'GTA' Sex Scandal Changing How Industry Looks At Modders

Some have called for new warning labels on games.

The makers of "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" aren't the only ones feeling the heat from Hot Coffee these days.

Weeks after the discovery of the Hot Coffee hack, which unlocks hidden sex scenes in "GTA", video game modders — fans who tweak game code to create cheats, new levels and entirely new games — are boiling under the spotlight. Influential voices within the industry have begun to say modders are a problem that needs correcting, but the modders say they're just misunderstood.

"The reason the game is rated AO [adults only] is because there's a mod available on the Internet," said Rodney Walker, spokesperson for "GTA" publisher Rockstar Games. Rockstar reps have acknowledged that "GTA" includes the sexual content. "We're contrite and going back to our business," said Walker. But for weeks the company has reiterated in statements that it was hackers who actually enabled the scenes to be viewed by the gaming public.

Wariness about modders has also been voiced by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. In a statement announcing the "GTA" ratings change last week (see " 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' Gets 'Adults Only' Rating"), the ESRB called on the video game industry to "proactively protect their games from illegal modifications by third parties, particularly when they serve to undermine the accuracy of the rating."

These comments have put the modders on the defensive. "The whole mod community is completely bewildered by all this," said a 29-year-old modder who goes by the name of Illspirit. "To be made out like we hurt gaming now all of a sudden is just bizarre."

Illspirit is the site administrator for GTAGarage.com, a "GTA"-focused mod site that hosted the Hot Coffee mod until last week, when it removed it at the request of its creator, Patrick Wildenborg. (Wildenborg has talked to MTV News in the past about how he found the hidden content — see "'Grand Sex Auto'? Sex Scenes Possibly Hidden In Game Have Critics In A Lather" — but he isn't doing interviews these days.)

Modding has been around since the dawn of PC gaming. Developers of games such as the "The Sims," "Doom," and "Half-Life" have actively encouraged the mod scene by releasing development tools and cultivating a fan community of amateur tinkerers. These modders alter existing content or use the programming skeleton of these games to create entirely new experiences.

"Most of the time it's not about sexual content," said Aaron Molloy, a 30-year-old site administrator for the Mod Database (moddb.com) who's been modding games for a decade. "Most of the time it's about fighting." Thanks to modders, the World War II game "Battlefield: 1942" became a Gulf War game called "Desert Combat." The "Desert Combat" modders were subsequently hired to work on the official game. The wildly popular first-person-shooter "Counter Strike" started as a mod of "Half-Life." Molloy said one popular mod involved recasting the action of "Half-Life" as a war waged by boxes.

Modders also like injecting their favorite characters into beloved games. Fans of "Dragon Ball Z," for example, created a mod of "Half-Life" featuring the cartoon's characters. Even after the company behind the cartoon complained, the mod makers neither ceased nor desisted. Molloy said the mod site's users are a pretty level-headed lot, but that his site drew the line when someone submitted a mod styled after the Columbine massacre.

While Modders may feel under fire now, they fondly recall calmer times. Illspirit said he got into modding "Grand Theft Auto" back when the series started. The original "GTA" came out in 1997 and would be virtually unrecognizable to fans today, since the action is shot entirely from a bird's-eye view. Though lacking the recent blockbuster versions' immersive perspective and wide-ranging soundtrack, the original "GTA" did exhibit the series' gameplay hallmark: the ability to steal any in-game vehicle and explore the missions that unfold.

"In the early days, ['GTA' modding] was just simple stuff like changing around the locations of cars or adding extra tanks to play with," said Illspirit. "As time went on, we started making new cars, weapons and even entire levels. Half the fun of games for me now is learning how they are designed, and being able to create things other people can play with."

At that time, Illspirit said, the makers of "GTA" were more accommodating to the mod scene. "For the first game, they provided a bunch of technical documents so we would know what was what in the files." That engagement continued with the sequel. "Shortly after the release of 'GTA 2,' they not only gave us documentation, but the official map editor and mission script compiler as well."

The third "GTA" saw the series go to 3-D and become an international phenomenon. At that point, Illspirit said, Rockstar began to keep its development resources to itself, though remained friendly enough to fly the head of the "GTA" fansite he works at to New York to check out the new titles.

These days, Illspirit's "GTA" modding brethren are working on projects that include a recasting of "GTA: Vice City" across a group of islands and a project to link previous "GTA"s into one giant super-game.

Most mods like these never raised concerns with the ESRB. "We have typically not pursued any type of enforcement actions when it comes to third-party modifications," ESRB President Patricia Vance said. "What was different about this — and was clear from the initial reports we were reading and from what Patrick [Wildenborg] was saying — was all he did was hack into the code." But the actual content, she said, "was fully rendered by Rockstar."

According to Illspirit, the content left on the disc by Rockstar only included sex between fully clothed individuals. He said the Hot Coffee modders added the nudity, utilizing left-over "skins" in the game. The found "skin" for one of the Hot Coffee girls was so incomplete that it didn't have a face and had random green blotches on the body. According to Illspirit, that proved Rockstar had made the code for the sex game, the audio and the animations.

Whoever was responsible, Vance said the incident proves the ESRB system works, pointing out that the board was able to change the game's rating to AO. The game was subsequently removed from many stores' shelves, a move that is expected to cost Rockstar's parent company tens of millions. But she also repeated the concern over modding that was expressed in the ESRB's statement: "We have to be responsible about modifications of games that impact this rating system that we're trying so hard to put in a positive light."

One day after Vance made that comment, attorney Jack Thompson, who has become one of the most prominent critics of violent and sexually explicit video games, released a statement saying that game maker Electronic Arts was complicit with the effort of modders to strip clothes from characters in the hit game "The Sims 2," which is rated T (teen). "The nudity placed there by the publisher/maker, Electronic Arts, is accessed by the use of a simple code that removes what is called 'the blur,' which obscures the genital areas," Thompson wrote.

EA spokesman Jeff Brown quickly dismissed Thompson's complaints as "nonsense," pointing out that anyone with the skills to remove the blur would find that the Sims were as devoid of genitalia as Barbie or Ken. "Our position is that there is simply nothing vulgar or inappropriate about the Sims," Brown said. "There are no plans to change the game. It's a T-rated game, and the content reflects that."

But Thompson's attack on "The Sims 2" dovetailed with the uproar over Hot Coffee. On GTAGarage, in the spot where visitors could once download the "GTA" sex mod, they now found a link to a "Sims" mod that, with the right know-how, showed private parts on naked characters. The possibly offending graphics, it should be noted, were created by the modders, and were not included on the game disc.

The bottom line, modders like Aaron Molloy point out, is that game code can be changed and often there's little that can be done to stop it. The concern among people in the gaming community is how the outside world, represented by critics like Thompson and politicians like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, will respond.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," said Dennis McCauley, whose gamepolitics.com blog has been at the forefront of the Hot Coffee affair. "People who weren't aware that games could be modded now have a slight awareness. I think they'll tend to fear it."

That's why the heat has come down on the modders. "I'm not suggesting that we have to go to war with the mod community," said Vance. In fact, she has suggested a remedy.

Video games that can be connected to the Internet already include an advisory noting that the "game experience may change during online play." This warning prepares parents for the fact that the teen-rated game they bought may not be as kid-safe when it's hooked up to the Net and open to the behavior of connected players. Vance proposes that a similar warning be applied to games that can be modded. "We've got to get to the point where we can say to consumers that you bought a game and that something might change if you're downloading online mods." A warning label, she said, might do the trick.

Calling Vance's proposal an "interesting idea," EA's Brown said, "We're strong supporters of the ESRB, so if they recommended it, we'd do it." But he also pointed out that it does raise questions about how games are treated. "Let me ask you this: Does Raggedy Ann come with an advisory that the doll is susceptible to inappropriate play by naughty people?"

Though he still disagrees with the ESRB over a great many things, Illspirit also liked Vance's suggestion. "I, for one, would be happy to see such a label," he said. "In fact, if we had this label already, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion now."