Dan Archer’s Ferguson Firsthand is an educational app about the shooting of Michael Brown. Though it’s not violent, Apple denied it a spot on the App Store. This shouldn’t be a surprise; Apple has treated apps—and, by extension, games—differently for a long time.
Ferguson Firsthand isn’t a realistic depiction of a tragedy but a new way of interacting and understanding the evidence we have about about a controversial incident. The version shown below is demonstrated with an Oculus Rift, but presumably the App Store version would have worked similarly.
Archer wrote about the experience in a blog post on Medium:
The issue, as the anonymous Apple representative explained, was “the subject matter”. The aforementioned environment in question was the Canfield Green apartments complex where Michael Brown was fatally shot in August 2014. And as a result, I was told, the app “refers to a very specific event” and suffered from “too narrow scope”. She continued, “something targeted at a specific event is not appropriate”. Instead, I was recommended to “develop an app around a topic — a new topic”, she took pains to suggest — to make an app that would be “topical in general terms”.
Apple has never pretended apps should be treated with the same artistic respect as books or movies. Per the company’s App Store 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.
It’s a shitty policy, but at least they’re honest. The problem is when Apple wavers on what that policy means in practical terms—it’s not black and white.
In 2011, Apple denied Molleindustria’s Phone Story, an interactive critique of modern smartphone manufacturing. Apple briefly approved Phone Story, but while the developer prepared the game’s public relations blast, Apple reversed course and decided it couldn’t go live. It’s available on Google Play, however.
“I’m very familiar with the app store policy and the game is designed to be compliant with it,” designer Paolo Pedercini told me at the time. “If the project was just about being censored we could have gone further. [...] If you check the guidelines, Phone Story doesn’t really violate any rule except for the generic ‘excessively objectionable and crude content’ and maybe the ‘depiction of abuse of children.’ Yes, there’s dark humor and violence but it’s cartoonish and stylized—way more mellow than a lot of other games on the App Store.”
In late 2014, an iPad version of the celebrated Papers, Please was submitted to the App Store. Even though designer Lucas Pope had spent months working on the iPad version, he had no idea if Apple would be okay with the game he’d made. Unlike other platforms, there’s no process to screen content ahead of time with Apple, to ensure you haven’t wasted your time before submitting.
“My main concern with creating an iOS version of Papers, Please was that Apple would decide the game was strongly political and reject it outright,” said Pope to Ars Technica last year. “I checked Apple’s ‘average review times’ site for developers and it said something like 95% are approved in 5 days. It took 2 weeks for the first rejection so I was pretty spooked at that point.”
Papers, Please was turned down for the following reason, according to Pope:
Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as ‘explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.
Despite being labeled as 17+, the App Store’s equivalent of an M, Apple pushed back on the game’s pixelated nudity. An avalanche of news stories criticizing the company, however, seemed to give Apple pause; they reversed course and allowed him to submit the game without censorship. The iPad version ended up including a toggle for the game’s pixelated nudity, defaulting to off.
This pattern—reject, cause headlines, accept—played out earlier this year, too.
After a racially charged shooting in South Carolina, a nationwide debate ensued over the role of and symbolism behind the Confederate Flag. Apple’s knee-jerk decision was to start removing applications and games featuring the Confederate Flag, even if the reason for their inclusion was historical accuracy.
Games like Ultimate General: Gettysburg, Civil War: 1862, Civil War: 1863, Civil War: 1864, and Civil War: Gettysburg were unceremoniously pulled from the App Store. Developers were not made aware of such a drastic policy change.
The games were later reinstated, and Apple released only a brief comment:
“We have removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines.”
Confused developers, of course, happy to see things change.
“Ultimate General is back. Unchanged,” said Ultimate General developer Game Labs. “After several late night phone calls with Apple yesterday and today the game has returned to Appstore the way it was... in 1863.”
Unfortunately, it seems like only a matter of time until this plays out again.
Apple may never change its attitude towards games, despite making tons of money off them, but the least we can do is keep pointing out the hypocrisy.