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Video game sex scandal stirs standards debate

July 22, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – An unprecedented move by major
stores to stop selling the blockbuster video game “Grand Theft
Auto: San Andreas” over a hidden sex scene will cost its maker
millions of dollars in lost sales and ignited a political
firestorm by U.S. critics who want a government crackdown.

But the young industry, already rivaling Hollywood box
office in sales, is certain it can and should police itself.

The industry’s ratings group slapped an “Adult Only” rating
on the game on Wednesday, effectively banning its sale in most
mainstream stores, after finding the game’s publisher had
hidden a “mini-game,” unlocked by downloadable software, which
allowed players to have virtual sex.

The game had already been a lightning rod for controversy,
since it rewards players for committing crimes and what critics
see as acts of gratuitous violence.

Retailers immediately pulled the game from shelves across
the United States. The game’s maker, Take-Two Interactive
Software Inc. unit Rockstar Games, said the ratings change
would cost it about $45 million in lost revenues for three
months ending July 31 and plunge it into a deeper-than-expected
quarterly loss.

“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is part of Rockstar’s No. 1
selling game franchise. Through May, sales of the game for Sony
Corp’s PlayStation2 console topped 5.7 million units.

Many in the industry said the harm to the reputation of the
industry was broader.

“Rockstar, you ruined it for the rest of us,” Robert Khoo,
a business development director at Penny Arcade, a gaming fan
site with comics, reviews and online forums, said over the
weekend as the controversy grew.

Game makers have long battled efforts to regulate violent
video game sales, and courts have knocked down state attempts
to regulate the industry, citing free-speech protections.

But U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who led a
charge against the game, has urged reforms of video-game
ratings and called for a search for other hidden content.

Other critics including some parents’ groups and
legislators are seeking government oversight of the industry.

Entertainment Software Rating Board President Patricia
Vance said that was unnecessary.

Weeks before calls from lawmakers started coming in, her
group began investigating the downloadable modification to
“Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” that allowed players to make
their characters engage in explicit sex, she said.

“This is a fine example of self-regulation working,” she
added.

Game enthusiasts also bristled at the idea of government
oversight. The fast-growing U.S. video-game software industry
had 2004 revenues of $7.3 billion and has many adult fans.

“It’s the government trying to stick its nose where it
doesn’t belong,” said Brent Riley, a 32-year-old father who
plays “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” in front of his young
sons, but bans them from watching especially violent scenes.

“When it comes to video games, I do monitor. I believe
that’s my responsibility,” said Riley, who keeps his games
locked in a trunk and said he had been asked for identification
when buying mature-rated games.

Mill Valley, California, jewelry store owner Janet Alix
wasn’t aware of the rating change on the game, but said she had
no plans to take it away from her 12-year-old son.

She branded government attempts to police the gaming
industry as futile.

“It’s like closing the door after the horse is out of the
barn,” Alix said.




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