Australian watchdog bans Grand Theft Auto 3

Games distributor Take 2 Interactive Software Pty. Ltd. has lost its fight to keep one of its most anticipated titles, Grand Theft Auto 3, on retail shelves, after Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) refused classification of the game.

It is now illegal for retailers to sell the game. Stores that ignore the order face prosecution under their state or territory law. Take 2 Interactive last week issued an e-mail to all its resellers advising that the game must be removed from retail shelves, pending an appeal to the OFLC. In light of yesterday’s decision, the distributor must now go back to the drawing board and remove any scenes the OFLC deems unsuitable.

The decision comes on the heels of an apparent crackdown on games classification by the OFLC. Last week, Ubi Soft also issued a recall to retailers, after it was found the classification process for its titles Ghost Recon and Combat Zone had not been completed to the OFLC’s satisfaction. The games were back on shelves within 48 hours.

The Grand Theft Auto scene in question allows players to purchase the services of a prostitute. Although no explicit footage is shown, players can then shoot the character. The action is a side issue that does not play a part in the overall outcome of the game but concerns have been raised over the link between sex and violence.

Take 2 Interactive managing director James Ellingford said the industry generally had a good relationship with the OFLC, but was baffled by the office’s decision.

“They are just following guidelines and have been nothing but supportive to the industry as a whole,” he said. “But this game sets a new standard in that it gives gamers total freedom. If it was a mission game, that would be different, but this is not a mission.”

Take 2 Interactive will now have to remove the offending scene from the title in order to achieve classification, a time-consuming process with Christmas just around the corner.

The situation has highlighted the need for a wider ratings range in games, as well as the issue of getting games to market in a timely fashion. Although it is an offence to sell games that have not been classified or have incorrect marking, most distributors ship to retailers before classification in order to get the product to market as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the OFLC is satisfied that retailers have removed GTA3 stock.

“I have been assured by the distributor that all stock will be recalled,” said OFLC director Des Clarke. “Community liaison officers have also been visiting retailers to let them know of the substantial penalties involved in selling stock that has been refused classification.”