Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has been re-rated as AO (Adults Only) in the USA as the result of an investigation by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board into a sexually explicit mini-game that could be by following instructions online.
The title was originally rated M (Mature), which is normally the highest rating granted by the ESRB to mainstream games and means that the title is suitable for over 17s. The far less common AO badge is seen as hugely commercially damaging, as the vast majority of US retailers have a policy of not carrying AO-rated titles.
Rockstar now plans to remaster the game without the offending content, which will allow it to continue to see the title as M-rated; however, until those copies can be shipped out to replace existing stock, that stock will either have to be removed from shelves or re-stickered with an AO rating.
However, Rockstar president and CEO Paul Eibeler continues to insist that Hot Coffee was an "unauthorised third party [..] modification," with president and CEO Paul Eibeler stating last night: "We are deeply concerned that the publicity surrounding these unauthorized modifications has caused the game to be misrepresented to the public and has detracted from the creative merits of this award winning product."
ESRB president Patricia Vance states the situation rather differently, saying that: "After a thorough investigation, we have concluded that sexually explicit material exists in a fully rendered, unmodified form on the final discs of all three platform versions of the game."
She did note, however, that "the material was programmed by Rockstar to be inaccessible to the player and they have stated that it was never intended to be made accessible."
The "Hot Coffee" mod saw players taking their girlfriend home and then having sex with her in a mini-game that, while present on the game DVD, only came to light after a PC modification unlocked the code. The data was subsequently found to be resident on the PS2 and Xbox discs and could be unlocked on PS2 using Datel's Action Replay cheat-finder product.
The ESRB and another industry body, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), have come under increasing pressure to act since Hot Coffee came to light, with widespread coverage in the American media and proponents of a ban receiving support from the likes of senator Hillary Clinton, Californian assemblyman Leland Yee, and anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson, who recently compared ESA president Doug Lowenstein to Adolf Hitler over his role in the affair.
GTA: San Andreas is unlikely to be re-rated in the UK where it has been given an 18 certificate by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), meaning that it is illegal for retailers to sell it to anybody under that age. This situation is different to that in the USA where the ESRB's ratings, whilst generally upheld, are not legally binding.
Indeed, just last week the BBFC said that while it didn't know about Hot Coffee at the time of rating the game, it wasn't going to update it. "Even if we had been aware of it, we would not have had a problem," a spokesperson told this website. "From our point of view the hidden material does not contravene the 18 rating and so the rating stands."
In Australia however the game could well be banned altogether, with Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) - a notoriously strict organisation - having previously refused to classify titles including Manhunt and NARC, effectively banning them from sale. There the OFLC had said: "The Classification Board is compelled to revoke a game's classification if it is found to contain undisclosed contentious material, whether activated through use of a code or otherwise."
Report by Tom Bramwell and Rob Fahey.