ESRB Cracking Down on Hidden Game Content

Apparently the effects of "Hot Coffee" are still being felt. The ESRB is getting very serious about hidden content in games and is requiring that publishers examine all games since September of last year to make sure that no hidden content slipped through. They will have to notify the ESRB of the results in January so that the board may re-rate titles if any new content warrants it.

It's not uncommon for hidden content to be left on video game discs by publishers -- sometimes the content is left in deliberately as a bonus or "easter egg" -- but if the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is not made aware of that content, then there's a problem.

In the wake of the "Hot Coffee" scandal, the ESRB clearly cautioned that in order to prevent inappropriate content from slipping through in the future, they will "require all game publishers to submit any pertinent content shipped in final product even if is not intended to ever be accessed during game play, or remove it from the final disc."

Hidden content must be shown or removed

However, to make sure that the industry recognizes the seriousness of this issue, the ESRB has distributed an email to all major video game publishers, requiring that they adhere to this protocol, according to, which obtained a copy of the email.

"Fully disclosing hidden content accessible as Easter eggs and via cheat codes has always been part of ESRB's explicitly stated requirements when submitting games to be rated. In the July 20 public announcement, which focused on the revocation of a specific game's rating assignment, we formally stated that any pertinent content shipped on the game disc that may be relevant to a rating must be disclosed to ESRB, even if it is not intended to ever be accessed during game play," states the ESRB.

The email continues by explaining that any hidden content that may affect a game's rating must either be presented to the ESRB or removed from the disc entirely: "Coding around scenes, images, or similar elements that might be pertinent to a rating assignment does not render this content irrelevant from a ratings standpoint. If a publisher wishes to 'edit out' pertinent content from a final product, it must remove the content from the disc altogether. If that is not feasible, the pertinent content must be disclosed to the ESRB during the rating process so it can be taken into account in the assignment of a rating."

Internal audit

Not only does the ESRB expect all publishers to follow these guidelines from this point forward, but the Board of Directors has also green lighted an investigation of all games published since September 1, 2004. The request asks that publishers examine their titles to look for any pertinent hidden content that might not have been shown to the ESRB initially. Publishers will have until January 9, 2006 to notify the ESRB of any hidden content so that the board can re-rate certain titles, if necessary.

"If you fail to notify us of previously undisclosed, non-playable, pertinent content by January 9, and such content becomes playable through a subsequent authorized or unauthorized release of code to unlock it, rendering the original rating assignment inaccurate, punitive in addition to corrective actions may result," warns the ESRB.

It's not clear, however, what these punitive or corrective actions might entail, or indeed how much power the ESRB actually has to punish publishers.

Dealing with mods

The board's email also briefly addresses the subject of mods; it was a mod, after all, that unlocked the "Hot Coffee" scenario in GTA: San Andreas and started this whole controversy. That being said, the ESRB is referring to third-party mods that introduce new content and can affect a game's rating, not mods that unlock hidden content. "ESRB remains concerned about third party modifications that undermine the accuracy of the original rating, and we are exploring ways to maintain the credibility of the rating system with consumers in light of modifications of this nature," states the email.

Mods are likely to remain a gray area, though. Most publishers see no harm in letting modders create new content. While some modders will always have the urge to create objectionable content, most just want to expand the experience of a game they love by making new levels, items and more. In fact, one of the most popular PC titles, Valve's CounterStrike, started as a mod creation, so why should publishers go out of their way to stifle this creativity?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.