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Apple Considered This Video Game Image 'Pornographic' [UPDATED]

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Apple's history of prudishness in the face of nudity is hardly anything new, but it really sucks to see overreaching policies de-fang provocative games like massively acclaimed indie hit Papers, Please. The emotionally exhausting immigration sim's nudity made players uncomfortable. I thought it was important.

(Warning: this post contains images that might be NSFW.)

Creator Lucas Pope confirmed that the iPad version of Papers, Please, which releases tomorrow (December 12), has no full nudity option when you're body scanning people who are trying to cross Arstotzka's suffocatingly bleak gray borders.


As a result, the only option will be to see characters partially clothed—which was an option in the original game, but not the default. On the right is what Apple disapproved of, on the left is the partially covered version.


And here's what that'll look like in-game:

In the game's PC version, you saw characters sans clothing because, well, that's how some scanners work in real life.


That fact can be pretty upsetting, and Papers, Please tried to draw attention to it, make the player feel uncomfortable about being complicit in these invasions of privacy. The characters you scanned were, best case scenario, inconvenienced, but in places they seemed distinctly uncomfortable. Speaking personally, I couldn't help but feel sick with myself in those moments. I'd probed deep into someone's privacy on a loose suspicion. Sometimes I found out more about those people than they ever wanted anyone to know, and it ended up having zero bearing on my job, on people's security.


Papers, Please's greatest strength, however, is its ability to put you in a mindset of clammy skinned paranoia. Maybe you're dealing with a regular person who just wants to see their husband/wife/kids, or maybe it's a terrorist front. All the while, you've got to be quick and efficient or else you won't make enough money to feed your own family. Inevitably, things get more and more complex, and you get more and more conflicted, sloppy. Moral quandaries abound. This is a fucked up job that requires a robot with jagged ice crystals for blood, and you're all too human.

But so are the people you're observing and questioning and poking and prodding. Seeing them naked and cold—on full display against their will—is a nauseatingly stark reminder of that. It is, in short, anything but sexy or pornographic. Now, don't get me wrong: it's not like the whole game hinges on the body scanner or anything, but it's a key series of moments. What Apple's had Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope do is more akin to slipping a pair of boxer briefs on the statue of David than banning nudie mags from its magazine rack.


And yet weirdly, as The Guardian points out, an app with very suggestive material from an actual porn star also went up on the App Store this week. I've asked Apple about its policy here, but have yet to receive a response.


Apple, unfortunately, has maintained a distinctly simplistic view of games over the years. Nudity, obviously, is a no-no, and so are perceived attacks on "a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity."

As a result of that and other similar policies, games like Phone Story, which delved into the real-world costs of making smart phones, and In a Permanent Save State, a serious game about the suicides of Foxconn employees in 2010, both met with the business end of Apple's banhammer. And those are only a couple specific examples.


While there are times when apps—games or not—are so pointlessly objectionable or otherwise harmful that it's important for companies like Apple to review them, Apple's policies toward games frequently hold developers back. They issue blanket objections based on broadly reaching rule sets rather than examine the intent and purpose of what they're shutting out. Moreover, they're inconsistent even within those rule sets. Given that iOS is one of the biggest platforms in the world, that's a serious shame. I hope Apple eventually sees the light and decides to be less iron-fisted or take a more nuanced approach, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

Update (12/12/2014): According to Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope, Apple has now confessed that rejecting his game on the grounds that it constituted pornography was a mistake on their part. I asked him what exactly happened, and here's what he told me:

I submitted a build of the game last month that was content-identical to the desktop version except the nudity setting defaulted to "off". I chose 17+ for the rating. After 2 weeks in review, that version got rejected for violating rule 18.1 covering pornographic material. They specifically pointed out the functionality of the scanner which shows characters nude or in their underwear.

The wording of their rejection made me think that even showing immigrants in their underwear would be a violation so I asked directly: "Is it enough to disable the option for full nudity? This would leave models visible in their underwear." That got the response (paraphrasing): "We don't pre-approve apps but that sounds like it would pass."

Appealing a rejection is a separate process and takes an unknown amount of time. The tone of the rejection and the long review time spooked me enough to not attempt it. App reviews slow way down during the holiday rush so even though I felt I had a good chance on appeal, I didn't want to hold up the release any longer. I removed the checkbox, disabled the full nude content, lowered the rating to 12+, resubmitted, and it was approved in a week.

My rough plan was to add the nudity back in an update and use that to force an appeal. It turns out I shouldn't have planned even roughly. Apple contacted me today on the phone and said the initial rejection was a UI-related misunderstanding and that if I resubmit with the nudity restored, it would pass immediately. It's hard to say if this is because of the negative coverage, but they did sound sincere that it was just a mistake by the reviewer and they wanted to get it sorted out for my sake.

I don't know exactly what the misunderstanding was, but my guess is that seeing the "NUDITY" checkbox in the game's settings was enough to red-flag it. If I was an app reviewer slogging through submissions, I'd probably make the same call.


I've asked Apple for further clarification and will update this post if I hear back from them.