Friday, May 5, 2006

To mod, or not to mod... (Op/ed)

About two months ago Bethesda Softworks, a PC gaming company, released the latest in a series of games entitled Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Oblivion is a first-person role playing game where the characters that you have to select from are of a sci-fi or "fantasy" nature.
Now, whenever a new game is developed, whether it is for the PC, MAC, Xbox or whatever, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (or ESRB) is supposed to review the content of the game and give it a rating.  These ratings are meant to inform the consumer of the audience that is best suited for the content.  They range from Early Childhood (EC) to Adult (A).
When Bethesda Softworks released Oblivion, the ESRB had given the game a Teen (T) rating for violence and suggestive themes.  (This "Teen" rating is similar to the PG-13 rating you might see at the movies.)  So they printed millions of boxes, the thing went on sale and all was good in the world... until last week.
Last week the ESRB got wind of someone seeing a topless female character in the game.  Upon further investigation this was only made possible by a mod that a third-party had created.  (A "mod" is a gaming term which means modification.)  But because there is now nudity in the game the ESRB changed their rating of the game to Mature (M). 
The gaming company never intended for topless women to be running around in the game.  If you go out and purchase Oblivion off the shelf, it does not contain any nude characters.  In order for someone to see the nude characters, he/she would have to go download and install the mod that contains the modified artwork for the characters.
The ability to modify games and software is nothing new.  In fact, most games that are rated "Teen" have mods that other people have created that you can add to your copy of the game now.  Have you ever used a macro in Word?  That is nothing less than adding functionality that didn't already exist to a software package... the same as these gaming mods.  If I were to go create a macro in Word that would display a pinup girl whenever I hit CTRL-K, would the ESRB give Microsoft Word a Mature rating?  Ha!  I think not.
Bethesda Softworks replied to the ESRB's new ruling with the following statement:

There is no nudity in Oblivion without a third party modification.  In the PC version of the game only – this doesn’t apply to the Xbox 360 version – some modders have used a third party tool to hack into and modify an art archive file to make it possible to create a mesh for a partially nude (topless) female that they add into the game.  Bethesda didn’t create a game with nudity and does not intend that nudity appear in Oblivion.  There is no nude female character in a section of the game that can be “unlocked.”  Bethesda can not control tampering with Oblivion by third parties.  Bethesda is taking steps to ensure that modders can not continue to hack into Oblivion’s art archives to create partially nude figures.
The ESRB should stick to the content of the game in question when they review it and rate it.  Consumers will continually modify games and other software to better fit thier own needs and desires and this type of user interaction can not be anticipated.
That's my 2 bits worth.