July 22, 2005
Video Game Sex Scandal Stirs US Standards Debate
SAN FRANCISCO -- 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.
"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.