In the wake of what the video game industry is calling its ?Janet Jackson? episode, the industry and its critics are considering the ramifications.
This week, Rockstar Games, a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive Software, came under intense media scrutiny when a hidden sex scene was exposed in its Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA) game. The scene, dubbed "Hot Coffee," allows players to modify the game so that the main character can engage in sexual acts with his girlfriend.
Several retailers have pulled the game from shelves and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has changed its rating from M (mature audiences) to AO (adults only). AO is like an NC-17 rating in the film industry. But the outcome that has the industry drawing comparisons to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show, which spurred an FCC probe, is an impending probe from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and a lawsuit from an 85 year-old woman who bought the game for a grandchild.
Erica Kohnke Kain, president of video game PR agency Kohnke PR, who does not work with the parties involved, says it was the first time the ESRB had changed a rating after a product was released.
The company had at first suggested that the "Hot Coffee" scene was a result of hackers altering content. However, it then admitted that the content had already been embedded in the game, and the hackers had simply exposed it. Take-Two spokesman Rodney Walker told PRWeek the company responded quickly to the criticism, but could have better explained the details of the situation. Critics like the Parents Television Council (PTC) and outlets like CNNMoney and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune have criticized the firm for its first response, which focused on hackers, rather than its own responsibility.
"This has been educational for us, and the entire [video game] industry," Walker says. "There's a major gap between people who play games, and those who don't. We need to do a better job preparing people for what is going on in video games."
Video games, which have been around for more than two decades, have increased in revenue and audience. In fact, marketing information company NPD Group cites that video game software and hardware sales are at $10 billion, whereas according to Nielsen EDI, domestic movie ticket sales are at $9 billion. While this doesn't account for DVD rentals, it is an oft-cited figure that attests to the power of the industry.
The size of the industry has driven the PTC to take a stand.
"Video games are on our radar screen, and so when the news piece [about Grand Theft Auto] came across the wires ... we wanted to issue a statement about the inherent problem with these ultra-violent and graphic games," says Tim Winter, PTC executive director.
The GTA trilogy is a very popular series in Rock Star's arsenal, selling 21 million copies overall and earning $924 million in revenue, according to The New York Times. The games were already a lightning rod for criticism with graphic content and the ability to kill other characters indiscriminately.
"We appreciate they have owned up to what went wrong, but they have fallen short in making it right," Winter says. "That's why we wrote the letter to the CEO at Take-Two, asking them to pull product off the shelves and give consumers a refund, just like any product that was improperly marketed."
Sherman did not respond to Winter's comments by press time.
"Communications-wise, Take-Two had a hot one on its hands," says Chris Sherman, executive director for the Game Initiative, a producer of conferences and events for video game professionals. He says attacks on video games are cyclical, but he expects attacks to increase as games become more pervasive and realistic.
"This sort of discussion comes in and out of vogue, as something occurs that will bring it to the forefront," Kain says.
Winter's comments echoed that sentiment.
"We are fighting a national campaign with every once of our being, and take advantage of these national media opportunities to have our message delivered," Winter says.
He called the addition of sex to an already violent game "a slightly different shade of a different color." Winter says it's another symptom of a larger problem.
But Kain does not think that there will be a persistent outcry.
"It will fade in the minds of the general public, if the past is any indication," she says. "The collective consciousness of the nation moves on."
But Take-Two still may become the poster child for heightened scrutiny in the video game industry, just like Janet Jackson and Marilyn Manson became lightning rods respectfully for sex and television and school shootings.
In response to Janet Jackson's incident, the Federal Communications Commission began levying larger fines for indecency. With the direct involvement of legislators and the FTC, which is now investigating Take-Two in the GTA imbroglio, the industry is left to contemplate its future.
But there's one major difference between Janet Jackson's Super Bowl slip and "Hot Coffee." Whereas the Super Bowl was marketed as a wholesome family event, GTA was never meant to be a product for children, something its manufacturers state. Kain felt the media and detractors neglected the fact that GTA, with its violence and other adult content, was never meant for children. But all concerned parties interviewed for this article agreed that children should not be getting their hands on these games.
"We have an obligation to let parents know that not all games are for young people," Walker said. "Our top priority is to make sure retailers and parents understand the rating system. It needs to be strengthened, or better promoted."
Kain thinks the ratings are a positive resource for parents to help them make gaming decisions for their children.
"But, in general, the scrutiny is really up to the parent to be aware of what's occurring in their home," Kain says.
Sherman agrees, saying, "Parents do need to take a role in their children's extracurricular activities."
But Winter feels that parents aren't as aware as they should be and retailers are not doing their jobs in prohibiting sales to minors. He stresses that his organization is not trying to prohibit the publishing of games like GTA, nor trying to deny adults the right to purchase that game.
"We're calling attention to the concern that our organization has for children being able to buy games like this," Winter said. "The industry's self-policing ? protecting kids from buying these games ? has been less-than-successful."
Winter says the PTC's initiatives are three-fold, calling for: an "accurate and transparent ratings system, higher parental involvement, and state ? or perhaps federal ? legislation prohibiting the sale to younger children."
He adds that the campaign is "just off the starting block."
Kain says that this incident definitely could affect how the ESRB ? and the industry ? does business. She says the board could begin to ask for more information about potential modifications and hidden code or the government could push for outside legislation on games.
"There's always the possibility that legislation [could be created] to ban certain forms of game sales," Sherman says.
He says that watchdog groups will continue to watch the industry, so the industry needs to police and regulate itself.
And the industry needs to realize that its communications will need to increasingly reach beyond gaming aficionados. Kain felt that the media didn't focus on how prevalent unedited, hidden content is in the gaming industry.
"All kinds of content are in games that no one ever sees," Kain says. "Unedited material is sometimes difficult to remove, so it's not unusual for code to be in there."
While Kain says she understands that parents want to protect children from sexually explicit content, she says that only a small number of people had the technical know-how to crack the code.
"To modify a game and access this kind of content is beyond the capabilities of a typical kid," Kain says.
But Sherman says that there's always to ability to eliminate hidden code in a game, it's just a matter of priorities.
Sherman spoke to PRWeek.com a week before the Game Initiative held its Advertising in Gaming conference. With product placements becoming more prevalent in games, he said that the advertisers are going to want certain assurances that they will not be embarrassed by a hack like "Hot Coffee."
"When advertisers are going to go in to an agreement, they will want certain assurances," Sherman says. "Publishers need to be consistent and the game industry is going to have to regulate itself."
Winter says the fact that video games are becoming more ubiquitous as a medium is not the issue, but it might be the catalyst for a deeper discussion, which PTC plans to be a larger participant in. It is actively campaigning in several different states to limit the ability for young children to purchase such games.
"The criticism is not going to go away," Sherman says, adding that both sides would continue the communications battle. He says it's still early to tell whether or not the company successfully maneuvered itself out of the situation.
Of course, there is the great irony that wasn't lost on one video game expert. Kain says she wouldn't be surprised if this controversy only helped increase the interest in Rock Star's new offering Bully, scheduled to be released in October.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gordon.