Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How the ESRB Works

The "Hot Coffee" Controversy
Photo courtesy MorgueFile

In early 2005 it was revealed that the game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" contained a graphic sexual mini-game (dubbed "hot coffee") not considered in the game's M rating. The mini-game was apparently part of some preliminary work done for the game, but was not intended to be viewable by consumers. Such work is often partially completed and then left out of the game's final release, much like deleted scenes in a movie. For some reason this content was left on the game disk, although normally players couldn't access it.

Originally Rockstar Games, developer of "Grand Theft Auto," claimed that the scenes were created by a third-party. But some fans of the game soon discovered that the explicit content could be unlocked by downloading a special modification from the Internet. With this modification, the main character could engage in sex with a girlfriend. The "hot coffee" nickname comes from her opening line, in which she asks if he'd like to come in for coffee. Rockstar Games had to admit that they'd created the content.

Photo courtesy HowStuffWorks Shopper

When the news of this hidden mini-game became public knowledge, publisher Take-Two Software was taken to task. The ESRB re-evaluated the game and changed the rating to AO, the most high-profile game ever to receive that rating. Take-Two also released patches so that players with older versions of the game could no longer access "hot coffee." Although the details were not made public, the ESRB probably sanctioned the company for violating the terms of the rating system.

In June 2006, Take-Two Software and "Grand Theft Auto" developer Rockstar Games settled with the Federal Trade Commission over the scenes. The FTC ordered the companies to notify consumers of sexual content in future games and not to misrepresent rating or content descriptions. If the companies violate this order, they face fines of up to $11,000 per violation.Civil cases are still pending.

The ESRB also received criticism. California state assembly member Leland Yee said in a press release, "Clearly the ESRB has a conflict of interest in rating these games, plain and simple, parents cannot trust the ESRB to rate games appropriately or the industry to look out for our children's best interests" [ref]. Since the ESRB depends on video footage of the game sent to them by Rockstar, and Rockstar obviously did not include the hidden footage, the raters could only assign a rating based on the information they had.

For more information on the ESRB and related topics, check out the links on the next page.