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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

ESRB Continues To Blur Its Message

I exchanged some emails last night with Matt O' Curmudgeon Gamer, which you can read the summary of his opinions on the ESRB's Manhunt 2 statement over there. I poked at him first because he's had real interaction with the ESRB and I wanted to make sure I wasn't off-base with my initial reaction. From his take on things, it would seem rather not.

Let's break this down:

Earlier this week we learned about a hack into the code of the PSP and PS2 versions of the game that removes special effects filters that were put in place to obscure certain violent depictions. We have investigated the matter and concluded that unauthorized versions of the game have been released on the Internet along with instructions on how to modify the code to remove the special effects. Once numerous changes to the game's code have been made and other unauthorized software programs have been downloaded to the hardware device which circumvent security controls that prevent unauthorized games from being played on that hardware, a player can view unobscured versions of certain violent acts in the game. Contrary to some reports, however, we do not believe these modifications fully restore the product to the version that originally received an AO rating, nor is this a matter of unlocking content.
-- ESRB issues statement about Manhunt 2 hacks and controversy

OK, here's the thing about the above statement: it does not represent any departure from the original Hot Coffee fiasco. The modders for Hot Coffee also modified code to remove logic to show previously unshown scenes. The only big distinction is that the PC does not have the same kind of restrictions that the PSP platform has - but that just alters the hill the PSP hackers had to climb to get to the same point.

Let's examine the ESRB's rebuttal to that point, from the same Joystiq post:

The Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas "Hot Coffee" situation involved a scene that was a) fully rendered in an unmodified form on the disc (the Hot Coffee mod did not alter the content that was there, it merely unlocked it), b) not previously disclosed to the ESRB during the rating process, and c) easily accessible to all owners of the PC version of the game. Conversely, in the case of Manhunt 2, a) content that was programmed to be part of the game (i.e., visual blurring effects of certain violent depictions) is being modified, b) the content was previously disclosed to the ESRB, and c) unauthorized versions of software and/or hardware are required to play the modified content.

To say that the Manhunt 2 material wasn't unlocked, because code removed special effects filters, but that GTA material was unlocked, because it switched some flags to allow the scenes to play - is simply semantic. Technically it's the difference of an apple and say, a granny smith apple. For the Manhunt 2 material to be shown at all, the scenes must exist in their unaltered format (just like GTA). Telling the code not to display a blur filter isn't significantly different from telling the code to show scene A instead of skipping it.

The ESRB has engaged in this kind of wordplay before - shifting blame from publishers to developers to modders in their arguments depending on who was asking the question. The only real distinction here is that we are talking about material that Rockstar disclosed, the ESRB rated and Rockstar "edited".

So in other words - the real distinction between the Manhunt 2 content and the GTA content isn't Rockstar, it isn't the publisher and it isn't the modders. It's the ESRB. They've decided to handle this situation in a different way for one basic reason:

Someone did the math and they realized they could get away with it. The PSP is a tiny market compared to the PC, Manhunt 2's controversy is already old news and quite frankly nobody really cares about a subpar game on the world's second rate handheld martket.

The problem with that is that the ESRB continues to act more like a political body than as a standards body. Their message in instances such as this is not necessarily about communication with consumers as it is about damage control.

If the same kind of focus was getting shown onto the situation as we saw with the frantic over-reaction to Hot Coffee, I'd put dollars to donuts that the ESRB would be singing a different tune. If we were talking the Wii version here? Oh brother, watch out.

Sadly, that's precisely what consumers - and especially parents - don't need. Parents don't give two cents, nor should they, whether the material was on the disc, or added to the disc, or hacked from the disc, or if the flag was set by a config file, or if it took a hex editor, or if their kid could run a binary patch, or whatnot. They need to know what happens when they buy a game and what can happen after they bring it home.

This is a failure to communicate - and one that's indicative of a problem with the ESRB in general.

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