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Sex, censorship and Rockstar's dishonesty

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 26, 2005
(Issue 2334, And Away We Go)

We didn't have "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" in our home even before the news broke that a hidden sex scene could be unlocked with a downloadable patch from the Internet. The game's glamorization of violence was enough to let me know I didn't want it anywhere near my PC or consoles.

But to be honest, I'm far more worried about Congress having another of its politically motivated overreactions than I am about a hidden sex scene. Grandstanding politicians are a greater danger to the public good than immature game programmers and designers ever will be.

With Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., up for re-election, though, and leading the charge against video game sex and violence, we're unlikely to see an abating of political yapping any time soon.

Anyway, by most accounts (not having seen it myself), the sex scene in GTA: SA was milder than what you can see on HBO on "Sex and the City" or even on ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

So much for moral outrage.

The real threat

Along with all the talk of "protecting" children from video games, is more sinister talk from others in Congress about banning "mods," or game modifications. (Steven Johnson makes the point in the L.A. Times that recent studies show video games not only provide a healthy outlet for our genetic predisposition to violence, but help develop kids' minds in beneficial ways that traditional games and/or TV can't.)

Apparently, since it was a "mod" (actually a patch, but we can't let minor details like accuracy get in the way of a good moral hissy fit) that unlocked the PC's version of GTA (you can apparently unlock the sex scene with a series of controller inputs on the PlayStation 2 and X-Box), some members of Congress think banning mods is the way to stop this sort of thing.

Whatever this thing is.

Sigh ... creating mods is, of course, no different from any other creative activity; short of giving away national security secrets or including child pornography in a game, it's hard to see how the government can claim the First Amendment doesn't cover the creation of new games – which is what a mod generally is.

The biggest change in computer gaming over the past decade has been the phenomenally huge growth in multiplayer gaming over the 'Net. And the biggest game in all that was a mod, for goodness sake – "CounterStrike," which ran on top of the original "Half-Life." "Day of Defeat," "Front Line Force" and "Firearms" are other popular Half-Life mods that can only be played with other people over the 'Net.

And that's just the "Half-Life": "Battlefield 1942," "Unreal," "Quake III" and others all have been designed with accessible architecture expressly so others can create mods to run on top of them.

The mods are not merely modified versions of these games; in most cases, they are completely new games running on the same engine: New maps, characters, weapons, rules.

What makes them a mod is that you need the original game to run them; it's not like a "Star Wars" game from LucasArts that licensed the Quake III graphics engine from iD and can run as a stand-alone product. If you want to play "CounterStrike," you have to buy "Half-Life."

And mods are generally free to download and play – because they weren't licensed, their creators can't charge for them.

All this creativity and online community building we're going to toss out over one sex scene that wouldn't even raise an eyebrow if it was on TV?

The fallout

Still, it's hard to work up much sympathy for Rockstar, publisher of GTA. Yes, "Easter eggs" (hidden game elements that can only be unlocked by entering a code) are an established part of the computer gaming tradition and heritage. But GTA was already on the edge, and their rating of M for Mature was pretty close the edge, too – having this particular Easter egg was practically guaranteed to push them into the difficult-to-sell arena of AO, or Adults Only rating.

Which they have now – plus likely lawsuits for deceiving the software ratings board.

Worse, we're not looking at the likelihood of having to sue to overturn whatever moralistic drivel Congress imposes on us as law in the wake of the GTA imbroglio.

It was all so unnecessary.

Look, I can exercise control as a parent over what my kids play on their consoles or computers; I can keep an eye on what they do online.

But if Congress starts gutting the Constitution again just to score points, that's a bit harder to counter.