July 22, 2005

Gamers, Makers Hope Industry Can Police Itself

SAN FRANCISCO -- An unprecedented move by big retailers to stop sales of the blockbuster video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" over a hidden sex scene has turned a brewing political flap into a costly liability for an industry looking to avoid government regulation.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle are raising concerns over the safety of games, although players and many in the industry say the process shows that self-regulation works -- despite the political stink.

The industry's own ratings group limited the game to an "Adult Only" audience on Wednesday in response to a "mini-game" unlocked by downloadable software, which allowed players to have virtual sex.

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. (TTWO.O: Quote, Profile, Research), whose Rockstar Games makes the controversial title, said the rating change would 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.

But many in the industry said the harm was wider spread.

"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 some insiders compared the latest political maneuvering to the anti-Communist witch hunts conducted by Sen. Joe McCarthy decades ago.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led a charge against the game, has sought a Federal Trade Commission probe, while others are using the scandal to call for government oversight of the industry.

But Entertainment Software Rating Board President Patricia Vance said her group began investigating the modification to "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" that allowed players make their characters engage in explicit sex weeks before calls from lawmakers started coming in.

"This is a fine example of self-regulation working," she said.

Game enthusiasts bridled at the idea of government oversight. "Is it asking too much for the government to kindly butt out of my video game collection?" one contributor wrote on a gaming Web site.

The fast-growing U.S. video game software industry had 2004 revenues of $7.3 billion and many adult fans, too.

"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.