Game maker may have laid golden egg of sex, violence

August 04, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

SINCE THE DAWN of personal computers, Easter eggs have had a special place in the hearts and minds of software writers and their dedicated fans.

But some old-timers are wondering, wistfully, if the days of Easter eggs are numbered - thanks to congressional investigations, the Federal Trade Commission and pressure from parents and religious groups who think a dollop of sex is more insidious than an entire game full of senseless violence.

An Easter egg is a little surprise that programmers embed deep in their code, waiting for someone to type an arcane sequence of commands or push the right combination of joystick buttons.

Most are splash screens or mini-programs that display the names of the programmers who wrote the code - a little corner of immortality for creative people who rarely get the credit they deserve. The flight simulator Easter egg built into Microsoft Excel 97 may well be the classic example of the art.

But sometimes Easter egg programmers go a little further - witness the group at Rockstar Games who buried some steamy sex scenes in the code of a wildly popular and violent title called Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, published late in 2004.

For months, gamers played on, blissfully unaware of these scenarios. But when a Dutch hacker "discovered" a software patch that would activate the 90-second scenes and published it on the Web in June, a volcano of righteous indignation erupted.

This was, after all, a game whose rating allowed it to be sold to teenagers as young as 16. They, of course, would never have heard of sex if it hadn't been for Grand Theft Auto.

An outraged Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called for legislation that would fine retailers for selling violent or sexually explicit games to minors (my prediction: look for more of this from Democrats who want to shore up their family values creds).

In Washington, the House asked the FTC to investigate. The Illinois legislature enacted a law making such sales a crime. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board immediately changed the game's rating to adults-only, which prompted big retailers such as Wal-Mart to pull the game from their shelves.

Rockstar eventually confirmed that its own programmers had left the scenes on production CDs, albeit as "orphan" code not meant for the public. The company apologized to everyone and promised to deliver a new, sex-free version of GTA to retailers as soon as possible.

Frankly, I can't remember seeing so much hypocrisy over so little sex. That's because the Grand Theft Auto series is already so irredeemably awful that the addition of a little sex can only bring it up a notch on the evolutionary scale.

GTA titles glorify crime, reckless driving, violence and mayhem. In Computer Gaming World, reviewer Jeremy Parish described San Andreas this way:

"You'll shift uncomfortably in your seat as you gun down Army reservists and Navy pilots or kill a guy for the unthinkable crime of being gay, but for the most part Rockstar has made a sincere effort to rise above the usual childishness." Which implies that this one is actually above average.

Some older programmers and computer users say it would be a shame if all publishers banned Easter eggs from future titles. But I don't see it happening. Because all the Sturm und Drang has only one effect - it encourages more of the same.

How so? Without getting into the specifics of RockStar, let's say you're the hypothetical publisher of a successful but hypothetically aging game franchise. It's been the better part of a year since your last release, and you're a bit worried about keeping the profits rolling in - not now, maybe, but over the next few years.

You also know that those aging adolescents you hired to write the stuff created a few crude sex scenes just for their own entertainment, but left them out of the story flow. Since there's no easy or logical way to get to the sex, you let them leave it in - in other words, the classic Easter egg.

And what would happen - six or eight months after the game was released and sales were tailing off anyway - if somebody managed to hack into the game and find a code that would "unlock" the sex scenes? And posted the hack on the Internet, thereby ensuring an all-new buzz for a game that would otherwise be losing steam?

And what would happen, horror of horrors, if parent groups and politicians suddenly took umbrage at the notion of grafting a couple of moments of athletic if not terribly graphic sex onto a program that until now had promoted only murder, mayhem, theft, prostitution and other presumably socially useful occupations?

And what would happen if these good citizens suddenly demanded congressional investigations, and newspapers and TV stations suddenly picked up the story and suddenly you had publicity that your marketing department could never hope to generate in a million years with paid advertising?

You certainly don't care if "adults" like this game. It's strictly a bad-boys' title. Ninety percent of your market is 20- or 30-something single guys who have money in their pockets, who don't have to listen to their parents anymore and are only too happy to buy any game that makes real adults crazy.

Oh sure, you put on your robes of contrition, and say it was a big mistake, and you'll pull all those terrible, sex-soaked copies from the store shelves (if there are any left by this time).

And of course, you create a new version that doesn't have that 90 seconds of sex (which wasn't any more graphic than the R-rated stuff on the premium cable channels, anyway). And that cleaned-up version will sell even better than the old one, even though it still promotes the same old violence and lawlessness. And plenty of hackers will believe there's another Easter egg or two left in your programmers' bag of tricks. So when the next release comes around, it breaks all records.

Wow. What punishment.

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