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Modified Video Game Spurs Clinton Protest

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Times Staff Writers

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called Thursday for a federal investigation into a downloadable modification that turns a version of the best-selling video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” into an interactive porn movie.

Her comments are part of the latest skirmish in the battle between the entertainment industry and those seeking to keep children away from programs with sexual and violent content.

“We should all be deeply disturbed that a game which now permits the simulation of lewd sexual acts in an interactive format with highly realistic graphics has fallen into the hands of young people across the country,” Clinton said in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission.

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The fifth title in the popular “Grand Theft Auto” series of games, “San Andreas” has sold more than 5 million copies since its release in the fall. The modification works on versions of the $50 game sold for play on personal computers, which account for about 10% of overall sales. It does not affect versions for game consoles like Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox or Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 2.

The game’s publisher, New York-based Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., said the modification was the work of outside programmers and not part of the game’s original software code.

Contending that video game dealers and manufacturers had done too little to protect young people from games that “steal their innocence,” Clinton also said at a news conference that she would introduce a bill to fine dealers $5,000 for selling adult- and mature-rated games to underage buyers.

Retailers countered that her proposal would be unconstitutional and amount to censorship.

“Rather than proposing restrictions that are counterproductive and cannot be sustained legally, Sen. Clinton should be working with retailers and the video game industry to educate parents about video game ratings,” said Crossan “Bo” Andersen, president of the Video Software Dealers Assn., a group of more than 1,000 retailers.

Clinton compared the sale of violent and pornographic video games to that of alcohol and tobacco, and said it was time for a law “with real teeth.”

“We have reached the point where video games with truly pornographic and violent content are being peddled to our children,” she said.

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The Grand Theft Auto franchise first gained notoriety in 2001 for its violent content. The version released that year allowed players to kill police officers, run over pedestrians and engage prostitutes.

Its new notoriety is over sexual content. Last month, a software modification circulated over the Internet. When installed, the program -- dubbed “Hot Coffee” -- allows a player, represented by an animated man, to engage in a range of nude sex acts with a female character, known as “the girlfriend.”

In a statement, Take-Two said the pornographic version “is the work of a determined group of hackers who have gone to significant trouble to alter scenes.”

The statement added: “Hackers created the ‘hot coffee’ modification by disassembling and then combining, recompiling and altering the game’s code.”

Take-Two spokesman Rodney Walker said, “These scenes ... have generated a lot of confusion about the nature of our games and of the video game industry in general.”

However, some programmers from the global community of “modders,” who modify commercial games for fun, have insisted that the pornographic program was embedded in the computer version of the game and that the scenes simply had to be unlocked with a small piece of programming code. They have pointed out that the downloadable “mod” was 41 kilobytes in size, making it all but impossible that it would include complex programming.

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The Entertainment Software Rating Board, a private group that rates video games, said July 8 that it had launched an inquiry into “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” which originally earned a Mature rating, meaning that it was suitable for ages 17 and older. Intentional inclusion of the pornographic section would have forced the game to be sold with an adults-only rating, a designation given to 18 of the more than 1,000 titles rated by the board in 2004.

Game publishers go out of their way to avoid that rating since major retailers such as Wal-Mart have policies against selling adult titles.

“Wal-Mart does not carry adult merchandise, so this will certainly have an impact on us,” spokeswoman Karen Burk said. “We will stay close to this situation and see what the [rating board] decides.”

Walker said Take-Two was confident that once the review was completed, the original rating would be upheld.

Following Clinton’s news conference, shares of Take-Two fell $1 to close at $26.87 on Nasdaq. But one analyst said a change in the rating of the game to adults-only would probably not affect Take-Two’s finances because the vast majority of a game’s sales occur within the first six months of its release.

In fact, it could have the opposite effect.

“The majority of the sales for this title have already happened,” said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research Inc. in San Francisco. “If anything, this publicity will only drive those sales higher.”

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Although it was released in late October, “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” was the best selling video game in 2004, according to NPD Funworld, a market research firm in New York.

The game’s rating meant that anyone under 17 should not have been able to purchase it.

“This game was made for adults and is rated appropriately,” said Tina Kowalewski, vice president for games editorial at G4 Media, a cable channel on video games. “If parents complain that their kids are being subjected to adult porn because of this game, their kids shouldn’t own ‘GTA’ in the first place because they’re not old enough.”

However, Clinton said a recent study by the National Institute on Media and the Family found that 76% of retailers did not know how the ratings rules worked -- and that 50% of boys from 7 to 14 were able to buy mature-rated games.

Under Clinton’s proposed legislation, stores selling mature-rated games to underage customers could be found guilty of a federal misdemeanor. Her bill also would give the force of government regulation to what are currently voluntary ratings.

Take-Two said it was open to working with Congress on legislation. “We think we have a lot to contribute to that,” Walker said.

But the proposed legislation may run into legal difficulties, 1st Amendment experts said.

To regulate sexually explicit content under federal law, it must first be considered obscene, said Clay Calvert, co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Pennsylvania State University.

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“If you think about the proliferation of adult entertainment, most of those have not been considered by courts to be obscene,” Calvert said. “The 1st Amendment clearly protects offensive speech unless it rises to the level of obscenity, and these images clearly don’t” rise to that level.

States, however, may restrict access of sexually explicit content to minors, Calvert said.

California, for example, has a statute requiring stores to segregate videos, books and magazines that “appeal to morbid or prurient interest in sex.”

“But what does that mean?” Calvert said. “That’s a very moralistic and subjective thing.”

Bodzin reported from Washington and Pham from Los Angeles.

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