Opinion: Nevermind Boyfriend Maker, 'justice' is the real dirty word on the App Store

Do not pass go and go straight to jail

Opinion: Nevermind Boyfriend Maker, 'justice' is the real dirty word on the App Store
Even dead sex offenders demand justice.

In the UK, where – for the last six months or so – the nation has been gripped by a series of harrowing sexual scandals involving prominent TV personalities of old, the notion of justice being seen to be done has been an important one.

Even in cases where the alleged offender is dead, victims have been keen to bring cases out into the open.

Why? Because justice – in this sense at least – is ensuring the culture that allowed what now appears to be decades of abuse against hundreds (if not thousands) of victims is exposed.

It's only by acknowledging what led to the crimes being committed almost in plain sight that we can hope to avoid them happening again in the future. That's the theory, anyway.

It occurred to me this week, however, that the notion of people who break the rules being publicly held to account for the good of the rest of us doesn't exist on the App Store.

Instead, offenders simply disappear from view. Apps are pulled without explanation – the equivilent of Apple placing a bag over their head and dragging them away when no-one is looking.

'Reformed character'

Its crimes are hardly comparable, but the App Store's own 'sexual offender' – Boyfriend Maker – made a return to the marketplace this week. On the outside at least, it appears to be a reformed character.

If the story escaped you first time around, Boyfriend Maker was a 'dating simulator' aimed at a 4+ audience that hit the headlines at the end of 2012 when, thanks to a loyal PocketGamer.biz reader, it was revealed its chat mode featured disturbingly violent, sexual content.

The chat API the app tapped into allowed users to make their own suggestions for appropriate replies, leading to the game's 'boyfriend' delivering all kind of explicit and offensive replies to its (potentially very young) audience.

Boyfriend Maker's chat mode generated some alarming content

When the game was later pulled, it was easy to deduce that this inappropriately sexual content was the reason. And, indeed, now in its new form – renamed Boyfriend Plus – measures have been put in place to ensure it's far less likely to commit the same crimes again. The game now also comes with a 12+ age rating.

A wrong, therefore, has been made right. But, given neither Apple – nor, frustratingly, developer 36You itself – spoke openly about the case, how do we know what action was taken? How do we know that the case was dealt with effectively?

What is justice anyway?

It all reminds me of the fact that a lot of people confuse justice with punishment.

While going to prison isn't designed to be a reward, the primary motivation behind locking someone up after they've committed a crime isn't punishment.

Rather, the first goal is to ensure the public are protected – that the offender can't offend again. In the case of Boyfriend Maker, removing the game from the App Store certainly achieved that aim.

The secondary goal, however, is to serve as an example for anyone else considering committing the same crime. In part, that's why some offenders are often given harsher sentences than others – the courts openly make examples of some criminals in order to deter others.

Boyfriend Plus' refined chat mode

That's where the App Store's take on justice falls apart. We can effectively deduce Apple pulled Boyfriend Maker because of its sexual content and, having discussed the issue with 36You, the developer has learned its lesson and published an app that plays by the rules.

But that's all conjecture. Maybe Boyfriend Maker was pulled by Apple for an altogether different reason. Maybe 36You saw the moral panic building around its game and removed it from sale itself, pre-empting potential action by Apple.

Maybe it just wasn't making any money, and 36You decided to call it quits. We just don't know.

Rules and regulations

And this is the issue that continues to define many developers' experience on the App Store.

Apps have been consistently pulled without reason – at least to begin with – ever since the marketplace made its first splash in 2008.

While in most cases it's likely Apple has had some form of communication with the studios involved, getting it to talk publicly about what rules have been broken and what other developers can do to ensure they don't make the same mistakes has been like getting blood from a stone.

We can all make guesses, of course. We can make suggestions about why certain apps have been pulled while others haven't, but none of us really know for sure.

Indeed, as app discovery platform AppGratis will attest, having your app pulled from sale generates a promo bubble all of its own, as commentators fill the void left by Apple's silence by relentlessly speculating about the reasoning behind it.

Likewise, the reappearance of AppShopper this week (again, in transformed form) reportedly came after the developer had tried unsuccessfully to appease Apple with modified versions of the original app.

Communication between the two parties would appear to have been minimal - AppShopper instead had to resort to trial and error.

The new AppShopper has adopted a social bent

As such, if a key component of justice is discouraging others from making the same mistakes, then it's no great leap to suggest that the App Store – and many of its rivals – utterly fails on this score.

Apple no doubt has its reasons for keeping mum in these cases, but in an era when thousands of businesses across the planet depend on its ecosystem for survival, the giant owes it to its acolytes to provide clearer, stronger boundaries.

Simply serving up vague guidelines that can be applied in a multitude of different ways won't do.

Without clear direction and clear communication, more and more developers are going to find themselves pleading for a get out of jail free card when they cross the App Store's ever-blurred lines.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.