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Phone Story dev criticises App Store "regime of censorship"

Molleindustria game pulled hours after launch, founder says devs "censoring themselves"

The latest game from indie developer Molleindustria was pulled from the App Store on Tuesday, just hours after its official announcement.

Molleindustria has a reputation for tackling controversial themes, including big oil in Oligarchy, and child abuse in the Catholic Church in Operation Pedopriest.

Phone Story is a satirical mini-game collection themed around the human and environmental cost of the explosion in smartphone production.

The 99c app includes games based on a string of suicides at a factory operated by Foxconn in Shenzhen, China, and the social and political upheaval surrounding the mining of coltan in the Congo - a mineral widely used in smartphone production.

In both cases, the events on-screen are accompanied by a voiceover explaining the reality of the issue. Molleindustria pledged to donate all proceeds from the game to organisations that fight corporate abuses and seek to improve working conditions.

A post on Molleindustria's website explains that Phone Story breached four App Store guidelines:

  • 15.2: Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected
  • 16.1: Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected
  • 21.1: Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free
  • 21.2: The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS

Molleindustria contests the violations of 21.1 and 21.2 on the grounds that the company, "simply pledged to re-direct the revenues to no-profit organizations, acting independently."

Speaking to Gamasutra, Molleindustria's founder, Paolo Pedercini, revealed that Apple had agreed to accept a new version of Phone Story if it complied with the guidelines.

"A new version of Phone Story that depicts the violence and abuse of children involved in the electronic manufacturing supply chain in a non-crude and non-objectionable way... will be a difficult task," said Pedercini.

"But the truth is that there is no way to know what's 'excessive' and 'objectionable' in Cupertino."

Pedercini insists that he is "very familiar" with the App Store's guidelines, and deliberately built the game with them in mind. The goal was not to discourage people from buying smartphones, but simply to raise awareness of relevant issues surrounding them.

"This happened before with fur coats, diamonds, cigarettes and SUVs - I can't see why it can't happen with iPads."

However, the larger problem is the reaction from other iOS developers, who Pedercini believes are living in blithe acceptance of guidelines that stifle creativity and free expression.

"The unanimous reaction from developers community has been, 'Wow, it's incredible Phone Story made through Apple's review process,'" he says. "To me, this signals a full acceptance of a regime of censorship, the equivalent, for developers, of what journalists call the 'chilling effect'."

"I'm sure that Apple doesn't spend that much time in policing its marketplace, because the developers are already censoring themselves."

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Latest comments (12)

Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend10 years ago
We have also been bitten by the over the top censorship of the App Store recently. We have a game that is based around the hand drawn artwork of Jason Petherick and his 'Don't' bunny, which is a cartoon bunny that dies in all manner of funny circumstances (think suicide bunnies).

We had the game where you have a rotating target with the bunny attached like the knife throwers in circuses. The aim is to hit the small targets next to the bunny without taking his limbs off (yes there was cartoon blood). The graphics are all black, white and red cartoon ink drawings, yet they rejected the game because they said it was 'realistic cruelty to animals' even though it is 100% cartoon and not at all serious. I don't agree with their decision at all, but what can we do?

We don't have the time to piss around pandering to Apple so I decided to change the bunny into a crash test dummy, which pretty much takes a large part of the humor out of the game and renders Jason's art irrelevant. Thanks a bunch Apple, for making me have to totally change the game we were making. :(

So when you see an app called 'Weapon Test' on the app store in a few weeks, check out the graphics and decide whether you think it is at all realistic.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 14th September 2011 4:16pm

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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz10 years ago
Hi Darren.

I'm actually thinking of writing an article about this issue. A lot of developers have similar experiences, and I'm constantly surprised at how reluctant most are to voice any criticism of Apple's policies. I understand the reticence, of course, but in situations like this it's tough not to view the guidelines in the way Pedercini does, and in purely creative terms it seems to be hurting the platform.

If anyone else has experience with Apple's content guidelines - both positive and negative - please take the time to write a comment. It will offer a good, even-handed starting point for my research.
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Magistretti Roberto journalist 10 years ago
Hi Matthew,

The Iugo guy that we met in Vancouver said something similar about one of his games: do you remember?

(I'm sure you do) :)

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Show all comments (12)
Darren Adams Managing Director, ChaosTrend10 years ago
@ Matthew

If you need any extra info/material for your article, feel free to drop me a line.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 years ago
Can one really expect a company as self-conscious about its image as Apple, to allow developers approach game design on their platform as if it was a 70ies exploitation movie?

As long as it does not concern Apple directly it is understandable how nobody there cares about the formula Sex + Violence + paper-thin pseudo-morality infused excuse to show as much of both as humanly possible. But expect Apple to have a price tag for everything, especially the impact of any developer's game on their brand.

I still say mission accomplished, the game is better known than before now and there are still a lot of platforms which do not mind having that. And if there ever was an argument for an open platform outside of any corporation's control....
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Shane Sweeney Academic 10 years ago
Apple have the right to not sell any game they wish via there AppStore for any reason at all, just as EB Games has a right to refuse to stock any product they wish.

Whats not right is that the only path to get products on the iOS devices is via Apple. This means there decisions to not stock a product is a complete platform wide ban. Google have banned the Kongregate App from appearing but you could always go to the Kongregate website and download it directly yourself.

Apple should never of put itself in a position to be the judge jury and executioner of all books, games and applications the platform can run. Its to much responsibility for any company, its just bad for everyone, they get a bad reputation when the censor content, they get a bad reputation when they accept controversial "edgy" underground material.

Just snake eyes, everyone loses. Were they really that scared someone would produce a competitor to there AppStore? IE5 is proof the vast majority of people are happy to use the default product that ships with your system even if there are better alternatives. Its just such a bad situation for Apple, the consumer, artists and the industry.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 15th September 2011 2:27am

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Sergio Rosa10 years ago
I mostly wonder how the game got to the app store in the first place... If it was so offensive they shouldn't have greenlit it, and the game wouldn't be getting that much media coverage.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 10 years ago
Sergio, did you read the article? He directly addresses that attitude in your post.

"The unanimous reaction from developers community has been, 'Wow, it's incredible Phone Story made through Apple's review process,'" he says. "To me, this signals a full acceptance of a regime of censorship, the equivalent, for developers, of what journalists call the 'chilling effect'."

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 15th September 2011 8:45am

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Lee Walton Co-Founder & Art Director, No More Pie10 years ago
Game devs are so simple-minded sometimes.... These guys wanted to earn money from selling on the very thing they were complaining about (an iPhone)?!! I'm 100% in favour of political messages in games, but putting it on the hardware that you are criticizing is the most transparent and obvious publicity stunt ever. They need to admit to doing exactly that and they might gain some respect back.

ok- had to edit my own comment as I noticed they were of course claiming to donate money from the apps sale. I stand by my comments that this was a cynical marketing stunt though- and it's worked. They just need to quite whining, because they've achieved exactly what they wanted from the situation.

Get with the reality of business please- Apple are just like any other brand and of course the only thing that they care about is protecting that brand (which I believe is now the most valuable of all?). It is completely irrelevant wether you like or agree with their brand image or not. Also, if you don't like their smartphone as a platform- go out and design and manufacture your own, that is what the free competitive market is all about.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Lee Walton on 15th September 2011 10:31am

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Shane Sweeney Academic 10 years ago
So Lee, making a movie criticizing the film industry should not be allowed? The choice of platform is ironic and a core part of the artistic expression.

In any case, Apple have gone out of there to make sure there brand is damaged if any of the content on their platform is controversial. If the platform allowed third party applications and this was removed from the AppStore there would be no controversy. Everyone wins, they get there audience, the people who choose to play it experience it, and Apple can protect there brand all they like. Everyone wins including free speech.

Thankfully we can upload ANY music and books to the iOS devices even if iTunes doesnt sell it because censoring controversial music and books would clearly be in breach of free speech. But why do we care so little when its video games? The medium isn't as important?

Arguably there is nothing wrong with Apple having closed hardware as long as they are the minority. But what if closed hardware becomes the template for successful and all platforms adopt its core principles. Creativity and free speech will be permanently damaged as no distribution methods exist let alone business models for fringe material. Imagine if the Apple way because the ONLY way, this would be a world where Super Columbine Massacre RPG couldn't even be freely distributed? That's a world worth actively preventing.

Additionally, to address the 'If you don't like the Apple way, buy something else it's a free competitive market'. The problem with this is some people feel that no one has the right to tell anybody what they can and cant do with a computer they buy and own themselves. I personally feel this is fundamental to free speech, obviously film studios, music publishers and hardware vendors want to control exactly what we can and cant do with their content and hardware, but should they be allowed to? There is definitely a school of thought that's gaining traction (that you might disagree with) that the governments role is to prevent these companies from controlling what we do on our own devices.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 16th September 2011 5:31am

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Thomas Bahon Head of Payment Services, Ankama Games10 years ago
Why don't you switch to another platform?
ah yeah, 'cause App Store is better for BIG MONEY.
So why App Store is better for BIG MONEY?
Cause their customers like the product and enjoy the rules (or at least, they customers have accepted them). Apple must consider there are more people who don't like violence or porn on their AppStore than people who want them. They just follow what they think is better for their turnover.
On your side, you consider that violent or porn app will make you rich. Sorry if your 2 views don't match, but it's business, purely, strictely, 100% business. Not politics inside, no censorshiT.

@Shane Sweeney
I have installed the Kongregate App on my own phone from the official Android Market yesterday.
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Gareth Sharp freelance reviewer / beta tester 9 years ago
the answer is simple, vote with your feet and abandon apples "walled garden" and embrace the relative openess of android
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