, ready to surge to the surface at the slightest hint that culture — and especially children — might be corrupted.
In this, our final entry, we conclude our examination of flashpoints in gaming history by focusing on a more recent moment when the combustible mix of technology, play, pleasure, and social taboos revealed extant anxieties and fears. As with the previous columns, this case study likewise illustrates the predictable way these moral conflagrations play out in cycles of rupture, panic, and regulation. The story of the “Hot Coffee” modification of Rockstar Games’ 2005 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA: SA), represents the ways in which moral panics can never truly disappear, even with the momentary soothing balm of regulation. They can only return underground, waiting to rupture all over again.
Such was the case with the ESRB, which was designed in 1994 precisely to prevent any more ruptures and panics for the rapidly growing game industry. The self-regulating board would offer ratings and guidelines to parents, but, more importantly, it presented an image of concern and care for children. It kept a lid on the simmering pot of sex and violence that was always threatening to boil over. The ESRB held that lid in place, or it purported to at the least. Nevertheless, despite its sole purpose as a guardian of the moral boundaries around video games, the anxieties around content and its regulation never truly disappeared.
For example, in late June 2003, the ESRB announced it would add more descriptions, new guidelines, and bolder labels to its ratings system in an effort to make the system more visible and effective (and to continue to stem external political intervention). Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who, as we discussed in the previous column, were prime instigators in the 1990s in the effort to regulate the industry, praised the ESRB’s changes. Lieberman noted, “I have always said the ESRB system was the best rating system in the entertainment media and these changes will make it even better.” Such language is a key part of the panic cycle: the regulation structure makes the problem seem under control or “fixed” when in fact its inherent fragility might better be understood as its defining feature.
That fragility was dramatically exposed in late 2004. Rockstar Games studio, owned by Take-Two Interactive, released the PlayStation 2 version of GTA: SA in October. This was the fifth entry in the spectacularly successful open-world action-adventure series (and the second GTA game designed by Rockstar). The game’s blatantly adult content triggered cultural unease, and further criticism of the ESRB for failing to proactively protect children. The ongoing ripples of panic around video games swelled up, as evidenced by Washington D.C. city councilman (and later mayor) Adrian Fenty’s effort in early 2005 to pass a bill that would prevent merchants from selling video games with violent content to minors in the city, and by the high-profile case in Tennessee in which two teenage brothers blamed GTA: SA for inspiring them to fire shotguns at passing traffic. [3 ] Both stories became national news. [4 ] Hillary Clinton, then Senator from New York, seized the opportunity to call the sex and violence in children’s entertainment “an epidemic,” and called for a uniform ratings system across the media industries.  A familiar snowball was forming — but it was only the beginning.
Shortly after the GTA: SA release, Dutch programmer Patrick Wildenborg began sifting through the source code during his leisure time. Wildenborg and his fellow Internet-based “modder” cohort, named so for their interest in modifying video games for their own entertainment (an activity that is often supported by game developers for the way it frequently engenders robust play communities), made a surprising discovery buried deep in the software. What they found were traces of files for scenes involving the game’s characters engaging in various sexual activities. While the sex scenes were not playable in the PS2 version, the modders nevertheless created ways to visualize them.  Then they waited. The PC version, which could be examined in much more substantial detail and manipulated with greater ease by modders, would be released in June 2005.
What Wildenborg found were traces of content that Rockstar had decided not to include at the last moment. But rather than eliminate the code entirely, which would have been time intensive and expensive, Rockstar “walled off” the sexual gameplay.  These ghostly artifacts, buried deep in the source code, could not be accessed without special gear and know-how. To be clear: these scenes were never meant to be seen by those outside of Rockstar Games and they could not be activated with a simple cheat code. It is easy to appreciate why such a discovery would excite Wildenborg and his peers: this was the ultimate in hidden content — the stuff of apocryphal gaming legends.  It was also precisely the sort of thing that made GTA’s critics, and critics of games generally, so anxious. What started as a snowball was about to become an avalanche.
Although it has its fair share of “Easter eggs,” hidden content has never been GTA’s primary selling point. Indeed, the enduring appeal of the franchise — an element that is borne out in the marketing materials surrounding its 2004 San Andreas installment and one that the series helped to establish for the sandbox-style genre of open-world games — is its promise of free-form play.
To wit, the game’s promotional trailer showcases vignettes of kinetic exploration across eclectic landscapes. The vehicular travel by land, sea, and air, is accompanied by spectacular destruction and wanton criminality, all of which is underscored by the pulsing soundtrack of Guns and Roses’s rock anthem, “Welcome to the Jungle.” The GTA games possess an aura of unscripted mayhem, and San Andreas represents an expansive terrain waiting to be explored. That promise of exploration and discovery, however, creates the opportunity for well-known questions to creep in: what else might be lurking in this game?
Wildenborg and his fellow modders definitively answered that question within hours of the release of the PC version on June 7, 2005. Not only was the code present, it could be “switched on” and accessed with a simple patch that the group made available online for download.  In the release version of the game, C.J., the protagonist, must impress his various girlfriends to be invited into their homes for coffee — upon which the game would cut to the follow morning, implying that sex had occurred. The “Hot Coffee” patch created by the modders allowed players to engage in the walled-off mini-games that had been originally planned, partially developed, then abandoned. It was a bizarre and surprising discovery, to say the least. Even if it couldn’t be accessed without a fair amount of technological sophistication, what was this code doing in the game?
For a few weeks, at least, the discovery was of interest only to the tech-savvy gaming community, making the rounds on various blogs and gaming-related websites. It wasn’t until Leland Yee, a California Assemblyman (D-San Francisco), got involved that that the lurking anxieties finally exploded, triggering the seemingly pro forma regulatory reaction familiar to any entertainment-driven panic. On July 6, 2005, along with the the National Institute of Media and Family (NIMF), Yee released a statement accusing the ESRB of failing to protect children from the “explicit sexual scenes” in GTA: SA.  The floodgates opened and within 48 hours ESRB director Patricia Vance announced it would investigate Rockstar to see if the “full disclosure” rule had been violated. “The integrity of the ESRB rating system is founded on the trust of consumers who increasingly depend on it to provide complete and accurate information about what’s in a game,” she noted.  Her comment captures the confluence of elements that sparked the “Hot Coffee” panic: concerns over “completeness” and “accuracy,” fears that something uncontrollable — and unknown — was lurking in a game too complicated for adults to understand, and general unease that the game’s developers had deliberately misled a naive, susceptible public. Wildenborg, for his part, sensed his discovery was already being misunderstood. To his credit, shortly after the panic set in he took the patch offline and wrote in an email to the New York Times, “GTA is not a game for young children, and is rated accordingly. [The patch] is not something it is possible to accidentally stumble across.”  However, by that point the time-tested narratives around his discovery were far outside of his control.
Rockstar’s reaction to the discovery and to the investigation was not to tell the truth, but to lash out at the modding community. On July 13, they released a statement claiming that the incident was the result of a “determined group of hackers” who, in violation of the software user agreement, had been “disassembling and then combining, recompiling, and altering the game’s source code.”  Essentially, Rockstar accused the modders of creating the scenes — which inadvertently fed the panic. It was a costly mistake. The next day, political regulation re-entered the scene. Clinton called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Rockstar, but she also spread the blame to others, including the ESRB. Describing the images as “graphic pornographic content,” she argued that “parents who rely on the ratings to make decisions to shield their children from influences they believe could be harmful should be informed right away if the system is broken.”  The NIMF released a statement in support of Clinton “demanding the truth about secret GTA: SA pornographic content.”  Here was more panicked language, more fears of the unknown, more calls for “truth,” more invocation of explicit pornography, more anxiety about vulnerable children — even though it was a group of technologically skilled adults who made the discovery and created the patch for a game rated for adults — all driving a discourse of containment and protection.
The following day, on July 15, writers for Gamespot.com sounded what would be the death knell when they confirmed that the scenes were accessible on the PS2 disc with a simple patch and cheat code, further eroding Rockstar’s insistence that “hackers” had created the problem, and adding fuel to claims that bad things were lurking in the game’s code.  On July 20, the ESRB announced it had re-rated GTA: SA with the dreaded “Adults Only” (AO) label, the gaming equivalent of an NC-17 film rating, meaning major retailers would not carry the title for sale.  Indeed, Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and others — all members of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association — announced they would pull the game immediately, which by that point had reached six million in sales.  Rockstar discontinued production of GTA: SA, saying it would release a new, edited version as soon as possible.
That wasn’t the end of the panic or the regulatory response, which was by then chugging ahead full steam. On July 25, the U.S. House of Representatives, echoing Clinton’s call to action, voted 355-21 to urge the FTC to investigate Rockstar.  The FTC and Take-Two/Rockstar eventually settled for $11,000 in fines for any future hot coffee violations, amounting to little more than a symbolic slap on the wrist.  In fact, the publisher only paid out $300,000 (to 2,676 consumers  ) of the $2.75 million that it had set aside to settle legal complaints.  Moreover, the company’s stock shares only suffered a temporary hit from pending suits  before recovering and eventually swelling beyond their pre-hot coffee levels. 
Far more consequential than any fine, though, were the far-reaching effects of the controversy. The fear of prurient content hidden from parents and regulators precipitated renewed attempts by legislators at state and federal levels to proactively guard consumers from the threat of suspect gameplay. To wit, Senators Clinton, Lieberman, and Evan Bayh introduced the “Family Entertainment Protection Act” in December of 2005  (it later died in committee), while similar protectionist bills were later proposed at the federal level  and were passed by bipartisan state legislators in California,  Louisiana,  and Florida. 
Hot coffee was a black eye for the industry and for its regulatory body that was, only a year prior, heralded by concerned politicians as being the model system for media content. The controversy did little to scald the game’s studio and its publisher, however. If anything, the clandestine mod and the subsequent PR crisis was a source of pride — commercially and culturally, speaking — for Rockstar and Take-Two. This flashpoint only further cemented GTA’s legacy as a good financial bet in an industry that is characterized by enormous risks (even for established franchises),  and for Rockstar as a studio that clearly benefits from its “rebel reputation.”  Rockstar’s design modus operandi has long been about crafting taboo gameplay elements, whether it is drunk driving in GTA IV (2008), full-frontal male nudity in its The Lost and Damned (2009) downloadable content, dealing drugs in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (2009), or torture in GTA V (2013). Hot coffee was not a break with their design strategy; it was their design strategy.
Of the three popular controversies we’ve covered across three decades, the hot coffee mod presents video gaming’s critics with the most legitimate grounds for concern. The sexual mini-games hidden in GTA’s code seemingly substantiate long-standing fears that gameplay — be it mediated by a console, PC, or a tabletop rule set — is nothing but a Trojan horse prepared to surreptitiously corrupt players. The fact that those mini-games could never be played by non-hackers is beside the point, as were the specious connections between D&D and the occult before it. The hidden code validated the panic, and quickly became yet another episode in this recurring morality play.
Play is a powerful human experience. And the three controversies that we’ve examined prove that play’s ability to enrapture those within its magic circle are as attractive to those looking to lose themselves in a fiction as they are threatening to non-playing observers who fear that shared fantasies might escape their ludic bounds to contaminate the real. There will be more gaming controversies to be sure, precisely because of the dualism embedded within the play experience. Play’s essential liminality troubles and destabilizes discursive boundaries. And therein lies its nascent challenge to the existing social order. All forms of gameplay are potentially “wicked” because these betwixt and between happenings elide simplistic categorization and definition. Analog and digital games present players with alternative worlds built on alternative rules. Thus, to play a game means to play with a different way of being in the world(s). Regulation, meanwhile, promises to mitigate play’s inherent risks and to quell experiences that might lead players to consider not just the game’s rules, but those governing our reigning social order.
Please feel free to comment.
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