Modifications to video games raise a ruckus

July 25, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Richard Clark likes his video games just fine, but that doesn't mean they can't be improved.

For Battlefield 1942, a fighting game set in World War II that he plays against others online, the 28-year-old figured out how to alter the game's programming and make his military vehicle a low-rider with chrome rims and a picture of a skull on the back door.

And a year ago, he and others in the Baltimore Gamer's Alliance were hard at work replacing the Unreal Tournament 2004 battleground with Baltimore's Inner Harbor, digitally drawing landmarks such as the Maryland Science Center into the program so they could wreak havoc on familiar terrain.

Clark's changes are harmless, little tweaks to make games more interesting for himself and others. But the Entertainment Software Ratings Board sees the ability to extract hidden features or create new material - often used to create sexually explicit or more violent imagery - as a serious threat to its ratings system, created in 1994 to help inform parents of the content of their children's games.

Last month, a Danish hacker uncovered a sexually suggestive sequence buried deep in the programming code of the popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and designed a program that could be downloaded from the Internet to make the scene accessible.

On Wednesday, the best-selling game had its rating changed to "Adults Only," a kiss of death that effectively removes it from many major retail stores and has sent its developer, Rockstar Games, scrambling to restock a cleaner version.

Meanwhile, politicians and family watchdog groups are calling for investigations into the game and questioning the integrity of the ratings board, which said last week that it would push video game manufacturers to be more diligent in reporting the content of their games, as well as protecting their products from third-party modifications.

"If I'm a parent and I go out and buy a PC game for my 13-year-old labeled teen, and lo and behold, they can go out on the Internet and download patches that radically change the content of the game ... I'm obviously questioning whether that was an appropriate purchase decision," said the ratings board's president, Patricia Vance.

The controversy has turned attention to the "modding" (for modification) community, which Rockstar Games has largely blamed for unearthing and promoting a part of the game not intended to be seen. Made available online was a program known as Hot Coffee that allowed Grand Theft Auto players to access the minigame, in which mostly clothed characters perform a sex act.

There are a bevy of online communities where gamers meet and discuss how to create and download different codes and patches, which allow anything from creating new uniforms in sports games to undressing characters and creating new fighting moves in fantasy games. Of the estimated 100 million-strong gaming community, modders are a small but dedicated community, said Mark D. Rasch, a Bethesda-based Internet security expert who prosecuted computer and technology crime for the Justice Department from 1984 to 1991.

Tinkering with games, however, can run the risk of copyright infringement. While many game companies encourage users to design their own takes on games, others don't like what they see. In February, Torrance, Calif.-based Tecmo Inc. sued the administrators of an online message board for posting lines of code to alter a game called Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. One of the codes removed the clothes of the already scantily clad volleyball players.

Tecmo said its intellectual property rights were being trampled. The suit was dismissed in May.

Robert Summerville, an 18-year-old gamer from Baltimore, said hackers often attempt to ruin a game's integrity by making themselves invincible or creating new weapons.

"It's a big no-no in the community," said Summerville, who will start programming classes at the Community College of Baltimore County in the fall. "Not only does it make an unfair advantage [for that] player, it decreases the enjoyability for everyone else."

But many others use modding to add their own flair to a game. In Grand Theft Auto, in which characters steal cars, the most popular modding typically involves creating new vehicles or new clothing for the characters. Some say that's like adding a mustache to the Mona Lisa.

In order to make changes to Xbox or PlayStation games, modders must purchase "mod chips," which are banned in the United States but can be found online for about $30. After plugging the chip into a console, a modder has to delve into the game's program code to make changes, which are then often shared with others online.

For computer games, programs can be downloaded off the Internet.

It's not an easy process by any means, cautions Christian Bradley, academic director of game art and design at the Art Institute of California-San Diego. Such changes usually require an intricate knowledge of game programming.

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