Tuesday, March 26, 2013

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Iris Rants: According to Apple, Empathy Doesn't Belong in the App Store

Sweatshop game
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 tower defense

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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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris 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.


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Rant on, Iris: Apple has never been known for its sense of humor, save for when they put iTunes out for Windows: Apple's site read "Hell just froze over."

As for Sweatshop? It's brilliant and Kafkaesque. It cuts too close to a lot of bones, since Apple is not the only firm getting its hardware from places none of us might wish to work (the Foxconn hoax aside).

And it can be played on the Web, thank goodness, right on my MacBook :D

Orca Flotta

It's not about Apple's view of the world, limited as it is, neither is it about political correctness. And the connection of sweatshops with Apple is only one aspect of the whole desastrous decision.

It's about freedom of choice.
It's about not accepting bullkrap from a hard/software supplier.
It's about not letting them rule over you.
It's about not letting them control your media consumption, steering your thoughts.

So I'm happy to report that we binned our last iMac some years ago. And won't touch their evil products ever again. Same goes for MS, Google, Amazon and some other IT providers. Once they start making me feel like they are trying to rule over me I'm outtie ;)

Arcadia Codesmith

The Internet is problematic as a free speech forum exactly because so much of it is in private hands, and those entities are under no legal obligation to protect free speech or expression.

We don't see a problem with this when it's speech we strongly disagree with. But the same censorship that can keep discussions civil and on-topic can also be used to suppress any speech critical of the forum operator.

I don't have an easy answer. If I were an Apple consumer, I wouldn't want to see a flood of apps promoting hate philosophies or cyberbullying or objectification of people. But as a free speech advocate, I understand that the only way to avoid suppression of speech I value is to allow expression of speech I abhor.

And while I recognize the right of a private company to control their forums, app stores, and other avenues of expression, I'm concerned that moderated, censored venues have largely displaced open free-speech commons.


I am reading this blopg post from my iphone. I think there was a time when apple products had their value as innovation drivers and providers of simple user interfaces. But others have learned from them and theses censorship stories really allienate me from the apple brand. For me it's time to move on.

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