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US games watchdog orders hidden-content audit

ESRB senses threat to ratings scheme

US games software watchdog the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has told games publishers they must reveal any hidden content included in all the software they have released since 1 September 2004.

The order was sent by email, a copy of which was leaked to games-oriented website Gamasutra this week.

In the email, the ESRB expressed its concern that hidden content subsequently exposed by games modifications could undermine the ratings system. Since the ESRB is run by the games industry itself, it undoubtedly fears that any loss of faith in its ratings could lead to a potentially harsher, government-mandated certification system.

To counter that threat, the ESRB told all publishers and developers they must formally detail any hidden material which the organisation has not already been notified about.

"If you fail to notify us of previously undisclosed, non-playable, pertinent content by 9 January 2006, and such content becomes playable through a subsequent authorised or unauthorised release of code to unlock it, rendering the original rating assignment inaccurate, punitive in addition to corrective actions may result," the watchdog warned, without going into details.

Any hidden material reported to the ESRB by that time will be used to consider whether a game should be re-rated. In future, the organisation said, if games companies don't want hidden content to be reflected in a game's rating, they shouldn't include it.

The request follows the discovery of adult material in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas earlier this year. Although the content was never intended to be seen by players, according to developer Rockstar Studios, it was nonetheless exposed by a third-party modification posted on the Internet. That prompted the ESRB to raise the game's rating from Mature to Adults Only, which prompted a number of major US games retailers to pull the title from their shelves.

The ESRB's rules have always required games publishers to notify it of hidden content intended to be exposed by special codes or, say, by sending game characters to certain locations. These so-called Easter Eggs are commonplace, but since the adult content in GTA: San Andreas was not included as an Easter Egg, it was not revealed to the ESRB.

GTA: San Andreas is due to return to shops this week after its publisher, Take-Two Interactive, removed the so-called 'Hot Coffee' content in order to get the rating back down to Mature. ®

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