E-books are one form of new media commonly associated with mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, but another—arguably, one more unique to them—is video games. But politically topical games have always been a hot button issue with Apple’s iOS app store, which is prone to reject them on the slightest flimsy excuse. Polygon has an interesting feature covering the difficulties of some such studios to get their games approved.
While I would quibble a bit with Polygon’s terminology referring to politically-topical games as “serious” games—as if non-political games can’t have serious stories—I would tend to agree with its point that Apple makes it really hard for that kind of game to make it into its app store with any of its topicality intact. A game about Syria had to remove all references to real countries before it could be published, for example. And “Smuggle Truck,” a game originally meant as humorous commentary on how hard it was to get a green card for one of the developer’s programmers, had to be completely made over into a game about stuffed animals called “Snuggle Truck” before Apple would let it in.
To be fair, Apple is up front about this in its app store developer guidelines:
We view Apps 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.
(They view apps different, not differently? I guess this is what comes of “thinking different.”)
It goes on to talk about how apps need to be kid-friendly, and adds, “If your app is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps.” Sensitive much, Apple?
The Polygon article points out that, as a private publisher with its own platform, Apple technically does have the right to decide what content it will allow—unless it’s gotten to be so ubiquitous that it can be viewed as “a kind of public platform where speakers who appear on that platform have free speech rights.” But according to the ACLU’s senior analyst quoted for the story, at the moment Apple’s platform is legally closer to “private publisher” territory.
According to Ian Bogost, Georgia Institute of Technology professor and game designer, this shows a problem with the way that the distribution of digital media has become increasingly corporatized, with companies such as Apple and Amazon holding the keys to immensely popular platforms for game app or e-book distribution.
"So the 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. It’s like, yes, of course they can do what they want. That’s the problem. 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."
The article then suggests Apple might be ripe for antitrust investigation, throwing in a (largely gratuitous, since the issues are unrelated) mention of the DoJ e-book antitrust suit and suggesting that if developers feel Apple has unfairly rejected their app, they should contact whoever deals with questions of fair competition in their area. It draws comparison to the ‘90s, when Microsoft was sued for unfair competition in bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. (Of course, what it doesn’t say is that Microsoft is still permitted to bundle IE with Windows, so it doesn’t seem like that legal battle changed much.)
In the end, most of the developers either make the necessary changes to put their games on iOS, release them to other platforms like Android, or both. Most developers aren’t interested in getting involved in protracted and costly legal battles; they just want to sell their games.
One developer is quoted to suggest that sooner or later, people are going to get around to wondering why Apple isn’t allowing them to see certain games, but I strongly suspect that’s just wishful thinking. If they can’t see these forbidden games, because they don’t make it to the store, most people aren’t even going to know what they’re missing. I would tend to suspect that a lot of people don’t go looking for politically-topical games—that’s the whole point of such games, to try to show up out of nowhere and get people thinking about issues they might not otherwise have considered.
Apple’s app approval apparatus has long had this kind of issue—not just for political games, but for e-book apps that featured questionable content. Who can forget the app store famously rejecting a novel by David Carnoy for having dirty words in it, or temporarily rejecting an e-book app because it could display the Kama Sutra, or even retroactively rejecting an 8-million-times-downloaded Kama Sutra app for no good reason at all? Apple has even been known to make some controversial decisions when it comes to e-books, which it supposedly doesn’t curate—rejecting a book by Seth Godin because it had links to Amazon listings in it. It will probably take another antitrust lawsuit to make all this go away—if even that will work.
Maybe someday Apple will change its mind about app curation. For now, it seems to be just another face of the lack of respect as a medium video games get these days. (As aptly explicated in Apple’s “write a book” guideline.)