Cutscenes at 11

Cutscenes at 11
The Breasts That Broke The Game

Michael Zenke | 12 Jun 2007 12:03
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Bethesda objected to the Board's decision but agreed to abide by it, although they claimed they weren't at fault for the Topless Mod. "Bethesda can not control tampering with Oblivion by third parties," a representative said. "With regard to violence, Bethesda advised the ESRB during the ratings process that violence and blood effects were 'frequent' in the game - checking the box on the form that is the maximum warning. ... We gave accurate answers and descriptions about the type and frequency of violence that appears in the game."

Patricia Vance, speaking for the ESRB, fired back: "It is obviously unfortunate for everyone involved that no one at Bethesda deleted this file [the nude textures] before the game went Gold, contributing to our changing the rating after the game was released. ... Our raters re-reviewed the game ... and felt that the game was deserving of a Mature rating."

Both the ESRB and Bethesda declined to reopen old wounds for this article. Reading between the lines isn't difficult, though: From the ESRB's perspective, even the tame nudity spelled danger, post-Coffee. With individuals like Leland Yee decrying every misstep the industry takes, the organization felt it needed to act quickly to ensure the story didn't gain overwhelming media attention. To do otherwise would be to provide ammunition for the politicians. Bethesda, on the other hand, had almost no choice in the matter. Aside from their signed contract with the Board, they had their bottom line to consider. A stamp of approval from the ESRB is a requirement to be displayed on retailers' shelves, from giants like Wal-Mart all the way down. Rejecting the ESRB's decision would have forced them to search for a new organization to rate their games, and likely would have kept them out of mainstream circulation. Retail suicide, in other words.

What neither Bethesda's defenses nor Vance's attacks shed light on are the possible future implications of this decision. The speed with which the ESRB revoked the "T" rating should have publishers of mod-able games thinking hard about their priorities. Which is more important: a thriving mod community, or a rating you can bank on?

"Game 3.0" concepts, talked about extensively at Sony's GDC event earlier this year, rely heavily on community input and outside content to make them "sticky," in a social sense. Sony's Phil Harrison spoke calmly about the ability for Home users to mute offensive speech and ignore users with pornography-filled personal spaces. In that light, the ESRB's "Game Experience May Change During Online Play" seems like a gross understatement, the possibility for abuse too tempting for those with lots of time and little perspective to ignore. LittleBigPlanet is even more fraught with problems, as it is more traditionally a game. Will Sony provide personnel to review every fan-made level for offensive content? Will the ESRB? If Barbie-doll breasts can get a game re-rated, consider the dangers of introducing hardcore pornography into a LittleBigPlanet level.

While Hot Coffee will not soon be forgotten, the ESRB's decision on Oblivion should have shaken the world harder. A game had to pass through the re-ratings ghetto because of the work of one free-minded individualist. Under assault from thousands of griefers anxious to share the goatse picture with everyone that passes by, how can collaborative games hope to hold up?

Michael "Zonk" Zenke is Editor of Slashdot Games, a subsite of the technology community Slashdot.org. He comments regularly on massive games at the sites MMOG Nation and GameSetWatch. He lives in Madison, WI (the best city in the world) with his wife Katharine. Michael is not a game journalist.

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