Courting Controversy—and Then Managing It

Games like Grand Theft Auto revel in causing a stir. But necessary measures should be employed to control the fallout

It's almost hard to believe, but it's been roughly two years since the infamous "Hot Coffee" scandal surrounding Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas broke. While initially written off with a snicker by most of the gaming community, it quickly reached the ears of the mainstream media and California Assemblyman Leland Yee called out both the ESRB and Rockstar to label the game "AO." Despite evidence to the contrary, Rockstar denied any complicit action in the affair. Eventually, the game was reassigned an "AO" rating and pulled from the shelves of all major retailers.

Having to re-release the game was only one of Take-Two's worries, as legal action was taken against the company in the following months. While there were some who argued that "any publicity is good publicity," the bottom line was that the Hot Coffee incident cost Take-Two millions of dollars in sales with the recall, severely weakened investor confidence, gave a black eye to the industry and drained away whatever good faith the company had with the ESRB. They probably wish, in retrospect, that they could call a mulligan on the whole incident.

But how specifically could things have been handled better? And what lesson can the industry as a whole take from the Hot Coffee incident? We talked with Bill Linn, Partner at Sandbox Strategies and PR veteran, about all this and more.

Handling an eggshell in a minefield

To say Linn is experienced with public relations and controversial video games would be an understatement. In fact, practically the only thing missing from his resume is working on Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. And yes, he worked on PR for the Grand Theft Auto series, including San Andreas (though not during the Hot Coffee incident).

"I've worked on a lot of 'M' rated games, many of which were great games that received a mature rating based on something obvious, such as blood or the like," detailed Linn. "I always make sure to show the distinction between titles like that and games that generated a large amount of media and activist scrutiny. Most great games with mature content never fall into that latter category. Unfortunately, in the last 17 years pitching games, I have seen my share come under the public microscope. Early on, I had to battle the mainstream media when they thought Leisure Suit Larry on a CD from Sierra was interactive porn. More recently, I was involved in State of Emergency, Manhunt and three Grand Theft Autos. All in all, I spent six years working with Rockstar and three of those almost exclusively helping manage the controversy around certain titles. Somewhere in the middle of that, I consulted on the media management surrounding the controversial presidential assassination game, JFK Reloaded. Even today, our agency, Sandbox Strategies, continues to handle a number of M-rated titles."

Now, using controversial content for the PR efforts of a game seems to be much like having the tiger by the tail. Some have tried and most have failed, like the old Acclaim running a contest to have people name their baby "Turok" or buy advertising space on real people's tombstones for Shadowman. Ultimately, as has been proven with games like BMX XXX, games perform better based upon the quality, not the controversy, of their content.

"I don't think most marketing and PR people sit around and think 'how can I exploit this to sell more.' As we learned with many titles, too much controversy causes your product to get pulled from shelves and make retailers nervous," explained Linn. "That's not good for anyone, so most people tend to responsibly acknowledge the controversy but sell the game based on its merits. Good games don't need controversy to sell."

"That said," he continued. "I've seen my share of cheap publicity stunts by many publishers (none of which I have been involved in) over the years where they thought manufactured controversy would cover-up a crappy game. More often than not, the controversy is unfairly thrust upon them by the mainstream media, family groups or an unforeseen event (i.e. school shooting).

It's unfortunate that groups often jump to conclusions that video games are the root of all evils."

Growing up the hard way

While a little notoriety has helped the word to get out about certain games (Postal 2, for example, has experienced it since release, whether that was Running With Scissors' intent or not) it's ultimately a prickly thing to handle. While some unwanted attention is perhaps inevitable, it has forced the industry as a whole to mature and acknowledge that it is no longer a medium "just for kids." Hopefully, controversy over games will become less of a hot button issue, as today's gamers grow up and become tomorrow's politicians and mainstream news writers.

"For many games, PR folks know where the pressure points could come from," said Linn. "Whether it was Jack Thompson or Center for Media and Family or politicians like Hillary Clinton, we could pretty much predict who would come at us. When and how were always the unknown. Sometimes I would wake up and a story would hit overnight and then we would take away time from doing positive PR to manage the media calls as they arose.

"I think the politicians and activist groups always see a fire simmering around certain game brands, especially the Rockstar titles. The opposition constantly looks for a reason to drop gas on the fire and flame up the issue to further their cause. As an industry, we have learned to manage those people much better, whether that will be through direct contact (i.e. Take-Two/Jack Thompson settlement) or talks between the activist groups and the ESA."

Just don't try to hold it in your lap

There are many lessons to be learned from the Hot Coffee scandal, not the least of which would be general leeriness about public opinion. While not helped by Take-Two's handling of the incident, many members of the media and political community seemed to have set up the gallows for the industry long before GTA: San Andreas had even released. These people, who seem to be predisposed to have negative opinions about the industry, help form the opinions of parents and many who do not play games at all. This unfortunately creates a necessitated wariness among game publishers and developers towards those with important voices who ultimately may not be adequately informed themselves.

"I think the industry has learned quite a bit about the boundaries for games and the extent to which we can become the focus of the media," ventured Linn. "But worse, I think we have realized that the mainstream media, particularly television reporters, are quick to compare things like porn and GTA. Or Columbine and GTA. Or whatever the comparison du jour is. And that alone, creates a bigger issue out of a smaller one. I have watched a lot of that kind of news coverage lately and I'm still amazed when reporters talk about Doom like it was released yesterday and then go on to compare that to 'a button mashing Nintendo game for kids.' It's sad and very unfortunate for the industry."

He continued, "But at the end of the day, from my experience, a company never gained anything from engaging the media while the media is hot on the hunt over a particular title. The biggest lesson and the advice we give companies is avoid a dialog and respond in a very controlled manner. When you get on the phone and try to 'fix the problem with a dialog,' you ultimately get burned. The mainstream media struggles with putting that dialog into a context that ultimately reflects positively on the company."

That said, we asked Linn what we he would have done if he had been handling the Hot Coffee incident. He responded, "We constantly advise our clients to return all the media calls, but only respond in email to questions. I remember there being several 'live interviews' during the Hot Coffee incident that I think ultimately didn't further the cause. I would also lead the public messaging with someone from senior management rather than PR flakes like me. It gives the response more clout. For example, if Apple released a product that generated such an outcry and caused the stock to drop, I would expect Steve Jobs to respond, rather than his rank and file."

Linn says the aftershocks of the Hot Coffee incident can still be felt today. "I see the impact everyday. Games that should be 'T' are now 'M.' Games that are 'M' are now potentially 'AO.' The ESRB appears to be much stricter and more diligent with the materials they are provided. (This isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Worse, the politicians have a golden poster child and the children's groups have a defined enemy. So, it's much harder to fly under the radar. Moreover, since there is a perception by these groups that GTA 'pulled a fast one,' there is much more 'what did they hide in there now?' for every game going forward."

So what of the recent "AO" rating of Manhunt 2? Was this a direct consequence of Hot Coffee? "I think Manhunt faced opposition before the first line of code was typed in, so I really think the recent issue was unfair," he acknowledged. "Ask anyone that previewed it and they'll say the same. It was much ado about nothing."

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