Opinon: Sweatshop removal reveals hypocrisy in Apple's App Store curation policy
Indies face stricter guidelines than the big boys
When Apple pulled Littleloud's Sweatshop HD off the App Store recently, it must have realised that such restrictive practices wouldn't cast the hardware giant in a particularly good light.
So what exactly makes Apple so "uncomfortable" about selling a tower defence game based around the theme of running a clothing sweatshop?
This is a company, after all, that appears to have absolutely no problem allowing Rockstar to sell Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the App Store – a title well known for its drug-dealing meta game.
And you don't really have to look very far to find other games that could reasonably cause certain people to feel "uncomfortable." Numerous published games routinely glorify violence, war and gun culture, or feature casual misogyny, racial stereotypes and sexism.
Is a game that shines a light on shady cost-cutting manufacturing processes really worse than any of these things? Or is Sweatshop a game designed to make people think about the products they buy? I'll let you be the judge.
What we're dealing with here is nothing less than naked hypocrisy, where Apple gets to move the goalposts where and when it suits it.
The big publishers get a free pass to produce games with few restrictions, while the smaller independents must tip-toe on the eggshells of Apple's entirely vague guidelines.
Delving into the App Store Review Guidelines reveals all manner of utterly vague moral gatekeeping, with a stern pledge to reject app content or behaviour that it believes is "over the line."
The problem is, Apple gives absolutely no indication where the line is. "What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it'."
One of the key issues here is that Apple fundamentally treats apps differently from books, songs and other content it chooses not to curate. "If you want to criticise a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app," it says.
From the get-go Apple is essentially dictating that serious issues are off-limits when it comes to iOS games. That's a pretty depressing censorial mandate right there, and one that stunts gaming's potential to continue to mature as an art form.
Simon Parkin, one of the designers of Sweatshop HD, believes in the potential that games have over other, passive mediums of entertainment.
The power of the medium
"This medium wields an unusual power," he said in a recent Guardian op-ed.
"Literature and film are passive experiences whereas the screen game is interactive. A book or movie allows us to commune with another mind, but only in the role of an onlooker or eavesdropper.
"Video games, by contrast, allow us to inhabit another's shoes and, moreover, to see whether we would make the same choices when faced with their particular set of problems and circumstances," added Parkin.
Apple has a clear opportunity to promote the rich potential of gaming as a medium, but by admitting that "new questions may result in new rules at any time," all it suggests is that it's making it up as it goes along.
The Cupertino giant even resorts to veiled threats, with the stark warning to developers: "If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps." In other words, keep your mouth shut, or you can forget a sympathetic appeal process.
King of the gatekeepers
Of course, Apple isn't the only content gatekeeper to demand that developers adhere to specific guidelines. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all have their own unique set of rules, and everyone understands that closed platforms come with certain restrictions.
But with Apple, a lot of the focus appears to be on ensuring that its content is squeaky clean and kid-friendly. As it says "We have a lot of kids downloading a lot of apps, and parental controls don't work unless the parents set them up."
While that's true, this is the case on every entertainment device, and the issue of adult content is long-discussed issue.
"Keeping an eye out for the kids" is an admirable stance, but actively discouraging developers from making challenging adult-focused gaming content is definitely not.
For Apple, it should be about educating customers about parental controls, and coming up with more robust methods of ensuring that content doesn't get into the wrong hands.
It shouldn't be about ensuring that the App Store is some kind of hermetically sealed content Disneyland.
Despite everything, Apple sounds like it's doing it for all the right reasons. "We're really trying our best to create the best platform in the world for you to express your talents and make a living too."
That said, the line "If it sounds like we're control freaks, well, maybe it's because we're so committed to our users," sounds eerily similar to the kind of self-justifying language an abusive partner would come out with.
Maybe Apple genuinely doesn't want to be as heavy-handed as it appears to be, and really does just want to make sure only the best content gets through.
If that's the case, then being even-handed in its approach would be a good start.
Don't have one rule for the publishing giants, and another that ultimately leaves independent studios exasperated by an endlessly moving target, and the victims of hypocritical rules.
This time, it's Apple that has crossed the line. What line you ask? Well, to paraphrase a Supreme Court judge, I know it when I see it, and I think that you do too.
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