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July 22, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Here's our lineup for this third week of July:

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Videogames turning point: The mod that made it happen

Game mods aren't inherently bad. But "Hot Coffee" - the one in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, last year's biggest-selling videogame - turned out to be one of those tipping points Malcolm Gladwell described in his best-seller a few years ago.

The sexually explicit mini-game that was "unlocked" by a mod (a computer-code modification) written and put on the Net by a "modder" in the Netherlands was indeed in the game itself, the Entertainment Software Rating Board announced this week, as it upped San Andreas's rating from "M" (for Mature/17+) to "AO" (Adults Only/18+). That led to 1) giant retailers Wal-Mart (its biggest outlet), Target, and Best Buy pulling the game from their shelves, 2) San Andreas's creator Rockstar Games promising to "secure" and reissue the game so it could get that M rating (and shelf space) back, 3) parent company Take Two Interactive's shares dropping 11%, 4) and thousands of news articles about all this in mainstream and online media outlets all over the world.

Jerald Block, dad, MD, and CEO of SMARTguard Software (which makes WallFly parental-control software for PC games) saw it coming. He emailed me a whole week ago saying (don't miss his last two paragraphs):

"This was going to happen; it was just a question of when." Then he explained why: because modders are always looking for modmaking opportunities in games, and someone was bound to exploit one in one of the world's most popular videogame.

"Modders will, at a minimum, look at the sound files on a disk to see if they're X-rated and suggestive. The sound files would be enough to provoke a wider search for the associated video or game files. The modder did what modders do and to lay blame on him [Patrick Wildenborg in the Netherlands], as Take Two is [was last week] trying, is wrong"

Dr. Block goes on to suggest where changes need to be made.

"This incident is interesting on several other levels. First, it is clear the ESRB had no way to know of the code. Somehow, however, they are being blamed by lawmakers. This seems odd to me.

"Another interesting angle is that game manufacturers and programmers often hide content in their games, exposing it only on a certain date or when some cryptic phrase is typed in. Clearly, if the content is programmed into the game, the game producer should be held responsible and should declare the content to the ESRB, as required.

"But with the Hot Coffee sequence, technically, Take Two [the parent company of San Andreas's creator, Rockstar Games] can say they disabled the content. They could have deleted the files, but they chose to code it so it was never actually activated - it was there but not invoked. Its discovery was inevitable.... I believe Take Two bears substantial responsibility for the modification to their own program.

"Unless game companies are held accountable, we should expect other potentially objectionable content slipped into games in a similar way, with "plausible deniability." Generally, mods sell more units. When they're sexually explicit, all the better - sex sells to adolescent and young adult males. Already, one obscure site showing a movie of the content has scored well over 100,000 hits. Another site indicates 50,000+ downloads of the Hot Coffee mod.

"Lastly, if they wish to, most kids can easily download porn movies, showing the real thing in a lot more detail. They don't need to go to such mods - they just need to use P2P or adult Web sites. Parents may think they have closed these holes but, almost certainly, children can circumvent the barriers.

"The real battle is in giving parents the tools and information to set policy so that kids know when they are 'outside' the fence. If corporations blur that line by circumventing the ESRB and its labeling policies, we should all be concerned."

So where does this turning point take us? Now that a game company has actually lost share value rather than gained marketing mileage from a popular mod, the industry just may take more of the responsibility Dr. Block is talking about. Gamemakers may be more careful about what code they secretly leave in their games or about disclosing to the ESRB what content's really in them. Sen. Hillary Clinton's promised legislation toward keeping adult game content "out of the hands of children" may mean that 1) people under 17 won't be able to buy M-rated games on their own, 2) game ratings will be much more on parents' radar screens, and 3) all the work of policymakers and advocates in a county, at least six states, and the District of Columbia may actually reduce sales of X-rated games to kids. No matter what, the snowball is rolling, people are thinking, and all this media attention is good!

Related links

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Web News Briefs

  1. Teen blog fuels social debate

    It seems to be teen-blog theme week again. This story led the New York Times's "Fashion & Styles" section yesterday. It's about 16-year-old Zach in Memphis, who wrote a few entries in his blog about being sent by his parents to "Refuge," the youth version of "Love in Action" - according to the Times, "one of 120 programs nationwide listed by Exodus International, which bills itself as the largest information and referral network for what is known among fundamentalist Christians as the 'ex-gay' movement." Zach's parents, he said in his blog, believed there was "something psychologically wrong with me" and they'd "raised him wrong." But what's pertinent to Net Family News is the impact of these few entries in a teenager's blog. Moving beyond his peers (his blog links to 213 friends' blogs), they "grabbed the attention of both gay activists and fundamentalist Christians around the world," the Times reports. They've been "forwarded on the Internet over and over, inspiring online debates, news articles, sidewalk protests and an investigation into Love in Action by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services in response to a child abuse allegation [later dropped because the allegation proved unfounded]." Not to mention 1,700 responses in Zach's blog to his last post before entering the program, the Times adds. Then there was this piece in the same Styles section (very) basically suggesting that nannies better be very careful about what they blog!

  2.'s new parent

    MySpace, one of teenagers' favorite blogging services, is going corporate. News Corp., which is acquiring MySpace's parent, Intermix, will be folding the service "into its newly formed Fox Interactive Media unit," MarketWatch reports. "If next-generation media is about user-generated content, then may be the perfect centerpiece for tomorrow's media conglomerates. At least that seems to be the thinking behind News Corp.'s $580 million cash purchase of Intermix," according to another MarketWatch report. MySpace, the most prominent of Intermix's 30-odd Web sites, says it gets about 2 million registered users a month, and it targets 16-to-34-year-olds. What this may eventually mean to online families is better privacy protection for the underage segment of that target market - MySpace may eventually look more like MSN Spaces, AOL's RED Blogs, or Yahoo 360 in offering levels of privacy (for more on this, see "Do young bloggers care about privacy?" and this on RED Blogs).

    Let's hope, also very popular among teens, somehow becomes more accountable. One family recently emailed me about how they'd tried to contact Xanga about getting some personal info removed from their 7th-grader's blog and simply couldn't get a response. Here's a recent thoughtful article in the York [Penn.] Daily Record on teen blogs.

  3. The Matthews family's Net rules

    The rules for Net users in the household of commentator and single mom Laura Matthews are at the bottom of her piece in the Christian Science Monitor, and they're good and geared to age and responsibility levels. "The Internet is a virtual reference library, a 24/7 guidance counselor, and the most portable locker, backpack, and notebook imaginable," Laura writes, and all this outweighs the Net's risks, as far as she's concerned. Like any smart parent, she's big on teaching her children about taking responsibility for their actions, online or off, and has found this much more effective in keeping them and family privacy safe than scaring them. "I taught them that I'm using the computer for family record-keeping. When my kids realized they could harm the family with naive downloading or unguarded instant messaging, they more readily accepted that it's my responsibility to determine how the computer is used. This argument had more impact on them than cautioning about predators did." There's also some rare positive commentary on the impact of blogging on teenagers - don't miss it.

  4. Legal music downloads tripled the first half of this year, over the same period in 2004, according to the London-based International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI, the umbrella for the Recording Industry Association of America and other such organizations). That's 180 million legal tunes downloaded, up from 57 million the year before, the Associated Press reports. The reason the IFPI gives? Broadband - the rapidly increasing number of people accessing the Net with high-speed connections. Meanwhile, file-sharing's down. The IFPI said there was "just a 3 percent increase in illegal file-sharing to 900 million in July, from 870 million at the start of the year." The IFPI also reports that there are now more than 300 digital sites available worldwide, "three times the number a year ago, and 2.2 million people now subscribe to digital services, compared to 1.5 million in January." See also "File-sharing realities for families."

  5. IM 'popularity contest'

    Heard of Your favorite teenager probably has (especially if s/he's an AIM user). It's billed as such, but it's hardly a real personality contest. It's a Web site on top of a bunch of techie algorithms that basically look at how many AIM buddy lists you're on (so you can still be popular and use MSN or Yahoo Messenger, for Pete's sake!). Here's how AIMFight describes itself. The Washington Post, though calling it a "self-esteem check," does provide some context: "Instant messaging, you will know, is the way tens of millions of Americans connect with their buddies faster than email. Beginning this week, the 50 million users of AIM, America Online's version of instant messaging - including nearly half of all Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 - could perform a self-esteem check by visiting" The "fight" part is just a traffic-raising way to get the visitor to type his or her screenname into one box and that of a friend or rival into another, click, and find out who's on more buddy lists. It's good fun, but let's hope teenagers (or adults) don't read to much into the results!

  6. Legal tunes for CA students

    Some 600,000 university students in California will soon be able to exercise the legal option for their on-campus movie and music consumption. The 13-campus University of California system and the 23-campus California State system announced an agreement with Englewood, Colo.-based Cdigix Inc. that gives administrators on all the campuses the opportunity to provide legal music and film downloading, the Los Angeles Times reports. It's "the largest [such agreement] since campuses across the country began searching two years ago for alternatives to the illegal peer-to-peer downloading that clogged their computer networks and put students in legal jeopardy." Cdigix charges $3/mo. for music and $5.99 for video programming. "Individual campuses will decide whether to subsidize the services through student fees, as is done at some schools," according to the Times. Across the Pacific, 60 Korean record labels are preparing to sue "4,000 Internet users who illegally distributed or used music files," the Korea Times reports. (Thanks to BNA Internet Law for pointing this news out.) For more on legal vs. illegal digital music, see "File-sharing realities for families."

  7. 'iTunes' AIM worm

    It's unlikely to turn the family PC into a zombie, but it's the kind of malware that can. CNET describes "a new instant messaging worm that masquerades as Apple Computer's iTunes application and drops adware on infected Windows PCs has been found." It comes as a link in a message that reads: "This picture never gets old." If you click on it, it looks like you're installing "itunes.exe." What it really does is download and install four adware applications - "software that displays pop-up advertising on a computer screen," CNET explains. It's not spreading that rapidly, so nothing to lose sleep over, but a good reminder for everyone in the family never to click on a link, even if it appears to be from a friend, without first opening a new window and asking that friend if s/he sent it. Also, keep that anti-virus software up-to-date! See also "Tips from a tech-savvy dad: IM precautions."

  8. 9-year-old girl a Microsoft pro

    Now 10, Arfa Karim of Multan, Pakistan, was 9 when she became a "Microsoft Certified Professional," one of the world's youngest (Indian Mridul Seth was 8 when he was certified last November), CNET reports. Arfa "met with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates last week - an experience she later described as second only to visiting Disneyland." Getting MS-certified means reaching proficiency in technologies such as .Net, Visual Studio 6.0, and Windows Server 2003, CNET adds. Apparently Arfa's dad bought her a computer so she could use email, and the rest was history. Watch out, America, ZDNET UK reports that various nations are vying "to come up with the youngest qualified computer specialist." In the US, technology teachers just formed the Computer Science Teachers Association and are calling on education departments and school districts to include technology in school curricula - see "Tech teachers: Help kids compete."

  9. Dot-mobi: Web on phones

    Further evidence the Net's soon to be more mobile than fixed: the new dot-mobi address. Soon we'll be able to tell what Web sites are specifically designed for cellphone screens, CNET reports, referring to ICANN's approval of the top-level domain (TLD) at its meeting in Luxembourg last week. "The first Web sites for mobile devices, which will be fit for a small screen and limited memory and bandwidth, will be ready in 2006. Mobile Web services will also use geographic information to take advantage of the changing location of a mobile device, for instance to find the nearest hospital," CNET adds. Other new TLDs include .eu, .travel, .jobs, and .xxx (for more on .xxx, see "Net to have red-light district").

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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