GamesBeat

Apple: ‘Want to criticize religion? Write a book’ — don’t make a game

Apple doesn’t believe video games can tackle important subjects.

At least, that’s how the submission guidelines for developers on the App Store make it sound. If you haven’t read the document before, it’s actually very interesting. The whole thing comes across in very conversational language, not the typical lawyer-speak that often permeates these kinds of policy statements, which is why many people believe that Steve Jobs dictated it himself.

One section of the guidelines resonated with me as a gamer:

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.

Apple isn’t the only company that “views apps differently than books or songs,” but it is still strange for a company to state it so bluntly. Apparently, Apple doesn’t think games are capable of the same kind of social criticism as books and songs — but why?

“I think [Apple has] the wrong attitude about games, but ultimately [this] is game developers’ fault, not Apple’s,” Braid developer Jonathan Blow told GamesBeat. “Apple is treating games as shallow commercial entertainment experiences because they have been taught by game developers that that is what games are.”

Blow suggests that Apple doesn’t think games are capable of adding to public discourse on important social issues because most developers don’t even think games can do that.

“If we had built a world where games routinely work with serious issues in ways that people care about, Apple would not be able to take this stance because it would not make any sense,” said Blow.

It’s unfortunate because Apple has now established a self-fulfilling prophecy. Games don’t criticize religion, war, and politics very well, so Apple bans games that try to do that. But that means games that do criticize these topics in a thoughtful way will never reach a wide enough audience to prove it to Apple.

That’s what happened to Endgame: Syria.

Developer Auroch Digital developed a strategy game based on the real civil war in the Middle-Eastern nation, but Apple rejected its submission to the App Store.

Auroch built the title in two weeks to help people understand the many possible outcomes of the conflict. Gamers can use a medium they’re familiar with to explore and learn about a serious topic online and on the Google Play market.

“I feel that the form of media should be irrelevant, and it’s the content that counts,” Endgame: Syria lead designer Tomas Rawlings told GamesBeat. “Games, films, apps, comics, music, and books should all be held to the same standard. To suggest that there is an invisible line that says it’s OK to say something in a book but not in a game? That feels wrong to me.”

Apple rejected the game based on a portion of its guidelines that prohibits games that “solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.”

But this is Apple’s party

“I’m not at all surprised by Apple’s policy, and I just take it for what it is,” Writer Rumble developer Gian Cruz told GamesBeat. “There are obviously multiple shades of gray when it comes to what’s appropriate and what’s not, but at the end of the day, it’s their storefront, and they are the ones who are allowed to make that call. I do not have an absolute right to be in the App Store just because I have something to say in my game or app. There are still other avenues and storefronts I could pursue to express my ideas.”

Game designer Edmund McMillen, who released The Binding of Isaac based on the biblical story of the same name, agrees with Cruz.

“I think [Apple] just chose a really horrible way to say that they don’t want to publish apps that will upset people,” McMillen told GamesBeat. “The way it is written is obviously bad and upsetting in many ways because on a surface level, most will view them as saying a video game can’t express what a song or book can and [that they] shouldn’t. But I really just think it’s a misguided way of saying [not to] submit games that are controversial and might upset people.”

That’s true. Apple’s guidelines basically say the same thing:

We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

But that doesn’t nullify the double standard. Apple doesn’t care if a book or song on its platform is controversial or upsets people. In fact, if Apple believes that books are better at criticizing religion, then wouldn’t they also be more capable of offending users of Apple products?

Maybe the truth is that Apple knows that people associate products from the App Store with Apple more than they associate a book or a song they purchase using their iPad.

We requested a comment from Apple, but it did not respond.

Regardless of any impediments, it’s still up to developers to leverage their medium to do something important if they so choose. Apple thinks gaming is so trivial and incompetent that it has no issues with treating games like a second-class form of art.

That shouldn’t stop developers from trying to creatively circumvent Apple’s ban.

“Apple may be badgered enough to change their policy someday, or they may not,” said Blow. “But that doesn’t matter very much because really it is just a reflection of the general cultural idea we have about what games are. The only way that idea will change is if a lot of developers make a lot of serious, deep, honest, touching, and intrepid games for a long time. I don’t know if that will ever happen. How many games can you think of to which you can seriously apply these adjectives? Certainly to none of the top-selling games on the App Store, and certainly to none of those big free-to-play games that are raking in all the cash.”

Many of those games are more than fine. They have their place, but something like Endgame: Syria has the potential to influence the way people view a real-world conflict.

Most of us believe that. Let’s hope that someday games can convince Apple as well.


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