Books, movies, television, and music—they’re for the adults in the room. Games? They’re for the birds, specifically those of the Angry variety. That’s the message of Apple’s draconian App Store policies that routinely reject games that broach topics deemed too controversial or serious, all the while giving free rein to “more traditional” forms of media. Apple is perceived as a progressive, forward-thinking company, but on this issue, they’re out of touch.
On an Apple device, it’s easy to consume media about, for instance, the institution of slavery—as long as it’s not a video game. A casual search on iTunes or iBooks using “slavery” as a keyword turns up dozens of relevant results. There are two ways of experiencing 12 Years A Slave—either by streaming last year’s award-winning film or downloading the original 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Scroll down a little further and you can download a 19th-century screed called The Right Of American Slavery that features such chapters as “The Barbarism Of The African Race.” It opens with a paragraph that would make Donald Sterling blush: “The vestiges of barbarism characterize the African, in his normal state. The latent principle of cannibalism, lurks, in dormant energy, within the very core of his being and constitutes a prominent characteristic of his animal existence.”
But say you’re in the mood for something more interactive and a bit less absurdly racist. Perhaps you want to play a fair-minded educational game about the history of slavery. Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck. The App Store only contains what amounts to books or pamphlets in app form or barebones maps of Underground Railroad sites. This isn’t due to sheer coincidence or a lack of interest on the part of game developers. Earlier this month, Apple slammed their heavy hand against a Dutch educational game called Weg Naar Vrijheid (Road To Freedom) because of what the company deemed “insulting content,” according to a Dutch news site. No, Weg Naar Vrijheid is not a playable version of The Right Of American Slavery. The so-called “insulting content” appears to be an unpopular devotion to historical accuracy.
Weg Naar Vrijheid was funded by Amsterdam’s city council to mark the 150th anniversary of the nation’s abolition of slavery. The game is designed to teach Dutch children about the realities of slavery. Players inhabit the role of an 18th-century slave bought by a rich white man in Ghana and forced to work on a sugar plantation in Suriname. The game was hosted on the educational site Slavernij & Jij (Slavery & You) since February, but it didn’t attract controversy until it later hit Apple’s games marketplace. Some users complained about the fact that characters in the game were punished by a black slave driver with a whip instead of a white slave owner. Pepergroen, the game’s developer, explained that the creators initially wanted more exchanges between slaves and the white owners, but their research found such extensive interaction historically inaccurate. Apple yanked the game shortly thereafter. A Google translation of a report by the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant mangles the grammar but gives us a broad idea of Apple’s rationale for rejecting Weg Naar Vrijheid: Its content is supposedly “libelous and insulting” and will draw “objection” from “large groups of people.”
It’s not the first time that Apple has rejected a game for questionable reasons. You can purchase a copy of George Clooney’s politically charged Syriana movie on iTunes, but you can’t play a strategic card game about strife in the Middle East. Last year, Apple banned Endgame: Syria because you play as rebels in the ongoing civil war wreaking havoc in the Middle Eastern country—citing a policy that “Any App that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harm’s way will be rejected.” The developer, Game The News, said they submitted three versions of the game, each time removing aspects that would be considered references to real people, but ultimately Apple rejected it on the grounds that the name Syria was still in the title. Eventually, a defanged version renamed Endgame: Eurasia launched for iOS.
Apple also recently rejected a relatively tame sex education app due to its “pornographic material,” even with a proposed “17+” age rating. The app, HappyPlayTime, contained lighthearted cartoonish drawings and a vagina-shaped mascot named Happy who guided players through six mini-games with the intention of teaching women about masturbation and helping erase some of the social stigma around the topic. There are no photographic images of nudity, and much of the content is rather abstract, but Apple told HappyPlayTime creator Tina Gong that it was “not appropriate for the App Store.” Meanwhile, there’s an immense amount of sexually explicit material on iTunes, including a Penthouse audiobook called Bend, Lick, Insert, Send and a book called The Perfect Gangbang, whose title has been censored so it reads The Perfect G*******g.
For its part, Apple has been upfront about its censorship of games. A section of the App Store Review Guidelines states: “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.”
Guys, don’t worry your pretty little heads about it! It’s complicated; you wouldn’t really understand. It’s a flippant “yada, yada” response that does a poor job of informing us why one of the world’s most influential gatekeepers of games has chosen to wall them off in a media ghetto that prefers time-wasters, kids’ toys, and trivialities to serious social commentary. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Fruit Ninjas or Angry Birds of the world, but it’s 2014. Games have proven themselves capable of grappling with controversial, adult themes in interesting new ways. Sure, not every game that deals with serious issues works well, but they should at least have the opportunity to succeed or fail.
And then there’s the issue of large-scale hypocrisy. Nintendo used to have similarly restrictive policies when it came to the content of games released on its systems, but it didn’t also sell violent and sexually explicit movies and TV through the GameCube. Plus, Nintendo relaxed those rules in recent years to allow M-rated games as the company acknowledged that games have grown up. It’s time for Apple to do the same.