NEW YORK - A tempest has erupted in the American video-game industry after the publisher of the country's most popular series, 'Grand Theft Auto', acknowledged that its latest instalment includes embedded pornographic content that allegedly was never meant to be seen by players.
The regulatory board in the US that applies ratings to video games reacted by stripping the game of its previous 'Mature' ranking and required that it be labeled 'Adults Only'. As a result all the mainstream retailers, including Wal-Mart, yesterday removed the best-selling title from their shelves.
The game, which is playable on computers or on portable consoles like a Sony PlayStation or XBox, has been under assault by leading politicians and family values advocates for several weeks since the existence of the hidden sexual material was first revealed.
The company that produced it, Rockstar Games, at first accused hackers of somehow polluting the title, 'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'. This week, however, it admitted that the sex scenes have been within the games since they were first shipped.
Players found they could unlock the illicit material simply by downloading a modifying software programme, called 'Hot Coffee', from the internet.
'Grand Theft Auto' is one of the most popular game franchises in the world and when the 'San Andreas' episode came out in October, it quickly sold more than 5 million copies in the US.
With the software modification, users of the game are able to direct their characters to the house of a 'girlfriend' to engage in sex acts. While the characters remain largely clothed, the acts are said to be entirely explicit.
The outrage grew quickly as parents and other groups accused the company of trying to pervert the games rating system.
It is the first time that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board has been obliged to change the rating on a product after it has already entered the market.
"Apparently the sexual material was embedded in the game. The company admitted that," commented Senator Hillary Clinton, who was among politicians lobbying for action against Rockstar Games.
"The fact remains that the company gamed the ratings system."
Some video games makers have recently begun deliberately encouraging the more sophisticated games players to try to manipulate their products. These players are known in the trade as 'modders'. The best of them can alter a game's code to change its plot. This kind of interaction with buyers can extend the shelf-life of a title for months.
But Rockstar denies any such strategy in this case, suggesting that the sex sequences were left inside the code of the games by mistake. "
An artist makes a painting, then doesn't like the first version and paints over the canvas with a new painting, right?" suggested a spokesman for the company, Rodney Walker.
"That's what happened here. Hackers on the internet made a programme that scratches the canvas to reveal an earlier draft."
But as some critics pointed out that would suggest an extraordinary lack of quality control at Rockstar.
There was some relief from family groups that action has finally been taken, mixed with concern about how better to control the industry.
"I tip my cap to that first step of showing responsibility," said Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council.
"Phase two needs to be absolutely getting to the bottom of this coding issue. How did it get into that game. How did it get past the ratings board?"
The owner of Rockstar Games, meanwhile, Take-Two Interactive, said that it expected net sales to drop by about US$50 million in the current quarter. Not that everyone was sympathetic. Critics say the punishment for the company is negligible, given that the Auto Theft franchise has earned it revenues of nearly US$1 billion in four years.