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Apple's Binding of Creativity

For a company which spent decades trying to appeal to creatives, Apple's prudish and wilfully inconsistent approach to games is an embarrassment

Earlier this week, Edmund McMillen's critically acclaimed and commercially successful indie game, The Binding of Isaac, was rejected by Apple from inclusion on its iOS App Store. Rejection of apps and games isn't uncommon, and is often perfectly reasonable, designed to protect consumers' devices and data from buggy or malicious software - but in this instance, there was only one "unresolved issue" standing in the way of the game's release; the actual content of the title, which Apple found too objectionable to release to iOS consumers. The game sees you playing Isaac (an overt allusion to the biblical figure), a young boy who escapes his fanatical and murderous mother and fights monsters seemingly summoned up from his own fearful imagination; to Apple's mind, this constituted "violence towards, or abuse of, children", and warranted rejection of the game.

This isn't the first time of late that Apple's policies around game content have come under scrutiny; the company has also seen fit to reject games for featuring overtly political themes or for including any form of nudity or sexuality, although its policies are most certainly not applied consistently, and games from larger and more established publishers seem to get an easier, though still not unhindered, ride through the approval process. For everyone else, this kind of rejection is a brick wall; the only hope is to create a surge of disapproval that forces Apple to reconsider, and that's hardly an option for the majority of creators.

Look, Apple is a corporation and the iOS store is its walled garden, and it's legally entitled to do what it wants with it - "what it wants", for the most part, being to cover its ass as much as possible against criticism or litigation on the grounds of inappropriate content on the store. It's under no obligation to uphold free speech or freedom of expression - these are concepts that have no meaning in the context of a private app store, any more than they have meaning on a private Internet forum or while sitting in someone's living room. There is nothing legally wrong with what Apple is doing - but from the perspective of the values that Apple has spent decades trying to convince the world that it holds, this is a miserable failure, and from the point of view of consistency in the company's policies, it's nothing short of atrocious.

"Only videogames, in Apple's eyes, need their creative boundaries to be firmly set somewhere in the late Victorian era"

What does Apple stand for, from its own point of view? It's a company whose self-image and supposed values are all about creativity. From the outset, Apple positioned its computers as creative tools and tried to create an image of its users as daring free thinkers. During the years it spent in the wilderness before OSX and later (and more notably) the iPhone lifted it back into the mainstream, Apple's primary target market was creative professionals. In an era when almost every desk in the world had a Windows PC on it, artists, designers, musicians and video editors were the stalwarts of the Mac. Today, Apple's focus remains on creative work - both on the people who create, who remain a core target market for the company's devices, and on the people who consume, who are served by a vast digital distribution empire for music, movies, TV shows, books and, yes, games. Maybe you personally don't buy Apple's brand message of being "creative-focused", but the company itself does believe that, which is what ought to be important.

In the face of that positioning, for Apple to turn around and tell game creators - people working in what is arguably the most dynamic, exciting and rapidly evolving creative medium in existence - that they may not distribute anything that contains adult themes or risks making anyone uncomfortable is utterly hypocritical. Sure, that approach may not be applied consistently, but the fact that it is applied at all draws into question the whole notion that creativity and its promotion is a core part of Apple's corporate DNA; why would a company that genuinely believes in those things ever find itself on the wrong side of these decisions, let alone finding itself acting as prudish censor on an increasingly regular basis?

Nobody is saying that Apple needs to demolish the walls around its garden entirely. I don't need or want the App Store to be stuffed with pornography or hate speech in the name of some mutant, idiotic reading of freedom of expression - but it's hardly unfair to ask Apple to treat games with the same respect it shows to other media. Here's the thing; Apple isn't exactly a debutante at this whole media distribution malarkey. The company is one of the biggest distributors of media in the world, and its approach to every damned thing with the exception of videogames is a laissez-faire one which shows the utmost of respect to creators' right to explore and experiment, and to consumers' right to discover and enjoy the results of that exploration. Only videogames, in Apple's eyes, need their creative boundaries to be firmly set somewhere in the late Victorian era.

"Apple's current stance on games is anti-creative, limiting, utterly discouraging of experimentation and imagination, and is the antithesis of the firm's supposed values"

It's not easy to find examples of this desperately unfair treatment in a quick browse through Apple's other media stores. Want a copy of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a modern literary classic which includes overt references to child molestation and murder that remain fairly shocking even decades later? £4.99 on the iBooks Store. Want to watch a season of Game of Thrones, whose first episode features a child being crippled by being pushed out a high window after seeing two siblings engaged in incest? It's right there on the iTunes Store. Want to listen to some music whose lyrics describe sexual violence in the most graphic, expletive-ridden and celebratory way possible? Take your pick from any number of tracks streaming on Apple Music.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying any of those things shouldn't be there. I love William S Burroughs, I love Game of Thrones, I love any number of musicians whose lyrics are "problematic" to say the least. I'm very happy that works like these are out there for people to engage with, either to enjoy, or to challenge, or to be inspired or angered (or both!) by. That's the nature of creativity; boundaries are pushed, not just in the name of pushing boundaries (which is usually infantile and crass) but in the name of finding something new and interesting, and the artistic process continues through the reactions provoked and inspired by that action. Unless, of course, some faceless box-ticker at a corporation which monopolises distribution to countless millions of consumers around the world short-circuits the entire process by setting the boundaries in stone, and setting them narrowly at that.

Perhaps Apple simply doesn't have any respect for games as a medium. There's plenty of evidence to support that down the years, as it happens - Steve Jobs was quite notably not a fan - but a company as broad as Apple must surely have understanding of the creative progress and artistic importance of games tucked away somewhere within itself, and if nobody senior at the company fits that bill, then it's bloody well time that someone who's actually engaged with media outside their middle-aged comfort zone since the mid-nineties were promoted to a position with some decision making power. Its current stance on games is anti-creative, limiting, utterly discouraging of experimentation and imagination, and is the antithesis of the firm's supposed values.

"Apple's soaring success gives it a truly enormous degree of influence and the capacity to be a leader in promoting creativity and independent voices rather than a conservative, timid follower of supposed public opinion"

Then again, it's also likely that Apple is merely reacting to the hand it feels it has been dealt. It's true that considering games to be something quite different and far less deserving of respect than music, literature or film is a view that extends far beyond Apple. It's also probably true that our own industry bears much of the blame for that, having largely failed to move past the simperingly conservative stance that was adopted as pathetic appeasement to blowhard attacks on the medium in the nineties and early 2000s. This atmosphere of creative conservatism, which is sustained by bodies like the ESRB and is changing only gradually, inspires a backlash that is no more useful or constructive - games which style themselves as subversive for their violence and nihilism, while actually fitting almost precisely with the conservative template of what is acceptable. It's only in recent years that we've started to see games flirt with real boundary-pushing, probing at the limits of the medium's comfort zones with regard to social issues, race, sex and sexuality, political questions and all the other fields of life and human experience which a really, genuinely adult medium can effectively explore. Even at that, the push-back from some corners of the industry and its audience has been loud and angry.

Under those circumstances, it's perhaps less surprising that a company like Apple finds itself erring on the side of deep conservatism - if the industry itself struggles to move past that, and rarely manages to understand the difference between "mature" and "crass", then a platform operator might be well-served by assuming the worst of every boundary-pushing title it sees. Yet being able to understand Apple's position doesn't make it any less disappointing. Apple's soaring success gives it a truly enormous degree of influence and the capacity to be a leader in promoting creativity and independent voices rather than a conservative, timid follower of supposed public opinion. This is the company which famously exhorted us all to "Think Different"; is it so much for game creators to ask the same of it in return?

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.