hc8: Aphra Kerr, The Art of Making Games cont….

The Art of Making Games cont.
Aphra Kerr

Recent news has put a rather interesting spin on our discussions on game network about the art of making games and game authorship. I was in the US when the ‘Hot Coffee’ story broke surrounding Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA). Along with a number of US academics, we googled ‘Hot Coffee’ and viewed the codes and contentious scenes. It was in fact unclear to what extent the scenes exceeded the current rating of the game in the US, which already stated that the game contained strong sexual content (see www.esrb.org). Interestingly, PEGI in Europe does not explicitly mention the sexual content in its rating descriptors and to date there has been no move to add or change its classification there. The OFLC in Australia is once again placed in a difficult position of having a system which has no 18+ classification for games and thus has decided to withdraw classification from the game. In all three of these regions GTA:SA already had the most mature adult classification available and in some, particularly the US, was accompanied by strong verbal descriptors referring to bad language, violence and sexual content.

Clearly this particular controversy is about more than ratings. The key discussion seems to revolve around access by children to this game and the affect it might have on them, about the explicit nature or realism of the content and the need to determine the authorship of the scenes in question. A report in the New York Times (July 14th 2005) notes that Senator Clinton wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to ‘determine the “source of this content” especially as the game can fall into the hands of young people’.

The first and second issues are important and all of us, from developers to publishers to retailers to parents and to game researchers, must share responsibility for it. General public awareness of game rating systems needs to increase, as does general public awareness of the fact that some games are designed to appeal to adult game players. However, the existing rating systems must be examined too. With the increasing average age of game players and game companies explicitly targeting adult gamers it makes little sense for the Australian rating system, for example, not to have an 18+ category for games. We might also consider how these particular scenes compare to similar types of sexual scenes in film and on websites like PornKai.com. Are they any more realistic or explicit than what I view on my television post-watershed (Sex and the City, etc..) or in the cinema ? Is part of the outcry about these scenes related to the fact that we don’t expect to find such content in digital games? Is there a need to agree guidelines on age appropriate sexual content in digital games?

The issue of authorship in games points to the difficulties which their programmable nature and the productive efforts of game players are raising for policy makers (See July issue of Wired magazine this year on remix culture). Where once censors could censor the content that was made available to the audience now both the content and the underlying code can be reused and repurposed in ways that the censors never imagined. Regulators clearly want to make developers and publishers responsible for both the explicit content developed for all game players and the underlying game code accessed by a smaller number of game players, as is already the case with cinema.

In relation to GTA: SA the discussion initially focused on whether Hot Coffee was a player made ‘mod’ or the ‘scenes’ were in fact a mini game and always on the master disk. If they were on the disk were they meant to be found, like an ‘easter egg’, or were they not meant to be found? Or, were they not meant to be found by the regulators but were, in fact, meant to be found by game players? It turns out that the scenes were on the master disk and while the developer may not have intended game players to access these scenes. As game researchers however we know that a key pleasure for some game players is altering, hacking and modifying games. RockStar North and RockStar Games may face substantial losses in this quarter as their game is reclassified to adult only (18+) in the US and some mainstream retail outlets in that country remove it from their shelves.

By coincidence last month I was writing a conference paper on GTA for the 2005 International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference whose theme was ‘Media panics: Freedom, Control and Democracy in the Age of Globalisation’. I was prompted to focus on GTA by a piece on a current affairs programme in the Republic of Ireland last Christmas which showed video clips of the types of violence which one can engage in during the game, especially the sexual violence. The studio discussion involved a member of a parents’ council and a representative of ELSPA by telephone link. I had been asked to participate but with less than a day’s notice I declined. While watching the ensuing programme I began to feel that perhaps I should have taken part. The discussion revolved around the effect that this type of content might have on children and what needed to be done about it. The Irish film regulator’s office, who also has responsibility for games, was called upon to take action.

While Ireland was once known for its strong censorship of the media, this is no longer the case. Yet, the arguments which accompanied the liberalisation of censorship in other media was absent from the discussion of games. Games were seen as different from other media and their interactivity is perceived differently. Yet conventional viewing methods are often used by regulators to get a sense of the content. While clearly it would be impossible for regulators to play every game that they come across surely it is important that they understand how they operate and the potential for diversity of player experiences. It is surely also important for them to realise that some games are designed for adults.

What role have Rockstar Games/Take 2 played in all this? The fact that their first press releases talked about an unauthorised third party game ‘modification’, a term usually applied to player-generated content and not the unlocking of already existing content, was clearly an attempt to deflect blame. The announcement that they will make a security patch available for download by parents, which will make these scenes inaccessible, is also hardly going to address the issue. We all know that determined game players can access any number of cheats and hacks on the internet and no doubt even this security patch will be insufficient.

GTA:SA topped the all platform charts in 2004 despite its late release that year. GTA: Vice City accounted for almost 40 percent of sales by Take 2 in 2003. Since Rockstar bought DMA design in 2002 and incorporated the GTA brand into its studio of games the non-licensed, original intellectual property has become one of the most successful games of all time in economic terms. It is also a critical success. Despite this, and to the best of my knowledge, there have very few papers by game researchers about the games, although there are some forthcoming. I found one in Game Studies and some mentioning the games in the library of DiGRA. In the recent Handbook of Computer Game Studies (2005) only two chapters mention GTA, including the one by Anna Everett on race.

It strikes me as strange that we are not engaging with this economic and critical success more. In addition there is clearly a need for game theorists to engage with the wider public to communicate, mediate and critically analyse games. Henry Jenkins called for us to do more of this at the last DiGRA conference and he speaks from experience. Part of the ‘Hot Coffee’ story must be our failure to date to communicate more broadly with the general public and policy makers about the differences and similarities between digital games and other media. We are actors in this story too and by our silence we are implicated in a wider misunderstanding of digital games. Perhaps we are sometimes too concerned about the position of games within the academy and not enough concerned with their position within society. Next time I will make that journey.


Aphra Kerr is a research fellow at the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster in the UK. Her research focuses on the production, consumption and policy aspects of digital games. Her book ‘Gamework/gameplay: The Business and Culture of Digital Games’ is forthcoming from Sage publications.

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