App Store Guidelines Stifle Development of Serious Games

App StoreRecently, there’s been some confusion over what is and is not allowed in Apple’s App Store according to its guidelines, with the fallout particularly affecting comics apps. French digital comics platform Izneo removed over half of their 4,000 titles after Apple notified them about unspecified objectionable content. comiXology chose not to include Saga #12 in their app based on their interpretation of Apple’s vague content guidelines. But there’s another category of app that often inadvertently runs up against the guidelines: “serious games,” which grapple with actual current events and issues.

Last week, Tracey Lien of Polygon wrote an in-depth analysis of a few games that have been removed from the App Store or could not get approval at all, despite modifications from developers who were trying in good faith to observe the guidelines. The apps include Phone Story, from Molleindustria; In A Permanent Save State, from independent developer Benjamin Poynter; Endgame: Syria, from GameTheNews; and Smuggle Truck, from Owlchemy Labs. The first two deal with the conditions in the Chinese factories where mobile devices are manufactured for Apple and other companies. Endgame: Syria asks players to consider the possible outcomes of choices made during that country’s civil war. Finally, Smuggle Truck is a satirical depiction of immigration into the United States, borne of Owlchemy developers’ frustration with the arduous process of obtaining a skilled worker visa for a potential co-worker from overseas.

One of the obstacles for serious games in the App Store is Apple’s outdated opinion of what a game can be — a phenomenon that should be familiar to fans of comics and graphic novels, which also can come under fire when they grapple with nuanced real-world issues. From the App Store guidelines:

We view Apps [as] different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.

Of course, Apple is a private company and can disallow whatever it likes. But the affected developers say that the guidelines seem to be unevenly applied, possibly to exclude any content that’s even mildly controversial. Tomas Rawlings, developer of Endgame: Syria, notes:

The guideline we broke was about how you’re not allowed to make apps that make specific groups [such as the Assad regime] the enemy, but that’s open to interpretation. You can see for example that an app about the second World War with Nazis as the enemy could theoretically be rejected, but some of those games are passed. So I thought [Apple] might use nuance in judging that, but as it happened, they didn’t.

Even after Rawlings removed all references to specific groups of people and resubmitted the game for approval, Apple again rejected it while citing the same guideline. Ultimately he completely fictionalized it as Endgame: Eurasia, which is now for sale in the App Store.

Surprisingly, Phone Story and In A Permanent Save State, which criticize Apple and its suppliers, were both initially approved — but each was pulled from the App Store within hours of going live. One of the cited reasons for removing Phone Story was “excessively objectionable or crude content,” which developer Paolo Pedercini points out is highly subjective. He suspects Apple is making a concerted effort to keep game apps light and fluffy:

To me, what [Apple] is trying to do is create a sort of exception to the concept of software. They are renaming software as apps. The app is a kind of self-contained software, and one thing they want to do besides pushing the prices down and making it as modular and as easy to consume as possible is essentially deny the app a cultural status.

They are saying books and music — we will never censor those because they’re culture. But the app is something different. The app is more akin to a screwdriver or a spoon or a chainsaw. It’s not something that’s supposed to produce meaning. And that, to me, is the main problem of what they’re trying to do. That is something that needs to be challenged and discussed.

Unlike with books and music, mobile app developers currently have very few distribution outlets available to them. Granted, Google’s Android Marketplace has much more relaxed guidelines than the App Store — but owners of Apple devices tend to download many more apps than Android users, so developers who only release their games for Android miss out on a lot of potential business. Game developer and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ian Bogost says that this limited market leads to a few corporations having too much control over our culture:

[T]he objection that Apple should be able to do whatever it wants because it’s a corporate sandbox — that’s sort of exactly the problem to oppose….The problem is we’re now living in an era in which there are fewer and fewer ways to create and disseminate ideas, and more and more of them are under the direct control of a small number of large companies.

Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union also points out that while Apple is free to set its own policies, having fewer restrictions on expression in the App Store would likely be beneficial to the company in the long run:

It would be much better if Apple would protect free speech within its private forum. For one thing, when you start to act as a censor, you quickly get entrapped. Every time something comes up that people find ‘controversial,’ you’re going to get attacked, and every time you don’t allow something that people think you should allow, you’re going to get attacked. And of course, line-drawing and censorship decisions are always complicated and it’s very difficult to be consistent. It ends up seeming arbitrary and capricious.

There’s much more in Lien’s full article at Polygon — check it out here.

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.