Halfway through 2006, a huge story went unnoticed by game journalists. Barely a cursory glance or raised eyebrow marked its passage. Early in May the Entertainment Software Rating Board quietly changed Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion's rating from "T" to "M," forcing a recall and re-labeling of the game, and costing Bethesda a fortune. The problem? Bethesda had nothing to do with it.
A modder unaffiliated with the game's developers, working on her own time, manipulated art assets in the game, rendering female characters topless, and distributed her work over the internet. It was an act beyond Bethesda's control but to the ESRB objectionable content is objectionable content, and it needed to be weighed, measured and rated.
The ESRB's decision incensed industry insiders, perplexed onlookers and gave politicians a jumping-off point for continued assaults on the industry's integrity. Looking back, there's a reason the incident didn't make bigger headlines: The news dropped in May, just a week before the last real E3 event, and there were bigger stories to cover that month. But with player-centric content vehicles like LittleBigPlanet and PlayStation Home on this year's docket, last year's ESRB decision may prove to be the gift that keeps on giving for an already beleaguered industry.
When the ESRB rates a game, the only issue at hand is the impact it will have on players. Raters use a 32-item list based on the game's content to suggest a player's minimum age for most commercial videogames released in the U.S. and Canada. The foe of that process, the bane of the game industry's self-policing efforts, is the three-headed hydra of bad press, public outcry and political interest. The Hot Coffee scandal and perceived connections to youth violence has forced the Board to label questionable content "Mature," if only out of self preservation. Standing as the only bastion between government oversight and the game industry, it takes its job very seriously. When references to the "Oblivion Topless Mod" appeared on game news sites as a curiosity early in April of 2006, the ESRB had little choice but to check it out.
The Topless Mod debuted on the Oblivion Source fansite in March 2006. A woman calling herself "Maeyanie" created the mod because she hated "government/society/whatever forcing companies to 'protect our innocent population from seeing those evil dirty things 50% of them possess personally anyways.'" In terms of shock value, the resulting nudity was fairly tame. With bottom undergarments intact and a lack of self-consciousness on the NPCs' part, the modification was about as erotic as a doctor's visit.
During the course of the ESRB's examination, however, the organization saw even more it didn't like. Though the Topless Mod didn't change anything but textures on female NPCs, the ESRB found "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating." That, combined with the revelation that the skin texture was among the files shipped with the game on release gave the Board cause to approve a rating change from "T" to "M."
This is in keeping with the language on the ESRB's website, which says, "Every publisher of a game rated by the ESRB is legally bound ... to disclose all pertinent content ... including content that may not be playable but will exist in the code on the final game disc (i.e. locked out). ... In the event of incomplete disclosure during the rating process which affected or could have affected the assignment of a rating or content descriptor, an ESRB enforcement action may be initiated, which could result in revocation of the original rating and the imposition of sanctions, including monetary fines."