Iris Rants: According to Apple, Empathy Doesn't Belong in the App Store
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Dozens of apps are removed from Apple's App Store every week, but the removal of one game in particular has ignited (or rather re-ignited) a massive discussion about Apple's very narrow view of what is and isn't appropriate app content. Sweatshop, a tower defense-style game set in a less-than-ethical factory, is well made and fun. According to Apple however, apps and games just aren't the place to tackle serious or critical topics.
And that's bullshit. Here's why:
Sweatshop is a pretty clever take on a really overdone genre. The towers in this tower defense title are your mistreated line workers, the route is the conveyor belt, the foes are shirts and hats that need to be assembled and shipped. Fail and your job as floor manager is at stake; succeed and you'll probably find your factory being run like a neo-Dickensian nightmare mill. You're in control of the operation for better or for worse, and the game offers a perspective you may not have had before. Better still, this isn't accomplished at the expense of the game itself. The visual style is clean, colorful, and appealing, and the game itself is straightforward and entertaining (grim topic aside.) It's a good game, vastly better than a lot of the shovelware you can find on the App Store. So what's the problem?
Well, Apple has some very specific guidelines for App developers, including this gem:
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.
Obviously this has implications for vulgar/tasteless apps--that's not news, and I'll admit it's never really bothered me in the past--however this particular guideline has also been cited in the removal of more than a few games that attempt to address and/or criticize serious issues like sweatshops, immigration, and war among other things. Venture Beat posted an excellent piece about the issue earlier this year which I would recommend reading if you're interested in learning more.
There's no doubt in my mind that as movies began dealing with more complicated and troubling topics, there were producers and publishers and executives along the way scowling and shaking their heads. Media (books, games, movies, art, take your pick) engages us, and if that engagement can be used to generate empathy or a greater understanding of something rather than just pure entertainment, what's bad about that?
Is it that a lot of Apple's manufacturing sources have come under fire, and it's a very sensitive PR topic for them? Yeeahhh... That probably has something to do with it. Little Inferno, a game that offers a critical opinion about gaming as a pass-time buried underneath a seemingly mindless fireplace gimmick, remains on the App Store untouched (and you should totally play it.)
Look, I'm on my 1st iPad, my 2nd iPhone, and my 3rd iMac, so when it comes to the neverending Apple vs The World debate I'll forgive you for assuming I'm firmly on Apple's side. As far as I'm concerned though, enforcing rules like this doesn't advance the medium or the platform. They don't discourage criticism either; generally they invite even more of it. It's a dumb move from just about every angle, in my eyes.
If you want to read more about Sweatshop's removal (and the removal of some similar apps that preceded it) check out this post on Pocket Gamer, and if you want to see what's so scandalous about Sweatshop you can play it for free online here.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.