When the iPhone launched in 2007, it changed the video game landscape in a way that no one could have predicted. Where gaming was once confined to PCs and consoles, millions of people — self-identified gamers or not — now had a device in their hands that could play games. Anyone — as long as they had the programming and design savvy — could make a video game and distribute it to millions of potential players. Developers didn't need big teams with even bigger budgets to be successful; some of the best-selling games on the platform were made by obscure studios or one-person teams. It seemed like a video game-making democracy had been reached.
In the years since the device's launch, the mobile app market has become saturated with games. The iTunes App Store charts are increasingly dominated by established studios, from large publishers like Disney and Electronic Arts to independent studios that experienced freakish success on the App Store like Rovio (Angry Birds) and HalfBrick (Fruit Ninja) and have been on a roll ever since. It's a tougher market to be in, but the widely held belief is any developer, no matter how big or small, can still participate.
Except, that isn't true.
In recent years, a number of "serious games" (games designed for a primary purpose other than to entertain) have been removed or outright rejected from Apple's App Store for falling foul of its guidelines — guidelines that the developers we spoke to described as vague and subjectively applied. There's EndGame: Syria — a trading card game that explores the conflict in Syria. There's Sweatshop HD — the cartoonish management game where players operate a sweatshop. There's also In A Permanent Save State and Phone Story — two stylized games about the Foxconn suicides. And these are just some of the more high-profile bans.
Most people who use iOS devices aren't privy to Apple's curation process for its App Store, and very few are aware of the rejections that have taken place. The developers Polygon spoke to believe that the removal of serious games from the App Store is an unfair act of censorship, of sanitizing the App Store and denying video games their cultural status as a medium that can tackle serious issues. They believe it needs to change. And they're not alone.
Apple's guidelines for app developers seem straightforward on the surface. There are rules against creating apps that contain pornographic content and anything that falls in the category of hate speech, such as defamatory or mean-spirited games, or anything likely to expose a group to harm or violence. While most video games submitted to the App Store steer so far from these areas that the guidelines are a non-issue, serious games are increasingly being caught in the net.
Tomas Rawlings is a developer at GameTheNews, an independent studio that covers global events as games. The studio wants to be known for its ability to respond to breaking news with games that have their own playable twists, but it is perhaps better known for the numerous times Apple rejected its trading card game app, Endgame: Syria.
"I'd been following the news and the seed of the game actually came from when I was watching some pundits debate whether or not the West should arm Syria, and they were speculating all the possible outcomes," Rawlings told Polygon. "That's when it struck me that, actually, that non-linear scenario with multiple outcomes could be well-expressed in a game. A game is a good way to express that because, as the user, I can make that decision, see the outcome, then make the other decision and see the outcome of that."
He set out to make Endgame: Syria, a trading card game where players explore the politics and military side of the conflict in Syria by deciding what political paths to choose and which military units to deploy, all while maintaining support from the people. If support is lost on either side, the game is over. The game can also end in a peace deal between both sides.
Apple rejected the game.
Rawlings told Polygon that his initial correspondence with Apple had a degree of personalization to it. He received an email stating the guideline the game had broken, along with three screenshots that illustrated the violations. According to the email, Apple found that the app "contain[ed] content or features that include people from a specific race, culture, government, corporation, or other real entity as enemies in the context of the game, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.
"Specifically, we noticed your app includes a simulation with specific targeted enemies within Syria."
The screenshots included showed the game referencing the Assad Regime, Palestinian groups and militia groups.
"That kind of gave us the clear signal that, look, you can't mention these groups, you need to get rid of those references," Rawlings said. "The guideline we broke was about how you're not allowed to make apps that make specific groups 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 they might use nuance in judging that, but as it happened, they didn't."
Rawlings responded to the rejection by going through the game and removing every reference to any group. Hezbollah became a "militant group", Palestinians became "refugees". The game was now a more generic simulation of an unspecified military and political conflict. It was resubmitted. Apple rejected it a second time, citing the same guidelines, but this time it did not provide any screenshots or further explanation.
Sweatshop HD was removed Apple's store because it was uncomfortable with the recreation of a sweatshop
Following a phone conversation with an Apple employee who suggested that they reword the actual App Store text to make clear what the game was about, they submitted the game a third time and had it rejected again. Earlier this year, Rawlings appealed the third rejection, but the appeal was also rejected. At this point, the game referenced nations like the U.S., U.K., Syria and Iran, but did not reference any groups. The guidelines only specified that groups were not to be referenced — there was nothing about not being able to reference nations.
"The same thing happened — they gave us the guideline we broke, then nothing else. There was no additional information," Rawlings said.
"I get what Apple is trying to do with that," he said. "You don't want somebody producing something that can be used as either an overt or covert sexist, misogynist or some kind of hate-type application, and I would completely support them not wanting that on their system.
"But we're arguing there's a bit more granularity here. This isn't about saying you must hate these groups. This is about saying we want you to understand what's going on."
Endgame: Syria was released on Android, where guidelines are much more relaxed and the market is less regulated, and a heavily modified version of Endgame Syria — Endgame: Eurasia (a reference to George Orwell's 1984) — was successfully passed on the iOS App Store. Unfortunately, much of the meaning and original intention of Endgame: Syria has been lost as a result.
"I'm finding it very frustrating because we're obviously not doing the sort of thing I imagine those guidelines are there to stop," Rawlings said. "We're not doing any unfair, nasty targeting. We're not looking at any of that. Yet, we're being caught in the same net designed to stop that. It makes me wonder if Apple is just shying away from anything that's even a little bit controversial. And if you're going to make serious games, that's a huge problem."
In 2010, Foxconn — a large contracting manufacturer with clients like Apple, HP, Dell, Motorola and Sony — reported 18 suicide attempts from its employees. The suicide attempts, which led to 14 deaths, were believed to be the result of the employees working more than 72 hours without breaks in inhumane conditions and for low pay.
Two games were made about the issue. Unlike Endgame: Syria, both were approved by Apple and were available on the Apple App Store for download. But both were removed shortly after.
Phone Story was one of the games. Developed by Molleindustria, the game consists of four minigames that require players to complete activities like forcing children in the Third World to mine coltan and preventing the suicides at Foxconn.
Triptych of In A Permanent Save State
"It's very easy to get banned if you want to get banned, but with Phone Story, we weren't trying to mess with the guidelines," said the game's developer, Paolo Pedercini. "There are no explicitly graphic depictions, there are no depictions of pornography, there was no copyright infringement. The idea was to make a game that was actually compliant with the guidelines, and it was in fact compliant with the guidelines because it was approved."
Benjamin Poynter's In A Permanent Save State was the other game to tackle the Foxconn suicides. Instead of putting players in charge of Foxconn and giving them the ability to prevent the suicides, it takes a more fantasy/spiritual approach by allowing players to follow the narrative of seven of the deceased workers from the Foxconn factory through the afterlife, where each worker represents a certain stage of the afterlife in Chinese culture.
"What inspired me was finding the humanity in what was going on between Apple and Foxconn," Poynter said. "The iPhones that were being made here, they're beautiful devices. But I wanted to find the humanity behind it — what souls have been crushed to make them and what was the cost of creating this fantasy that a lot of us live in.
"I wanted to challenge where the devices that we cherish — the devices that we carry — where they come from. Ironically, the game seems to be a correct vessel for it, or at least I think so, because these workers are the very people who manufacture these fantasies. I believe that in death, these workers were not interested in aspects of reality or politics. They wanted to see their own dreams and fantasies come true, at an expensive cost."
In A Permanent Save State was removed from the Apple App Store two hours after it was approved and went live. Phone Story was removed after four hours on the App Store.
Poynter received his notice of the game's removal via email. He later received a phone call from an Apple representative who cited three reasons for the game's removal: 1) Casting a corporate or racial villain, 2) Pushing ethical boundaries and 3) Mean-spiritedness.
Pedercini's app removal came with four guideline violations: 1) Depicting violence or abuse of children, 2) Presenting excessively objectionable or crude content, 3) Including the ability to make donations through a paid app and 4) Collecting donations through a non-Safari website or SMS.
Pedercini told Polygon that the last two violations were technical and could have easily been fixed, but the first two were frustratingly vague.
"The violence and abuse of children is only in the first level and it's very abstract," he said. "You're not beating up children or anything, and you understand from the voiceover the context of what is happening. I asked the Apple representative how I was supposed to talk about violence or abuse of children with depicting it, and the guy was like, 'Oh, it's your business, really.'
"Another thing I asked for clarification for was the main leverage they had, which was 16.1 — excessively objectionable or crude content. So making a game about the Syrian uprising is objectionable, and it turns out making a game about the ghosts of factory workers navigating the afterlife is also objectionable.
"So they essentially reserve the right to decide case by case what they like and what they don't, so the guidelines are really just a way to guide you through what they tend to like, instead of being an ultimate document."
The experience many developers have had with Apple is it will not budge, even when a developer explains the intent of his or her game.
In the introduction of Apple's App Store guidelines, it explicitly states in the second paragraph: "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."
It continues: "We're really trying our best to create the best platform in the world for you to express your talents and make a living too. If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. Just like almost all of you are, too."
When we reached Apple on numerous occasions during the writing of this story, the company declined to comment.
The developers we spoke to said that these guidelines show a bias against video games and limit what games can be.
"To me, what [Apple] is trying to do is create a sort of exception to the concept of software," Phone Story developer Paolo Pedercini said. "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."
Polygon spoke to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about what rights developers have versus the rights of Apple as a privately-owned corporation. The ACLU's senior analyst, Jay Stanley said there are two ways to view a platform like the Apple App Store: one is as an independent publisher like the New York Times, which has the right to publish what it wants and to not publish what it doesn't, and the other is to look at it as a kind of public platform where speakers who appear on that platform have free speech rights.
"Clearly, as a legal matter at the current time, Apple's platform is closer to the first," Stanley said. "Legally, Apple is regarded more as a publisher, and they have the right to exclude what they want to exclude because it's a private platform."
And this is the bigger problem at play, according to a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, game designer and author of Persuasive Games The Expressive Power of Video Games, Ian Bogost. The real problem, he says, isn't Apple's guidelines — the real problem is how we've allowed a corporate-owned channel to dominate the distribution of software. What we should be worried about is the corporate ownership in control of a very popular, increasingly important distribution channel.
Speaking to Polygon, Bogost said that when we talk about books or films or paintings and photography, we have had and continue to have the ability to distribute these materials in a number of ways. But with the App Store, and increasingly with electronic books through networks like the Kindle and iBooks, we don't have that ability.
"We have a kind of one-way path through the bottleneck of corporate approval before we can distribute something with the iPhone or the iOS platform," Bogost said. "Even on the Mac now, because of the Mac App Store, you have to have a signed app or the operating system will say this file is dangerous because it isn't approved by Apple. That approval is less moral on their part than it is financial.
"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 notion of "Apple's rules, Apple's way" can be disempowering for many developers, but according to antitrust expert and a professor at the University of New South Wales, Michael Peters, there are government bodies looking out for content creators.
Antitrust laws exist to protect consumers from uncompetitive behavior from businesses and to prevent companies from monopolizing a market. In the U.S., Apple is currently going through a civil antitrust trial over claims it colluded with publishers to fix e-book prices, and in Australia it is currently under investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for uncompetitive behavior.
Top: Smuggle Truck / Bottom: Snuggle Truck
According to Peters, the "Apple's rules, Apple's way" mantra may have been OK in the 80s when Apple was a small company and its products were relatively niche, but now that it has grown to what it is today, it has corporate responsibilities and the company is teetering on the edge of breaking antitrust laws. He likens Apple's current situation to that of Microsoft's famous antitrust case of the late '90s when the company was taken to court for bundling Internet Explorer with its operating system, which effectively knocked out competition like Netscape and Opera. But he says Apple could potentially be in a trickier situation than Microsoft was because not only does it provide the software and operating system, it also manufactures the hardware.
"Apple could potentially be what is called a structural monopoly, which means you can't do anything with it is because, as a monopoly, it's not as if Apple software can be used with anything else. It's only available with Apple. You can't break up these guys."
Peters told Polygon that if a developer believes that a company's terms are not fair and don't promote competition, they should immediately report them to the competition commissioner of their territory for investigation.
"Once a company becomes as successful as Apple, it's got certain obligations," Peters said. "Microsoft discovered it in the late '90s, Google is discovering it — it's in court in almost every country — and these organizations need to come to terms that their success has got nothing to do with their effort. It's got to do with the market tendency out there and the way they behave in the marketplace."
But even if Apple is found to not breach antitrust laws, the ACLU's Jay Stanley says that censorship is not only barred by the constitution when it comes to government, "it's also a bad idea."
"It would be much better if Apple would protect free speech within its private forum," Stanley said. "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. I think as forums like these emerge as central platforms, it is important that they remain open to all viewpoints and content."
Limiting the medium
Most of the developers Polygon spoke to have either released their games on non-iOS platforms or modified them to accommodate Apple's guidelines. While there's a bigger and much longer debate on antitrust laws to be had, many independent developers aren't interested in involving themselves in the specifics of competition law. They just want their games to have the best shot possible and, for now, that means having them on a platform like the Apple App Store.
Endgame: Syria developer Tomas Rawlings believes that if Apple continues to exclude content via its vague application of guidelines, it won't just be developers who take issue with its practices.
"What I think is going to be increasingly difficult for Apple as its devices become more popular is people will naturally ask, 'Why can't I see this? Why are you making these decisions for me?' So I think Apple is going to have to revisit how they treat things like serious games, and I'm sure we're not the only category of application that they are getting friction from," Rawlings said.
"So really, the ball is in Apple's court to show it recognises the difference between completely inappropriate content and those people who are just trying to do something a bit different. I would like to see them balance it more toward the developers who are taking these issues seriously, and who do want to use games as an experimental form to explore it."