Yahtzee looks at the classic Hot Coffee controversy.
Let's all laugh at an industry that never learns anything, tee hee hee.
Zero Punctuation's Occasional Guide to
Retarded Special Moments in Gaming History
On today's episode of the Zero Punctuation Occasional Guide to Moments from Gaming History Least Likely to be Adapted Into a Life-Affirming Coming-of-Age Drama, we turn to the subject of moral panics...and then we turn around again and do a big fart in moral panic's face. Over the years, controversy and video games have gone hand-in-hand, followed by tongue-in-mouth, and then cock-in-bumhole, but they've only relatively recently gotten into valid, helpful controversies, like, "Publishers are running barely-disguised casinos through legal loopholes in the hope of stealing all the money in the world so they can build a new solid-gold planet from which to plot their conquest of the universe and the death of that meddling fool, Flash Gordon."
Most video game controversies have been repeats of that tiresome debate over whether it's healthy for little Timmy to make Sub-Zero tear out spinal columns, and which can be routinely countered with the argument that every spinal column torn out in Make-Believe Pixel Land is one real spinal column not torn out in the schoolyard. But what happens when video games touch upon the one thing moral guardians hate more than violence: the reproductive realities of their own depraved, shameful biology?
Hot Coffee Makes Clots Huffy
The year is 2005, when the PlayStation 2 was sitting pretty atop the games industry like a big sexy jockey. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was the fifth GTA game, and in their drive to experiment with the GTA formula, developers Rockstar had absolutely riddled the fucking thing with stat-grinding mini-games that had all the entertainment value of a large bag of polystyrene packing material. And in the spirit of grinding (waggle eyebrows), someone made a mod for the PC version of the game that replaced the slightly weaksauce fade out/fade up implied boffing session that ended the dating side-quests with a full-on graphic sex mini-game in which two fully-clothed models made honks and squeaks of pleasure as they slide in and out of each other like a pair of butchered horse carcasses in a dog food processing vat.
Initially, Rockstar claimed that it was all the work of naughty hackers and that one could no more blame them than one could blame an exercise book manufacturer for a schoolboy's crude drawing of a knob, until it became clear that all that the mod actually did was go into one file and change the variable "EnableHorribleSexMinigame" from 0 to 1. With the revelation that the general public had trustingly allowed into their homes a shameless portrayal of consensual lovemaking insidiously Trojan-horsed within their wholesome, innocent policeman-murdering simulator, the moral guardians threw one of their characteristic shit-fits.
For me, the fact that you had to mod the game to turn it on sort of defeats the traditional "corrupting the innocent children" argument, because any innocent child who unsuspectingly visits a PC modding website and downloads and installs "ActivateTheHotSexyPornMinigameWithActualSexInIt.exe" by accident - presumably while searching for Bible verses and poems about Grandma - is either a severely unlucky or unflinchingly dishonest one. But that nicety was wasted on the usual suspects, who were relishing having an excuse to get their huff on again. Notorious anti-video game lawyer and humanity's answer to the Sarcoptes parasite Jack Thompson jumped all over it, which was par for the course at the time, but none other than Hillary Clinton also joined in for the kicking, just in case you thought the only mark against her was being unable to win an election against a large pile of Cheesy Wotsits in an ill-fitting suit.
But this was before our current age of digital distribution, when we don't so much own games we buy as agree to temporarily house them on our hard drives until the publishers decide they can't be bothered to keep the servers running. And there was no denying that the content was on the disc; you can't get away with putting one page of high-fidelity dick pics into the middle of The Very Hungry Caterpillar just because you glued another page over it; and the ESRB rating of San Andreas was changed from "Mature" to "Adults Only", the rating reserved mainly for porn games and which most retailers refuse to stock. Meanwhile, Europe only had an "18+" rating, which the game already had, so Europe didn't give a shit; Europe barely looked up from its tea and weird-smelling cheese. Australia, of course, didn't have a rating above "Mature" for games, so they just pulled that old "Refused Classification" bullshit, because that country's so into the nanny state that it's using Nanny's labia as drapes for its four-poster bed.
Rockstar swiftly recalled, patched and reissued the game, and the "Mature" rating was promptly restored, but if the history of moral panics has taught us anything, it's that complying with the moral panic is the least effective way to end it; it's showing weakness, isn't it? It's like saying to the frenzied shark, "If you promise not to bite all my arms and legs off, you can have this used tampon". Lawsuits got underway, Clinton introduced the Family Entertainment Protection Act to federally enforce the ESRB ratings that would ultimately flounder like an armadillo in a ball pit, but it wasn't enough. Still brimming with huffy energy and not wanting to admit that this was all rooted in general frustration at losing control of a changing world and having nothing else to do all day but pick the kids up from soccer practice and shag the pool cleaner, the moral guardians extended their rage to Rockstar's next title, Bully, a slightly quaint game about a rascally schoolboy. Which they decided, sight unseen, was some kind of loving tribute to the Columbine murderers. In perhaps the most hilarious episode of the time, a group apparently unironically calling themselves "The Peaceholics" organized a protest at Rockstar's headquarters, even issuing a list of demands, which is worth googling if you can do with a laugh, because their demands basically amount to, "immediately sabotage your own business and admit responsibility for all human suffering and wrongdoing". I can't seem to find any information on what the Peaceholics were threatening to do if their demands weren't met; presumably, they were going to get real fucking peaceful on these motherfuckers.
The Lessons Nobody Learned
I think it's fair to say that "Hot Coffee" wouldn't happen today, as publishers would be able to digitally patch it out before Carl Johnson had finished his first crudely-animated thrust; any controversy about locked content on the disc is more likely to center around publishers trying to flog it as DLC. But in the aftermath of "insert name of currently most relevant American mass school shooting", we ask ourselves why the video game moral panic never seems to permanently go away.
Who ultimately was hurt by "Hot Coffee", and benefitted from Rockstar's chastisement? Well, we don't need to speculate; we have stats! In 2007, the class-action lawsuit was settled and Take-Two agreed to pay every offended customer enough money to buy a slap-up McDonald's meal for one. But as of June 2008, less than 2,700 people had made a claim. "Oh, how shocking!" said the eleven law firms that had been drawing the case out. "Guess people just aren't as committed to taking a moral stand as they used to be. Gosh, is that the time on my suspiciously expensive Rolex? Gotta run!" So, yeah, if you want to know why moral panics drag on, it's because somewhere, somehow, a shadowy cunt is making shitloads of money from it; basically, the same reason there's still a DC Cinematic Universe.
- Hot and bothered: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
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- Gun down a Nazi for mental health today
Extra: Differently Morphous
My latest book, Differently Morphous, is out now on audible.com as an Audible Original, meaning audiobook first with print version further down the line, so get those ears unstuffed. It's a contemporary paranormal fantasy about the difficulties of adapting to modern life when you're a formless Lovecraftian horror from beyond the veil of time and space.