Digital Trim


We’re still a ways off from the snows of Iowa in 2008, but rest assured the Democratic primary race is well under way.

Not surprisingly, it was Hillary Clinton who appeared first on the field, well-stretched and suited up, and firing the starting gun herself with some carefully stage-managed outrage about the terrible affront to society perpetrated by Rockstar Games. That company apparently contributed to the moral decline of our nation by including some simulated sex in the San Andreas iteration of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. The stir was caused by “Hot Coffee”—a mod (or third-party software add-on) that allowed the game’s gangsta protagonist CJ to “gird [his] loins for love” and get buck wild with some digital trim. “So many parents already feel like they are fighting a battle against violence and sexually explicit material . . .” Clinton said, rushing to plant her flag on Democratic moral rectitude. “We need companies to be responsible and we need rating systems that work.” Her action plan: investigate, legislate—and triangulate.

As grandstanding, Clinton’s gambit was a triumph: San Andreas was re-rated; stores stopped selling it; the Federal Trade Commission opened an official probe of Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent company; and there’s even talk of congressional hearings (and we all know how effective they are at preserving children’s innocence). But as politics, Clinton’s ambush doesn’t bode well for Democrats. She’s out in front, but leading whom? Clinton’s strategy doesn’t just misunderstand video games; it misunderstands the supposed center.

The trouble started brewing back in June, when Dutch modder Patrick Wildenborg put Hot Coffee up on the Web. It caught on quickly, and soon people were taking little CJ out for quick trysts, putting him and his naked girl partner into various positions, depending on the preference of whoever was at the controller. Following the narrative spirit of San Andreas and its vast array of audio details, the Hot Coffee scene came complete with dirty talk, such as this bit of enthusiasm CJ has for his new friend: “You a real professional, baby! You should do this for a living!”

As the scandal took shape, Rockstar hid its bush with a Bushism: reflexive denial. It was the modders, the company said, and their unauthorized add-on who introduced the explicit scene. But the chatter online said otherwise. The mod, everyone noted, was a small file—not nearly large enough to include all the imagery for the scene. And where, they wondered, would the modders have gotten CJ’s voice for the dirty talk anyway?

Along comes Clinton, vowing to get to the bottom of it all. And she did, indirectly at least, laying on enough pressure that Rockstar was forced to admit that Hot Coffee was there all along, and the mod just unlocked it. By late last week, San Andreas was pulled from most retail shelves, Rockstar stopped manufacturing the game, and Take-Two Interactive had to revise its third-quarter earnings projections by the $50 million it is estimated to lose.

That’s a pricey cup of Joe! Yet Rockstar still insists that, unlike other “Easter eggs”—secret features meant for discovery—the sex in San Andreas was purposely disabled; that Hot Coffee was an abandoned, early layer of coding in the digital palimpsest. “We liken it to a painter who paints a painting and then paints over it,” a Rockstar spokesman told Brian Crecente of the Rocky Mountain News. “The thing that happened with the Hot Coffee mod was that it allowed people who downloaded it to scratch the painting to get to the original, earlier draft.” Along these lines, Hot Coffee was something akin to a conservator’s removal of the fig leaves that medieval-era bishops painted onto antiquity’s more prurient imagery. (Rockstar also points out that the original scene had CJ and his lady friend fully clothed and it was the modders who “introduced” the nudity.)

Comparing San Andreas to the Old Masters might be a stretch, but it does raise an interesting point about the fuzziness of authorship in interactive media. If video games are usually not like literature in content, neither are they in form, since software, unlike books, can be altered by the users. Modding has become so intrinsic to gaming that a good mod can usurp the original program altogether. (Half-Life, the biggest online first-person shoot-’em-up, only achieved its meteoric rise in an altered, modded form called Counter-Strike.) Sometimes, the line between game and mod is no longer obvious, and what most people play is not what was originally published. So when Rockstar complains that it’s being punished for something someone else did, it has a point.

If one wonders whether Rockstar’s supposed liability would hold up in a court of law, we may yet find out: Octogenarian Florence Cohen filed suit last week against the company for “deceiving” her into buying the game for her grandson. That only reinforces how silly Clinton’s broadside is. First off: It’s a bad sign when you’re on the same side as a litigious Jewish grandma. (Trust me on that one.) And besides, no one likes a finger-wagging Democrat. It failed for Tipper Gore, it failed for her husband’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, and it will fail for Hillary Clinton.

If we wanted to have our knuckles rapped in Washington, we already have the GOP. And as much as righteous indignation is often at the center of their rhetoric, it doesn’t always make great political hay for the Republicans either—all the endless moralizing is how culture-war conservatives consistently overplay their hand among moderate Republicans and independents who don’t want evangelical ethics legislated into their lives. That hasn’t stopped the Democrats from making the same mistake, as an entire chorus chimed in to back Clinton. It’s a fundamentally flawed approach: Why steal the other guys’ least attractive tactics—only to be second best at them?

Even if the Hot Coffee code wasn’t disabled, and the sex was planted from the start—who cares? The brief scene is admittedly lurid, but it’s a fairly inefficient way to sneak impurity into adolescent hearts. This is not the old days of, say, 10 years ago, when most kids still had to sneak into Dad’s closet and find an old dog-eared copy of Penthouse to see the thing that makes Jesus say yuck. There’s instant porn on every computer all the time (or so I’m told). Why, then, would a horny 14-year-old go to the trouble of buying a $50 game, finding, downloading and installing the mod, and then driving his little character all around San Andreas just to see an unerotic casual encounter between polygons—when in an instant you can type “porn” into Google and find much hotter coffee than what’s being served by either Rockstar or Dutch hobbyists?

What Clinton and others don’t realize is that Hot Coffee is not intended to titillate. Like the rest of San Andreas’ thousands of details, the interlude is just one more facet of the game’s incredible depth. The reason San Andreas is so popular is that it’s a “sandbox” game—a densely articulated world, open-ended, and ready for exploration. You can do some drive-bys and get some Hot Coffee, or you can spend all your time hang-gliding or riding your motorcycle into the sunset listening to Magic Man by Heart. Artists have even used this flexibility to make Grand Theft Auto films, where they capture video of the character just hanging out at the beach or seeing the sights like a tourist. As games get more sophisticated, game play is no longer a direct correlate to the code; it becomes a matter of interpretation. It’s about choices: like our own world, but without rules or consequences.

As such, San Andreas is somewhat of a sociological experiment. And what Clinton and her DLC backup band don’t like are the results of that experiment, since it seems that in a world without rules or consequences, many kids’ first instinct is to run people over, shoot cops and slash people on the street. And despite that I’ve spent hours doing those very things in San Andreas myself, I will admit that I do sometimes find it disturbing to see our instincts unfettered. As Hobbes said, the State of Nature ain’t pretty. Which is why I’m glad real life is nothing like San Andreas—and that’s probably the lesson most kids learn by causing all that virtual mayhem. But that’s too much nuance by half for moral politics. And it’s certainly not the lesson that will be learned at Senator Clinton’s hearings.