You don’t have to guess how Apple feels about video games. The company has demonstrated once again that it thinks the interactive medium needs a babysitter.
Earlier this week, developer Slitherine updated its iOS war game Frontline: Road to Moscow, and that ended several countries around the world banning it (as first reported by PocketTactics). The game debuted on Apple’s App Store earlier this month, and this week the studio wanted to patch in some bug fixes — but this update, which didn’t change the content at all, prompted Apple to change the game’s App Store age rating to 17+ due to its depiction of “guns or gun-related activities” as well as “realistic violence.” That adults-only rating on the App Store doesn’t just put a big warning on the game, it also prevents Slitherine from selling it several markets that don’t allow content with that label. These include major markets like Brazil, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
“It probably comes down to very blurry lines in the evaluation policies being interpreted in very different ways by different [Apple] reviewers,” Slitherine marketing director Marco Minoli told GamesBeat. “With so many apps being submitted and so many different people working on approvals, it’s obvious that there are different views on different subjects. When this impacts distribution for certain markets, that of course becomes a major problem — especially for such big expanding markets like Brazil.”
We’ve reached out to Apple for a comment, and we’ll update this post with any new information.
Frontline is a war game, but Minoli says that the team at Slitherine were all surprised to learn about the 17+ rating. Frontline focuses on the strategy of combat and only depicts the actual fighting in abstract ways. You can see it in action for yourself in the release trailer below:
Obviously, Apple’s first reviewer felt like Frontline wasn’t violent enough to warrant the 17+ rating, but further review can yield different results. While Slitherine can appeal the ruling, it has decided that it wasn’t worth it to do so.
“Every time we have tried [disputing Apple] in the past, we’ve been overruled, and it adds serious delays to the submission process,” said Minoli. “I think it took nearly a month when we last tried it, so we’ve given up on that route.”
So now Slitherine is simply marking its game as 17+ everywhere and accepting that it won’t have the right to sell it in some regions.
“But at least that gets the app approved quickly,” he said.
Minoli said his team is especially confused because they have apps with similar levels of violence that include guns, like Civil War: 1862, that have a 12+ rating. Although who knows what will happen the next time it gets an update.
This isn’t the first time Apple’s rating system and approval process has limited or outright blocked a game from its iOS store. Earlier this month, Apple prohibited the masturbation game HappyPlayTime from the App Store because of its sexual nature. In January 2013, the iPhone company blocked Endgame: Syria, which explored the real civil war in the Middle Eastern country from multiple points of view. Apple doesn’t want games that explore real politics and conflicts.
This is different from how Apple treats books and music.
“We view apps differently than books or songs, which we do not curate,” reads a section of Apple’s guidelines for game developers. “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.”
While Apple isn’t banning Frontline, it is putting limitations on it through the use of a rating system that it would never enforce on books. It makes money from books, music, movies, and games, and — not counting adult movies — the only one it forces to get approval for content is games.
This is makes it difficult for developers who wish to explore important subjects, like the Syrian civil war, on mobile devices.
As for Frontline and Slitherine, the company has a lot of experience dealing with European countries, like Germany, that don’t treat games as protected expression. Minoli says that Slitherine doesn’t mind that Apple wants to curate games.
“I’ve been working in video games long enough to know that they are never treated like books or songs or even movies,” he said. “Violence in games has always been treated in very skeptical and censorship-oriented ways. The difference here is that the rules and boundaries are very blurry and sometimes impossible to understand. While for other types of age ratings and restrictions it is easier to handle because the rules are the same for everyone and for every game.”
Apple could cut out that confusion completely by stepping aside and refusing to act as the gatekeeper of what’s acceptable content.