FTC declines to fine as gamemaker settles

The makers of “Grand Theft Auto” have avoided trouble with the government this time, but the Federal Trade Commission will be watching.

Following an investigation requested by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the FTC has settled with publisher Take Two Interactive over hidden sexual content in the franchise’s most recent installment, “San Andreas.”

Agency alleged that Take Two and its subsid, Rockstar Games, deceived consumers by shipping an early version of “San Andreas” with a patch called “Hot Coffee” that, when downloaded, opened a scene in the game that depicts oral sex.

After initially claiming innocence, Take Two last summer agreed to let the game be rerated from mature to adults only and shipped future versions without the sex scene. It has also made a downloadable fix that eliminates the sexual content.

It won’t face any punishment from the FTC over that fracas. However, as part of the consent agreement, Take Two has pledged not to misrepresent any adult content to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which rates games, or consumers. Any future violations would result in fines of $11,000 per infraction.

It’s not clear if a judge would apply that fine to each overall infraction or to each copy of a game sold — meaning a potentially multimillion-dollar fine.

Take Two recently got in trouble again when the ESRB rerated its latest hit game, “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” from teen to mature after it found a locked-out “skin” that, if accessed with a third-party modification, let gamers turn female characters topless on the PC version. FTC settlement, however, applies only to future infractions.

Settlement comes amid a growing mood on Capitol Hill to regulate vidgame content. Late last year, Clinton and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) introduced a bill that would ban sales of games rated M and AO to children under 17. Several state governments have passed or attempted to pass similar legislation, but these laws have been stuck down by courts on First Amendment grounds. But such efforts continue.

Clinton has been particularly vocal about the effects of entertainment media on children, emphasizing that not enough is known on the subject.

She has repeatedly called — as recently as Wednesday — for more expansive research on the possible negative behavioral or psychological impact that media, especially vidgames, may have on kids. Earlier this year she sponsored a bill that would provide federal funding for such research. A Senate committee passed it, but the full Senate has yet to take it up.

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