So we have a new videogame industry ratings scandal du jour. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) has officially changed its content rating of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for Xbox 360 and PC from Teen to Mature. At issue was that “partial nudity in the PC version of the game can be created by modders.” This would be the equivalent of the MPAA changing Star Wars from a PG-13 to an R rating two weeks after its DVD release.

It is also highly reminiscent of the high profile “Hot Coffee” scandal that got GTA: San Andreas moved from M to AO (Adults Only). Both cases dealt with content intentionally created by the developers and shipped with every copy of the game, but inaccessible to the player absent some 3rd party hackery. Setting aside the issue of whether you believe such inaccessible content should even be considered by the ESRB in its rating (I do), the Oblivion case is overreaching and sets a dangerous precedent. With Hot Coffee, the offending mini-game was intended to shock, obviously went beyond the scope of the M rating, and was most likely removed from the game for that exact reason. But as I understand it, in Oblivion, the nude texture was included because Oblivion’s clothing and armor textures/meshes would not always look correct with a bra texture going straight through it. The bra mesh would also cause clipping and it would be rather clunky to re-texture it with each piece of armor.

Hot Coffee was included because the developer negligent, cunning, or otherwise forgetful. Hot Mead (as it is being called) was a developer’s tool and had to be transformed into its offending use, whereas the former merely had to be unlocked. Under the rating standard set by the GTA re-rating, developers have to ensure none of the content they include in the game exceeds the rating the game receives. After Oblivion, they have to be sure all content and any transformation thereof is considered.

To what extent must a content maker second guess its product to avoid a public flogging by the ESRB? The once radical step of re-rating a game after its release should be used to correct developer negligence or recklessness, not to force them to waste time and money making their game less open to modding.

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