In response to pressure by politicians and children's advocacy groups — and in the wake of recent allegations that the game contains hidden sex scenes — the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) moved to keep "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" out of young hands by modifying the game's rating.
Following an investigation by the organization into the buried sex scenes allegations (see " 'Grand Sex Auto'? Sex Scenes Possibly Hidden In Game Have Critics In A Lather"), the rating for the latest installment in Rockstar Games' best-selling, highly controversial franchise — which had been "M" (or "Mature 17+") since the game's initial release for Sony's PlayStation2 this fall — was elevated on Wednesday to "AO," meaning "Adults Only," Reuters reports. The rating adjustment prohibits retailers from selling the game to anyone under the age of 18.
The move prompted Best Buy, one of the nation's largest electronics retailers, into quick action: The game was immediately pulled from its more than 840 stores' shelves. Target and Wal-Mart quickly followed suit, and it's expected that additional retailers will follow that lead.
The controversy began in early June, when a Dutch gamer named Patrick Wildenborg released the "Hot Coffee Mod," a downloadable application that introduced a startling new element to the game's PC version: interactive sex.
Gamers have always been able to send the title's protagonist, CJ, on dates with women. If players could, through CJ, sufficiently charm one of these ladies, they'd get an invite to the her house for "hot coffee." At that point, the game's camera would remain outside the house, but the muffled noises emanating from within the digital domicile left no doubt as to what the "coffee" really was.
Wildenborg's mod tweaked the game, so that an invitation for coffee would lead to an interior view of CJ and his date in the bedroom indulging in their affections, according to Internet reviews by people who successfully ran Wildenborg's programming trick. More than a non-interactive cut scene, the couple's copulation would play out as a controllable mini-game. Button presses affected performance.
Questions arose as to whether Wildenborg's mod unlocked hidden content already there on the game's disc, or introduced a new gameplay aspect the developers never intended.
Wildenborg denies that he created the sexual content, and the ESRB believes him.
"What was clear to us is the fact that fully rendered content existed on the disk that was not disclosed," Patricia Vance, ESRB's president, told Reuters. "The publisher took the risk that a hacker could find it, and it clearly put the rating at risk."
Consumers with the PS2 and Xbox versions of the game were seemingly unable to access the hidden content — that is until late last week, when other hackers discovered a way to unleash the scenes with an Action Replay device, a game-enhancing gadget sold in game and electronics stores.
Take-Two, who for the first time admitted the sex scenes were built into the PC, Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of the game, announced it would stop producing the game in its current form and plans to introduce an updated version of the title, which will prevent sex-scene hacks.
That's not good enough, according to U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, one of several politicians who have placed a priority on creating more stringent legislation to reduce the sale of violent and sexually charged games to minors.
According to Reuters, a statement from Clinton called on the developer to provide parents with refunds on returned games. The senator also accused the company of having "gamed the ratings system and enabled pornographic material to get into the hands of children."
A spokesperson for Rockstar Games reiterated the firm's position supporting a strong ratings system.
"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" now becomes only the 19th title given an "AO" rating by the board, joining games such as "All Nude Nikki" and "Water Closet: The Forbidden Chamber."