Since its launch, Apple's App Store has faced questions about its curation process, which roots out not only malware or copies of apps but keeps out things that could damage the store's reputation. The conversation over games has been particularly fraught: Apple has let through (though later pulled) shoddy and blatantly racist games, but it's rejected carefully produced "serious" titles that deal with controversial subjects like the Syrian civil war or the Foxconn worker suicides. And as a short section of the App Store Review Guidelines reveals, it raises fundamental questions about the role of games as both entertainment and art.
"We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate."
Though there's a list of officially prohibited content, Apple's Review Guidelines also talk more generally — and sometimes more frankly — about what's expected in an app. The result is this short, harsh statement:
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.
The paragraph has been on the books since at least 2010, but the recent rejection of Syria: Endgame has prompted VentureBeat's Jeffrey Grubb to take a closer look at it, asking why Apple thinks it makes sense to restrict what games can talk about. Among others, he's talked to indie game tastemaker and Braid creator Jonathan Blow, who blames the failure on shallow developers. "If we had built a world where games routinely work with serious issues in ways that people care about," he says, "Apple would not be able to take this stance, because it would not make any sense." Instead, he says Apple is able to treat games as "shallow commercial entertainment experiences."
"The form of media should be irrelevant."
It's a reasonable overall critique, and one that dovetails with ongoing contention that the (particularly AAA) games industry has failed at creating compelling art. Syria: Endgame designer Tomas Rawlings places more of the blame on Apple, but he makes the same general comparison, saying that "I feel that the form of media should be irrelevant and it’s the content that counts." By treating games as a subset of apps, Apple is grouping them under the umbrella of utilitarian convenience or entertainment rather than giving them the freedom of expression books or songs get.
What Blow's criticisms don't address is that games face logistical challenges as well as ideological ones. Books or movies tend to get a minor reformatting for mobile, and if Apple banned something like a book, it's relatively easy for users to find it elsewhere. But right now, many games are fundamentally dependent on technology and markets outside their control, just as movies have long been dependent on the theater and rating system for access to the mainstream. A critical mass of "serious" filmmakers hasn't stopped the MPAA from handing out inconsistent or controversial ratings that can limit a good film's reach, whether by making it harder for teens to see a movie about bullying or letting extreme violence through with an "R" rating while making frank depictions of sex commercially unviable with "NC-17."
"If we had built a world where games routinely work with serious issues, Apple would not be able to take this stance."
Apple practically created its own mobile gaming sector with the App Store, and despite the rise of Android, it still holds an inordinate amount of power over the market. Whether games usually deal with weighty issues or not, Apple could decide that it's better business to keep controversy off its storefront — and so far, that's exactly what it's done. Creating better games helps everyone, but the real problem is a closed ecosystem whose reputation for curating content incentivizes catering to the blandest common denominator.