In an official statement and subsequent press call attended by Gamasutra, ESRB president Patricia Vance clarified her position on the recently-revealed Manhunt 2 'unblurring' hack, stating that while the content was "unintended and unauthorized," the publisher is not to blame, and the game won't be re-rated from its current M rating.
Take-Two recently confirmed that the content in question, which edits certain data from the game's code to 'unblur' and reveal some of the so-called "execution kills," does exist, and that the hack, which originally circulated via online message boards, is verifiable.
The ESRB issued a statement that said, in part: "We have investigated the matter and concluded that unauthorized versions of the game have been released on the Internet along with instructions on how to modify the code to remove the special effects.
Once numerous changes to the game's code have been made and other unauthorized software programs have been downloaded to the hardware device which circumvent security controls that prevent unauthorized games from being played on that hardware, a player can view unobscured versions of certain violent acts in the game.
Contrary to some reports, however, we do not believe these modifications fully restore the product to the version that originally received an AO rating, nor is this a matter of unlocking content.
Our investigation indicates that the game's publisher disclosed to the ESRB all pertinent content in the authorized Mature-rated version of Manhunt 2 now available in stores, and complied with our guidelines on full disclosure of content."
Some speculation surrounding the incident raised parallels between the Manhunt 2 exploit and the now-infamous Hot Coffee modification to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, that enabled sexual content previously concealed from the ESRB. But Vance was clear on the ESRB's position that this is an entirely different scenario:
"With Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the Hot Coffee situation, it involved a scene that was fully rendered in an unmodified form on the disc. In other words, the modification didn't alter the content, merely unlocked it. Secondly, that content had previously not been disclosed to the ESRB during the rating process, and thirdly, the modification was easily accessible to all owners of the PC version of the game."
The ESRB also addressed the concept of parallels between this situation and one involving The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in which what it called "extensive amounts of fully rendered and previously undisclosed blood and gore in the game" were discovered after its release, along with a modification that enabled partial nudity. The statement explained the difference:
"Conversely, with Manhunt 2, a) the content in question was previously disclosed to the ESRB, b) the content is being modified by removing the obscuring blur effect that was programmed as part of the game, and c) unauthorized versions of software and/or hardware are required to play the modified content."
[UPDATE: In a phone conference call with the press held alongside the statement, Vance suggested that the GTA controversy was a different circumstance from the present Manhunt 2 issue, explaining: "The content was previously disclosed to ESRB... furthermore, unauthorized versions of software and or hardware are required to play the modified content. So it's quite different."
She continued, "I can tell you that most software and hardware is vulnerable to hacking, whether you... make attempts to make it secure, inevitably it's vulnerable, and that's unfortunate."
She also explained the content in question, clarifying, "The content is part of the gameplay mechanic, the kills and executions. It is part of the content they took measures to put effects on, just like all kinds of other elements of gameplay have effects on them. Movies have effects. It's not unusual to have special effects applied to entire content, so that was the depiction was programmed into the game, and then what the hack did was removed elements of it that frankly were obviously unintended and unauthorized."
As to whether the ESRB was aware that this content was glossed with an "effect" and not deleted entirely, Vance explained, "It's not unusual for companies to resubmit games that have been modified to us once they've received a rating they don't want to publish with. So it's not unusual that these modifications are made. We make assumptions that those mods that are being made are as secure - that companies have taken reasonable measures to secure those modifications can't be reverted. And we made that assumption in this case."
Asked whether the ESRB would alter its guidelines in the future to require the outright removal or full re-rendering of content that isn't intended to be viewed, Vance didn't specify, but she clarified the ratings organization's position, explaining, "I think from our standpoint, we want to make sure that the consumer's educated about content submitted to us and that is on the disc, that they be informed about being able to make an appropriate decision for their families, and that they be informed about the risks of playing games online and downloading software, authorized or not."
She continued, "I think it's about education, but I don't think there's much the ESRB can do to stop games being modified. The hacker community is not huge, but it's very active and sophisticated... I think no matter what measures you take, it seems that hackers will find ways to get into content and modify it, and we're not security police here; we're here to inform consumers about content. We put the responsibility on publishers to create code and program the game so that they operate effectively, and make sure consumers are informed about games. In this case the ESRB should not be held responsible, and I don't know how you can hold the publisher responsible as well."]
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