What lurks inside video games

Most hidden material is tame, but one case stretches believability of game ratings

The video-game industry, it seems, just can't get it right. Long derided for the extreme violence in some games, the industry is now under fire for sexual content - hidden, X-rated material allegedly buried inside this year's bestseller, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

On one side, high-profile critics such as US Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and Leland Yee, California Assembly Speaker pro tem, say the game publisher has buried adult content inside the game, easily uncovered by young fans with access to special software known as Hot Coffee, downloaded from the Internet.

On the other side, Rockstar Games, publisher of "Grand Theft Auto," insists the game was not designed with the X-rated material inside and that the software is what's known as a "mod," or modification - software that alters game codes and creates something new. An investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) is pending.

Beyond the debate over who is to blame for this hidden content, larger questions loom. How often does a game modification introduce sexual or violent material that exceeds the game's ESRB rating? Further, how do parents know exactly what they're getting for their children now that online modifications are almost as much a part of a purchase as the game itself?

Because "unlocking" new material is a key goal in nearly all games, the answers can be complicated, says Dan Morris, editor in chief of PC Gamer magazine, who notes that an episode like the one with Grand Theft Auto is rare. The simplest kinds of unlockable material hidden in games are known as "Easter eggs." These items are usually gags, Mr. Morris says, "things like giving somebody a head three times too big or dropping a familiar figure such as 'The Hulk' into the middle of some other game."

Another form of unlockable material involves "cheats" - a series of keystrokes that helps players find shortcuts to new levels in a game.

While such content is hidden inside a game's original software, the "mod" community - a somewhat chaotic amalgam of fans, amateur game designers, and hackers - takes a game's original code and plays around with it. But few mods are malicious. "More than 99 percent is a benign extension of the game itself, or absurdly silly," says Morris.

Among the many teenagers taking advantage of game cheats and mods is Charlie Smith of Glendale, Calif. An avid video-game player, Charlie competes in online leagues with his fellow gamers, and he has downloaded mods for the controversial "Grand Theft Auto," or GTA, as well as other games. Charlie hasn't used the Hot Coffee program, he says, nor has he come across any others that might change a game's rating in the same way.

The mods he uses do things like allow his character to fly and make him less likely to die during a game. He doesn't know anyone who's looked at the Hot Coffee mod, he adds. "That seems like sort of an isolated thing," Charlie says.

Far from being a negative force, the mod community in general has come to play an important role in the development of the industry, say media watchers.

"It extends the life of a game," says Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. "If I know I can buy, say, 'Quake' and get 20 hours of play, but I know that the developer has provided tools for the mod community to work with, and it encourages mod development, then I know I can look forward to unlimited hours of game-play with extra levels and new tools," he says.

The biggest problem facing the mod community is not rogue programmers but a lack of understanding by mainstream America, Mr. Della Rocca says. When it comes to children and video games, parents need to be as involved in choosing age-appropriate material as they would be with movies or TV, he says.

"Many of these parents and politicians still view games as toys for kids," says Della Rocca, "and if that's your model, and you're presented with such an adult game as 'GTA,' of course, you're going to freak out."

The sophistication and speed of developments in the video-game industry have made the task of choosing age-appropriate games extremely difficult for most parents, Della Rocca adds. "We're talking about technophobia at a fundamental level," he says, "fear of new technology and ignorance of what games really are."

The confusion surrounding video-game content is expressed by Charlie Smith's mother, Kathy O'Dell.

"I'm pretty illiterate. I've heard talk about cheats and codes and all that, and I just throw up my hands," she says. "This and a lot of rap music make me feel like I'm just from another planet. I just don't get it."

The National Institute on Media and the Family has issued what it calls its first national parental warning, hoping to get parents to learn more about the video-game industry and how it works. "The average Internet-savvy kid knows how to get a mod, and parents need to know about this," says spokesman Blois Olson.

The group hopes to strip away the confusion about what's going on, using the leverage of a high-profile incident like the "GTA" modification to get retailers and game manufacturers to clarify game content and, most important, to wake up parents.

"Parents just don't understand," Mr. Olson says. "The message is that it's time to watch what these kids are buying and what they're playing."

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