'Grand Theft Auto' re-rated for porn scene

A tempest has struck 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 globally successful game sold one million copies in Britain in nine days when it was released last October, where it attracted an "18" certificate.

The regulatory board in the US that applies ratings to video games stripped the game of its "Mature" ranking and upgrading it to "Adults Only". Mainstream retailers yesterday removed the best-selling title from their shelves.

The game, which is playable on computers or on portable consoles such as Sony PlayStation or the XBox, has been under assault by 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 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 sold more than five 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," said Senator Hillary Clinton, who was among politicians lobbying for action against Rockstar Games.

Some video games makers have recently begun encouraging the more sophisticated games players to try to manipulate their products. 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 the sex sequences were left inside the code by mistake. "An artist makes a painting, then doesn't like the first version and paints over the canvas with a new painting, right?" said a spokesman for the company. "That's what happened here. Hackers on the internet made a programme that scratches the canvas to reveal an earlier draft."

But critics said that would suggest an extraordinary lack of quality control at Rockstar.

There was some relief from family groups that action had finally been taken, mixed with concern about how 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 get to the bottom of this coding issue. How did it get past the ratings board?"

The owner of Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive, said it expected net sales to drop by about $50m (£30m) in the current quarter. Not everyone was sympathetic. Critics say the punishment is negligible, given the Grand Theft Auto franchise has earned it revenues of nearly $1bn in four years.

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