I just killed 93 people.

Before you judge me, consider that six of them were criminals, and 14 were gang members. Also consider the price I had to pay: Twelve visits to the hospital and five shorts stays at the local jail. Finally, consider that all these events didn’t really happen, and only took place in a video game.

Yes, fortunately, my life of crime has thus far been limited to the controlled mayhem of Grand Theft Auto III for the Playstation 2 game console. Unfortunately, there are people out there who want to stop me and others like me from playing this game as they would if the crimes were real.

Some background: Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is Rockstar Games’ latest entry into its series of games that let you play a freelance hit man of sorts. The game centers on your unnamed character, who goes underground after being set up by his girlfriend and proceeds to perform odd jobs for Liberty City’s local crime bosses and crooked cops. The games advanced 3D graphics, quality storyline and voice acting, and unmistakable sense of style have earned it consideration as Game of the Year by many trade publications. All of which makes it harder to stomach that Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has effectively banned the game in that country.

The OFLC offers four possible ratings for computer and video games, the highest of which (the MA-15+ rating) restricts play and access to those 15 years and older. If none of these ratings is suitable for a game, the OFLC can ‘refuse classification’, as it did with GTA3, and give the Australian government the authority to remove the game from store shelves. According to the OFLC’s guidelines, games can be refused classification for reasons including nudity, bestiality, promotion of pedophilia, or, in the case of GTA3, the relatively minor problem of “excessive and serious violence.” (Incidentally, the American Entertainment Software Ratings Board gave GTA3 a Mature rating, for 17 years and older).

The OFLC is worried that, if the game were given the maximum MA-15+ rating, it would be accessible to 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old game players who do not have the mature perspective that the game requires. Never mind those game players 18 and over, who, as a group, make up seventy percent of the computer game playing population according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Are the interests of these game players trumped by the minority of immature gamers who would have access to the game under an MA-15+ rating?

The OFLC obviously thinks so. Defending its decision in a Classification Review Board report, the OFLC cites a rule from their Computer Game Classification Guidelines (CGCG) which states that “minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.” The report also mentions, and then seems to quickly forget, another guideline from the same section of the CGCG which states that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want.” An outright ban of the game obviously fulfills the former guideline, while failing to address the latter at all.

The same report includes a recommendation that classifications for video games “be applied more strictly than those for the classification of film and Videotape,” because “their ‘interactive nature’, may have greater impact, and therefore greater potential for harm or detriment, on young minds than film and videotape.” Despite this fact, the OFLC offers fewer possible ratings for computer games than for films (Four compared to six) and the CGCG is less clear on how these ratings should be assigned than the corresponding film guidelines.

Outside of these self-contradictions, the OFLC guidelines seem to try to presume what sort of content a reasonable adult would and would not want to see. The Classification Review Board report asserts that “the impact of the violence [in GTA3] goes beyond that which most people would consider reasonable,” citing a scene which contains a “person splitting in half and transforming into a puddle of blood.” The report states that this scene “goes beyond high-level violence, and could be described as excessive and serious violence.” I agree that minors should be prevented from seeing such extreme violence, but as an adult, I would like to be able to decide for myself what constitutes “excessive and serious violence,” without the government deciding for me. If I lived in Australia, this would not be possible.

The report does offer some hope, however. In the final line before the summary, the Classification Review Board proposes that “the Ministers responsible would give consideration to an R rating [restricted to those 18 and over] for computer games, as is available in films and videotapes, so that adults may see and hear and play what they want – legally.” Until then, I’ll be glad I live in a country where I can gun down as many virtual gang members as I want without the government trying to stop me.

GameSpot: Playstation 2 Reviews: Grand Theft Auto III Review

WomenGamers.com: Video Gaming: Myths and Facts

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Classification Review Board: 40th Meeting Notes

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Guidelines for Computer Game Classification