Comment & Opinion

Was Apple right to yank games using the Confederate Flag?

Was Apple right to yank games using the Confederate Flag?

Another week, another wielding of the banhammer from Apple over App Store content.

Or is it?

A nuanced cultural situation that's perhaps hard to fully understand unless you're American, nevertheless we asked our Mavens if they thought that Apple's immediate decision to pull games that include the Confederate Flag is justifiable?

Since that initial move, it appears that some games are being reinstated, although Apple bizarrely still holds to the view that:

  • It had only "removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines. We are not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses."

 

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Ideas Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

I think that in a climate of the recent racist shootings, plus Tim Cook's very high profile speeches about corporate morality and having inclusivity as a core value of Apple, this is an obvious move.

Yes, I am sure there are going to be many games that have used the flag in incredibly minor ways as part of the graphical look and feel, but to many people it is a potent symbol of a divisive period of American history, and it is better to err on the side of caution.

We are constantly reappraising our culture and changing the cultural signposts we use to reflect the world around us, so change is inevitable. Some might say that it's about time this flag was properly consigned to history rather than celebrated as a symbol of (failed) rebellion.

I just hope that Apple is dealing with its developer community as sensitively as it's dealing with its public image.

Marcelo Careaga Head of Production Miniclip

This is very tricky thing to talk about. Without the proper context or nuance there's a lot in this whole situation that can be misinterpreted and discussion can quickly be non-constructive at all, which is what I think we are seeing on Twitter particularly.

I think Apple's history makes abundantly clear that they believe in policing their content from time to time in a way that creates a "family friendly" atmosphere. We saw it not that long ago with things like weapons in icons, for example. We saw it even before with cannabis references. We are seeing it now with a different sort of content.

Apple previously wielded its banhammer against gun imagery

My worry about all this is the way it was pulled out, not the measure itself.
Marcelo Careaga

Are they entitled to do this? Of course, it's their playground, their store, their rules. Is it censorship? No, they are not a government (although they might be bigger than many).

Is it justifiable for them as a business? Well, given the current debate and public feelings around the Confederate flag, I think it is a net positive for Apple.

My worry about all this is the way it was pulled out, not the measure itself. Apple surely recognizes that they are the main revenue source for many devs. Sweeping changes to existing policies are always going to be difficult for game makers to cope with. This is something that should be taken into consideration when in that big position of power in the industry.

Regarding the more moral discussion about the Confederate Flag and what it really means (or doesn't), I'm afraid I can't say much, lacking the proper cultural context.

It is true that there's an argument in favor of the games (like Ultimate General) that make use of the flag in a historical context, not necessarily a glorifying one. However, as the developers themselves recognize in their communicate, the current cultural climate in the US makes its use, as innocent or neutral as it may be, difficult.

Yes, Apple's move may be broad and not take into consideration context and specifics about the games or content affected.

Yes, not everyone sees the flag with the same meaning.

However, ultimately games are one of the dominant forms of popular culture nowadays, it is normal that they see themselves affected by social change in real life.

Oscar Clark Author, Consultant and Independent Developer Rocket Lolly Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

I tend to agree with Marcelo that I don't really have the cultural sensibilities to answer this but I do worry about blanket responses in principle.

I have sympathy for the dilemma even if I suspect I would have drawn the line differently myself.
Oscar Clark

It's the intent behind the use which renders an item offensive or not, but policy decisions can't assess intent alone.

So I have sympathy for the dilemma even if I suspect I would have drawn the line differently myself. At the end of the day, the use of a political flag is subjective and is some cases what seems an appropriate historical context can instead be a provocative act.

The sheer volume of games makes such opinion-based responses impractical.

I don't know if Apple allow games to appeal the bar and allow devs to justify the use of such items; but that might be a workable way to avoid unnecessary bans.

This isn't the first time cultural issues like this have affected games and I'm sure wont be the last.

Tony Gowland CEO Ant Workshop

Tony’s career has covered the whole spectrum from AAA console to handheld, mobile and flash titles, working on huge franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and Call of Duty.

In 2015 he founded Ant Workshop to develop his own titles and to offer his experience as a design consultant.

I find it annoying that they're treating games differently to music, TV and film (all of which have examples using the flag still available for sale on iTunes).

But I guess this is part of our industry's ongoing slow slog towards full cultural acceptance.

William D. Volk Chief Futurist Forward Reality

Some cultural and historical background information, that might be useful here. The Confederate Flag is the The Army of Northern Virginia battle flag.

Its popularity in the south is of a more recent vintage. In Georgia, the it was reintroduced as an element of the state flag in 1956 [something which continued until the flag was redesigned in 2001].

Should games share the same right for "Freedom of Expression" as film and print enjoy? I think so, but apparently Apple disagrees.
William D. Volk

It was considered by many to be a protest against school desegregation. It was also raised at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) (in the early 1960s) during protests against integration of schools.

I personally support the removal of the flag from government buildings and property.

As Republican Rand Paul said in regards to a decision to remove the flag in South Carolina: "I think the flag is inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery, and particularly when people use it obviously for murder and to justify hatred so vicious that you would kill somebody I think that symbolism needs to end, and I think South Carolina is doing the right thing."

However as an 'icon' to represent Confederate forces in a war game, it is historically accurate. The symbol of the Confederacy also appears in films that depict events during the Civil War. I don't see a call for removing the flag from movies that take place during this era?

Why should games be barred from using it in a historically appropriate and accurate manner?

Should games share the same right for "Freedom of Expression" as film and print enjoy? I think so, but apparently Apple and Google (just wait) disagree.

Just try to release a game with a satirical or low brow humor theme. You will be rejected even if every single pixel of the game meets the published guidelines.

That is something I object to.

Kevin Corti Principal Spidershed Media

Everyone's being super-sensitive and level-headed about this so let me stand apart even just to present an alternative view.

I think that this is nuts; pure and simple.

Is it Apples prerogative? Absolutely. Has it got a responsibility to ensure that the ecosystem it maintains for squllions of people globally is safe for us and our kids to use?

Surely, with the resources at its disposal Apple can take a quick look at any games that feature the Confederate Flag and make an informed decision.
Kevin Corti

Of course? Were these games (the ones quoted in the articles I have read at least) at all, in any way intended or even inadvertently going to change that? A big fat nope!

Yes I lack that "correct cultural context" to fully appreciate the legacy and contemporary societal issues that have been exposed by the recent murders. But I'm fairly sure that there are more than a few games on the App Store that feature flags in a historical context that are deeply connected to hugely shameful and still shocking to this day. Erm...

Nazi swastika in any WW2-themed game anyone?

Surely, with the resources at its disposal Apple can take a quick look at any games (or apps!) that feature the Confederate Flag and make an informed decision based on the application's purpose, its content and the developer's intention?

Why not set up a 'report this app/game' team for a few weeks to react to any incoming public outcry? If any games are found that are in any way problematic then take them down. No sane person would argue against that.

So why not go that route?

It looks like Apple simply got scared of a potential edge case PR problem it might face and bottled it. Apple would rather damage the developers whose livelihoods rely on the App Store than make the effort to put in place a sensible and reasonable process.

I assume that Apple's plan is to let the emotions die down and to then let the developers flick the green light back on but even in that best scenario it is quite probably hurting honest, hard-working, risk-taking studio owners and their teams for doing nothing than accurately representing an actual historical period within a digital entertainment product.

Those games don't advocate or in any way encourage racism, slavery or real world violent action. If anything they serve to remind us of when society fractured and what the consequences were; America went to war with itself. Brothers fought brothers. Hunderds of thousands died. Many more suffered.

Is hiding that in any way helpful to helping modern day society in its search to overcome deeply routed problems? I don't think so, but that is what Apple has just done IMHO.

Right. Rant over. I'm now heading off to the iTunes to:

Watch this.....The Dukes of Hazzard, Season 1 by The Dukes of Hazzard

Listen to this....Civil War: Songs of the South by Craig Duncan

#hypocrisy anyone?

Marcelo Careaga Head of Production Miniclip

After all these responses, I feel I need to add a couple of things to mine.

My own answer was strictly focused on Apple's point of view. As Kevin mentions, this seems to be quite a big reaction to a potential PR problem, but the question is very different if asked from the point of view of a developer, especially one of those affected by this.

Rewriting or hiding history is not going to help making the real life effects of that history disappear in real life.
Marcelo Careaga

Let's be clear, using the Confederate Flag (or the Nazi one, to follow Kevin's example) in a game is not bad per se. It's only as bad as the context of the usage is, and all devs should be free to create their games using the elements they believe there are more appropriate.

In the context of historical games or educational ones, for example, there are very legitimate reasons to use this, and rewriting or hiding history is not going to help making the real life effects of that history disappear in real life.

Moreover, as Tony or William are mentioning, we've seen many times that these type of measures arrive to games more in full force than to other media, and what's considered acceptable for more established art forms is more difficult to tackle on ours.

However, there are two important things to remember as a dev:

  • 1. Nothing guarantees you a space in a private platform for games. Platforms control for the maximum audience possible, so they'll always be careful about not to offend too many people too much.
  • 2. If you want to sell your game, especially in international markets, you need to assume that different cultures, and areas, have different sensibilities. And that these sensibilities can change and move with the times.

This is why I'm a fan of Game-Labs answer to this. They acknowledge Apple is trying to solve an issue. They recognize this issue is a cultural and complex one, rooted in US's identity.

They refuse (very politely) to change what the vision of the game they believe in, but they accept the consequences of this action. It's a lot of sense and sensibility all package together.

William D. Volk Chief Futurist Forward Reality

Marcelo makes a well stated case, as he puts it: "Nothing guarantees you a space in a private platform for games.Platforms control for the maximum audience possible, so they'll always be careful about not to offend too many people too much."

That rationale fits a broadcast network or an individual retail chain of game stores, but I don't think it SHOULD apply to the Apple and Google App Stores.

Here's why:

  • 1. No one is ever forced to purchase any app. Can't we trust consumers to make intelligent decisions on their own? You're not going to "tune into" an app you didn't want to see (unlike a broadcast network).
  • 2. Since the devices are 'locked' by Apple (and somewhat by Google, unless users want to muck with security settings) not being approved for an app store is basically censorship.

We just had massive protests in Europe to support the rights to offend others in a magazine. Why shouldn't game developers share that right?

Having had a humorous game rejected by both app stores, even though not a single pixel violated the guidelines, I feel passionate about the subject.

What's more, with every new game I have to consider that I could be blocked for entirely subjective opinions. It's well know that some developers get a pass just by luck of the draw on the reviewer OR by dint of their size and influence.

Jon Jordan Contributing Editor A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

Thanks for the input so far.

Just to say that it looks like Apple is now reinstating some games, officially stating it was pulling content that was using the flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways

  • UPDATE #1 – 6/25, 4 PM ET: Apple has now commented on the matter, saying:
  • “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. We are not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses.”
  • UPDATE #2 – 6/25, 5 PM ET: We’ve spoken to Apple more extensively about the removals now. The company says it’s working with developers to quickly get their games reinstated to the App Store.

Kevin Corti Principal Spidershed Media

That is welcome news.

Big companies like Apple are often quick to make a knee-jerk reaction to protect their own interests at the exclusion of others.

If they are now taking a (pretty quick!) rational look at each game and assessing whether it is a genuine threat before allowing it back on the store, then good on them.

Clearly they took my advice :)

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!

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