Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Front Lines of the Censorship War

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In 2005, Rockstar Games was riddled with controversy over the “Hot Coffee” mini-game, in which the main character from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas engaged in non-nude sexual intercourse with his in-game girlfriend. The mini-game wasn’t even directly accessible in the normal version of the game, requiring various hacking tools to play the controversial content.

Despite the fact that this scene was unintentionally left in the source code and not meant to be played, the controversy yielded a change in the rating of the game from “Mature” to “Adults Only,” which resulted in the title being pulled from store shelves until an updated version could be released. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was already an explicitly violent game, but this one tame, hidden sex scene provoked several lawsuits, which collectively resulted in enormous financial costs for Rockstar Games. On the other hand, the public nature of the controversy may have bolstered sales.

In 2009, The Ballad of Gay Tony was released as an add-on for Grand Theft Auto IV, and during the regular course of the game, characters have sex and perform fellatio on screen (their clothes and camera angles conceal any nudity). The previous add-on, The Lost and the Damned, included full frontal male nudity. Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansions also contain the usual high levels of violence and profanity which have become a trademark for the series. As of the time of this writing, no lawsuits or major controversies have resulted from any of this material.

I have mixed feelings about the sort of world that Grand Theft Auto presents: at best, the protagonists are murderers and thieves who care only about themselves and a handful of friends or relatives. They have some vague moral compass but they barely adhere to it. The peripheral characters are considerably more abominable: drug addicts, racists, misogynists and homophobes. To the credit of Rockstar Games, these characters are depicted in an appropriately negative light, but the social merits of the series are certainly questionable.

Harder to question, however, is the progress that the Grand Theft Auto games have made to loosen the vice grip of censorship. Material that once would have been kept from store shelves now has a place in the market due to Rockstar’s constant pushing of boundaries. Though the games themselves may be exaggerated and crass and their attempts at satire heavy handed, they have opened doors to allow other companies to make mature games that use sex, profanity, violence, and nudity in less gratuitous ways. Rockstar Games is on the front line of the censorship war, and while they may not wage that war the way I would, I’m glad that they’re clearing a way for the mature games of the future.


  1. Hey guys! Have you played the Ballad of Gay Tony?! My sister is an actress, and just got her first gig doing voiceover work for Rockstar Games! She recorded voices for Red Dead Redemption and Gay Tony. The folks at the sound studio complemented her coke snorting, vomiting, and sex noises. We are so proud.

  2. Rachel, that is awesome. The sort of rewarding compliments that you just can't wait to tell your parents about. I wonder if I heard any of her various noises!


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