The vagina that scared Apple

Why HappyPlayTime, an app designed to fight a stigma, won't be on iTunes

A friendly cartoon vulva called Happy has the dubious honour of being the latest app Apple has rejected from its App Store, joining the ranks of Littleloud's Sweatshop and Auroch Digital's Endgame: Syria. As the star of HappyPlayTime, gamers touch her as instructed to make her happy, learning about how to please their own bodies in the process. Think educational and empowering, rather than Redtube.

"I admit, it's pretty far out there. You're using your touch screen to play with a vulva character to make her orgasm," says creator Tina Gong, who is currently battling to get the game accepted by Apple.

"It's something that has a huge potential of making certain groups angry. As a large company, I'm sure that they're trying to stay away from controversy. I get it, but it still makes me sad."

HappyPlayTime lists its objectives as "eliminate stigma, encourage exploration and make you giggle," and you can see a quick slide show pitch for the project here.

Apple rejected the app, and Gong appealed, raising the age rating to 17+. The app was then rejected a second time on two violations of its rules, namely "apps that present excessively objectionable content" and "apps containing pornographic material." One look at Happy's smiling cartoon face and you can't help wondering just what type of porn those Apple assessors must be into.

"I have a feeling that if I changed the way this game was designed, taking out the central core of it being an app where you can literally play with the character, invest emotionally in her well-being, it would get through. They mentioned that the 'concept' was objectionable. My feeling is that they don't mean female masturbation, but just this gaming aspect."

"When you think about the sensation of touch, it's a naturally intimate medium. There is so much that went into the design, including the character, her personality, her phrases, the game mechanics (all which fall under this broad idea of 'concept' that Apple calls it), that I believe makes the experience innovative."

It's important to understand that this app really isn't weird and pervy. At all. It's aimed at women, and comes complete with information to educate users about female masturbation and to remove the stigma surrounding the topic. Male masturbation is accepted, joked about on supper time television and normalised. Female masturbation is still mainly consigned to edgy stand up routines and porn, and neither of those mediums are exactly instructional.

"The idea is to make users fall in love with this character, who is meant to represent some archetype of all vulvas everywhere," says Gong, before joking that she realises that sounds "ridiculous" written down.

"I'm sure that they're trying to stay away from controversy. I get it, but it still makes me sad"

"You'll be naturally motivated to play this game to make [the character] happy, and in the process, you can maybe learn more about appreciating your own body, and apply the same love and care-taking to yourself as you do to her. The novelty of this concept is what got the mission out there, that created awareness about the issues - it serves its purpose. If it had been any different, I doubt many people would have been riled up about it."

Perhaps Apple can't be blamed for being careful, but then maybe it should be more careful about what does make it through. Why are guides to sexual positions OK, but this isn't? Why are apps with a distinctly "creepy uncle" vibe the first thing you find when you search for sex on the App Store? For instance, at the moment you can download Rack Stare, a game that involves staring at women's breasts without them noticing. Gong says she's not opposed to those sort of apps, but what's important is that a "variety of voices" are on offer for consumers, one perspective.

"I don't have a problem with apps like Rack Stare, they're out there, and they're there to serve a certain group of people, and more power to them," she explains.

"But there aren't a lot of things that provide an alternative to this kind of content. There are very few authentic female voices creating. And when there aren't that many, you start to think that this is what sex and sexuality is, when it's not the case. And that creates a vicious cycle in culture - you're constantly trying to achieve normalcy by adhering to the standards that Rack Stare sets for you, and you perpetuate that culture."

Gong now wishes she had built HappyPlayTime as a web based game from the start, with the option to then port it to mobile platforms. She's also hopeful that Android's slightly looser policies might allow a HappyPlayTime release, though she's heard that they've recently become stricter.

What she won't do is change the game, not for Apple, not when the mechanics are key to the message.

"Apple might have understood the purpose of it being educational, but wants to force me to strip out all the things that make this game what it is"

"I'm always looking for ways to break traditional models of doing things, so I guess that makes me stubborn about keeping this game system in place. I don't want to create a website or article, because so many great resources exist like that already. I'd rather work with those experts to create a new way of digesting the information. Apps like this create more receptivity, and make the educational aspect more inviting, welcoming."

"My guess is that Apple might have understood the purpose of it being educational, and that it was built with a mission, but wants to force me to strip out all the things that make this game what it is. And I can't accept that."

For the moment, the browser version is still in testing and Gong hasn't given up on the iOS version.

"I'm currently trying to get a meeting or a phone call with the executive that runs the entire App Store, and see if I can make a case. If that fails, I'm not sure what else I can do. I've already reached out to my networks, but if anybody can make an intro, or wants to tweet @mattfischer415 to help our case, I would sincerely appreciate it."

It might feel like a lot to ask from an industry, one that has struggled to represent any sort of positive sexuality in its games, to suddenly start celebrating female sexual curiosity in a positive and nurturing way. To have girls learning about their own bodies and what they can do through a game, rather than just wondering why that elf has boobs big enough to suffocate a Murloc. It's a long shot, but it's one Gong is taking, and one that the industry should support in any way it can.

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By Jeffrey Rousseau

Apple to remove apps that haven't been updated in a "significant amount of time"

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By Marie Dealessandri

Latest comments (39)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
Didn't Steve Jobs want to revolutionize education? Well, girls who grow up believing huge breasts were for suffocating Murlocs, don't go around breastfeeding their kids in public. Mission accomplished!
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This is disappointing, but not surprising. Apple has very weird ideas about what constitutes 'pornography' and 'objectionable content'. This is sexual education, not porn.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief8 years ago
Actually, Steve Jobs is on record as saying that he doesn't believe that games should be about "issues" (by which I would assume he means education on difficult subjects). He was happy that if you wanted to help people understand the Holocaust, you should write a book (which you could read on an iDevice), but not an app. Ditto the conditions in a sweatshop and the conflict in Syria as mentioned above.

Which makes no sense to me, but is what happens when you have an autocrat in charge.

Even a dead one.
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Show all comments (39)
Vulva like Conchita Wurst represents some sorta progress :)
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Nick Wofford Hobbyist 8 years ago
"Even a dead one"

I love this. It sums up Apple very well today. I wouldn't be surprised if their board of directors tried to use a Ouija board for some guidance.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments8 years ago
I suspect the sheer volume of app submissions can't help with some of cases; they can't have every app reviewed by a senior member of staff, so they need rules for what their testers can approve. The testers then need to interpret those rules, and so you get educational materials being rejected as pornographic, etc. Better rules would help, but they are probably more concerned about the bad press from letting something objectionable through than from blocking something positive.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Neil Young on 21st May 2014 5:01pm

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nik blower pr, marketing & franchise director, Nordic Games GmbH8 years ago
Philosophical view - is there any point in such an app
Note to self and other commentators - making clever and insightful comments on this post is very telling indeed....doh!
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Brook Jones Programmer, United Front Games8 years ago
Hmm. She complains that this reflects a double standard on the App Store, but something tells me an app that involved massaging a cartoon penis (even presented tastefully, in the context of education and/or self-discovery) would be rejected just as quickly...
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Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 8 years ago
Maybe the author should release it on GooglePlay and mark it as High Maturity, betting that some parents will still download the game for their kids or that some kids would use a device without appropriate maturity level set. But indeed, it's an uphill battle. It's also likely that Google would also ban such a game after a while "for having porn inside".
Any major store doesn't want trouble. The tiny profits such a game could bring to Apple (or Google) are by far outweighed by the possible troubles which the overly active traditional parents could bring to the store. If I were Apple, I'd ban the game, too, just to avoid lawsuits and loud headlines in newspapers.
Btw, I wonder what the author of this game was thinking of when starting development of such a game. Did he believe that the society would suddenly accept his progressive ideas? One thing is to publish a revolutionary article in some scientific journal, another thing is to try to sell stuff to very conservative audience (kids and parents). It must have been obvious from the start that such a project would never bring any profit and at best remain just a declaration that "girls need to know about their body".. It seems this game wasn't about earning any money at all..
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Nik, given how completely invisible and taboo the concept of female masturbation is in media and how common thought processes like those quoted in this article(about letters written by girls to author Judy Blume about her novel 'Deenie' and its portrayal of masturbation) are even today, I'd say there's a fairly serious 'point' to this app - teaching young people how their bodies work and how to deal with their feelings is incredibly important work and this topic in particular is neglected by most sexual education programmes in schools around the world.

I think it's interesting to note that there are already some sexual education apps present on the iTunes store but none seem to be interactive or game-like, so I assume given what Nicholas said that the games category has different rules about acceptable content. Sad given that gamification is a great way to present information for learning.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 21st May 2014 6:26pm

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Igor, first off the developer is a woman and no, I don't think profit is her main intention. Pretty sure she's looking to educate rather than make a quick buck.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
I wonder what the difference in reaction would be to this game if it was a guy making it.

I also wonder how people would react if they made a cartoon character of a penis that people had to play with in order for it to reach an orgasm (cum)... I wonder what the sperm would look like, candy I guess... and it would all be done for educational purposes of course...

...And we can call it HappyTugTime

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 21st May 2014 8:21pm

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Why don't you make it and find out, Rick?
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Doug McFarlane Co-Owner, KodeSource8 years ago
Women have orgasims?
Sorry - couldn't resist! Now back to our conversation. Boo Apple . . . or yay, or whatever the most popular side is.
I like their first 'hidden object' game: Clitoris Hunter - so difficult. (No, don't go look it up!)
When, as a society, did we get so 'politically correct' where we can't find the innocent humor in a game like this, but ban it for fear of public disapproval and backlashing. Good thing Apple isn't the only player in the market. Their grand-pappy prudish attitude will be their eventual downfall.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 8 years ago
Just to throw a little background light on the subject, a survey done by Always back in the nineties discovered that a very large proportion of women under 21 who used sanitary towels did so because they didn't know where their vagina was to insert a tampon and weren't comfortable straddling a hand mirror or randomly poking about to find out. A large number of women, especially older ones, have never even seen a vagina, and if you're in a mental hospital, while male masturbation is never commented on unless it's dramatically excessive or in inappropriate places, any masturbation at all goes on your file if you're a woman.

Despite the rise of "Gusset typing" (thank you for the term, Jo Brand :) ) and the slowly increasing popularity of vibrators (thanks to Ann Summers, nineties comediennes and the odd episode of Sex and the City), female masturbation is still pretty much the undiscovered country - there are still a lot of women who actually don't do it (yes, really true, but I don't mention it as a "Women r best becoz we dun't tick it, boyz" because there's nothing wrong with masturbation), because - alongside a naturally lower sex drive and general lack of imagery in every day life designed to arouse women, barring M&S Christmas adverts - they don't even realize they CAN.

Yet it can bring great biological benefits, from stress relief and easing depression to reducing period pain, maintaining strength and flexibility in pelvic floor muscles, to breaking down mental blocks that prevent orgasm with a partner.

It also strikes me as hilarious. If I had a phone right now, I would definitely get it to play with in the pub.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 21st May 2014 7:12pm

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Bonnie my only regret is that I have but one star to give - great comment.

The character design is adorable. I wonder if Gong's considered making tshirts? :D

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jessica Hyland on 21st May 2014 7:21pm

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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago

sorry... not my cup a tea... However just because people dont like or agree on something doesnt mean others cant agree or enjoy certain things... so i suppose this little game is ok... In Brazil they have this:
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
I can see why some people may be upset or worried about this app - and it is based on a sexual topic and it is interactive with touch.

I would agree that generally speaking, its a refreshing approach to addressing the subject in question and educating women (and men) on anatomy.

There are many things in the advanced modern age of 2014, that men and women simply don't know about their own bodies due to a lack of information, education and a sense of unnecessary embarrassment in many cultures and societies.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up8 years ago
Conservative America deciding for the rest of the world again. Utterly boring. Nothing wrong with this at all.
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Dan Pearson Product Marketing Manager, Genvid8 years ago
I think it's interesting that on the one hand Apple are confident that its child-protection features are fool (and child) proof, because they don't think anyone's kids can spend their money without permission, and yet they don't have confidence that those same children could be prevented from downloading what they consider to be 'objectionable' content. If you're going to take credit for one, take responsibility for the other.

Also, to me, the social behaviour promoted by something like 'Rack Stare' is infinitely more unpleasant than girls, or boys for that matter, finding out how female genitalia works.
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Asif A. Khan, CPA Financial Reporter 8 years ago
Now that is a headline.
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Axel Cushing Freelance Writer 8 years ago
This is not "Conservative America." This is "Conservative Apple." Whatever hue and cry might be squawked by pundits on the right, this was Apple's decision, and Apple has historically been death on what it deems to be "objectionable" in the App Store. I'm not overly surprised by Apple's decision, but I do think it was the wrong one.
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Robert Nzengou-Tayo Independent. 8 years ago
What I find strange is that people older than 17 can't have access to this. What is that 17+ rating for then? I mean, it's not X-rated. Should there be another rating between 17+ and X? Does that even make sense?
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
The vagina that scared Apple
That is probably the greatest news headline to ever make it on this site. It also provides tons of exposure for Ms. Gong so somewhere is bound to pick up her app for distributution.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 8 years ago
This is why I have never agreed with a walled garden approach. Steam is by far the dominant distribution system on PC. Google Play is by far the dominant distribution system on Android. I really don't think Apple had anything to fear. By putting themselves as the only gatekeepers of the platform they unfortunately have to be responsible for all the content on there.

Controversial speech I can understand is something Apple would fear in this unfortunate eco-system they have created for themselves. They really should not of positioned themselves as the Judge, Jury and Executioner of all content.

I doubt they would of had any less success if they just let third party content be installed. IE6 still won't die because it shipped with Windows despite better alternatives being available. Most people will just use the Apple Store because it shipped with Apple products and it works pretty well. I can't believe how scared of competition Apple is on this issue.

I really mourn for the alternative reality where Mobile phones could of been blossoming with more interesting adult/political games. It's not just games that criticize Apple like Paolo Pedercini's Phone Story or Adult themed games like HappyPlayTime that are being removed. Serious games like Endgame: Syria are being denied. Pulizer Prize winner Mark Fiore had his politcal satire App denied from iOS. Even quirky games like Yoot Saito's Seaman was denied from iOS. It's really disappointing.

In Australia a games jam is coming up themed around the PM's Budget as all government games funding has been cut. But Apple would probably not allow any of the video games from ever appearing in the AppStore and it really is arguably the most effective way to engage with the public.

I'd argue "Serious Games" ideal platform is the mobile phone as the short mini games format can distill quite powerful messages and yet it's the one platform that is denied from arguably it's most important content.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 22nd May 2014 1:57am

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Amusingly enough, Tale of Tales probably wants a word with some of you who haven't played their subversively sexy touch-based game:

You may need a room later if you play this with the right person.

Also, anyone here ever play Rez on the Japanese PS2 with the Trance Vibrator peripheral? Yeah, that's fun for gals and guys alike. Of course, those aren't "overtly" sexula, although once you experience either, it's hard NOT to see what's going on... :D
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
Nothing good ever comes from mixing Vaginas and apples; you just need to check the bible to see where did it led us.

But now seriously; according to my cousin all this fear regarding sexual stuff (at least in the States) comes mainly from the fear of teen pregnancy and STD's. Are we still in that point? has nobody there realized that STD and teen pregnancy happens precisely from lack of information? Anyway; in the end we get that you get banned for talking about masturbation but you sell 10M units of a game for glorifying war. Our morals are really screwed up if you ask me.

Like G.R.R. Martin said:
“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness. Ultimately, in the history of [the] world, penises entering vaginas have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure; axes entering skulls, well, not so much.”
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I think this is the first time I see women commenting here. Good, pity that it is for negative news.

Too bad Apple chose to put a chastity belt on this app, could have helped to educated men too...
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Martin Echenique Manager, Online Engineering - Sony WWS Online Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe8 years ago
@Shane: Actually, Steam *IS* a walled garden. It's only fairly recently they started opening it up a bit with the Greenlight process, but it's still a closed system.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game8 years ago
Steam is a walled garden, but it is not the only way to get a PC game out. That, I believe, was his point. If Google don't let a game like this on, it is a blow as it is the biggest store, and Amazon will likely block it too, but there are plenty of smaller app store which will allow you to get it on a device (without rooting or jailbreaking).

Steam did take that sex game off Greenlight, and that may reduce it's potential sales, but it will be available on PC if the developer decides to make it.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd8 years ago
Not to let Apple off the hook (as Nicholas points out Jobs was happy to put limits of how far content providers were allowed to "think different" if it got in the way of Apple's immediate goals), but part of the blame must rest with the mobile operators who are incredibly paranoid about what kids can see on their services. To the extent that they'll impose censorship on their adult customers:

If we can fix that insanity then there will be less of an excuse for such tight controls on app stores.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 8 years ago
Apple simply bans sexual content. How would they rate how much sexuality does an app have? That would be no less controversial than a complete ban. Uncontrolled spending on in-app purchases already got them into trouble, but kids using "pornographic" apps? That would be an open call for government regulation...
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Jonathan Burroughs Game Developer, Variable State8 years ago
I'd like to better understand why Apple seem to perceive themselves to be a distributor of content like music, books and films, but a publisher of apps. At least that's the only reason I can see why they'd feel releasing controversial software might be seen as a reflection of their values in a way releasing a movie or record isn't.

And as Dan Pearson points out, the rules are broken if something with the content of Rack Stare makes it through the net, but HappyPlayTime fails the test. I hadn't heard of Rack Stare before yesterday, but reading up on it now it would seem to actively promote sexual harassment. And now, unwittingly or otherwise, allowing one and not the other reflects the values of the notionally socially liberal and progressive Apple brand.

Better for Apple to remove themselves from the equation as much as they can, censor nothing, except where legally obliged, and leave defending the content to the creators.
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 8 years ago
I actually should keep my mouth shut this time, as I have droped a brick last week. Yes, Apple ain't the US goverment. Yes, there's now homophobic-law. Yes, they didn't ranked it 18+. Nah, this is just the anti-female policiy of a christian-oriented, western company of male chauvinists with sticks up their asses. There's idiocy both sides of the pacific.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gil Salvado on 22nd May 2014 5:37pm

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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations8 years ago
Sexualizing children is like giving them guns or hard drugs. It's just not meant for them. Period. Let them grow up, don't be a douchebag who thinks he has the right to take away their childhood and innocence -- even with the best possible intents.
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 8 years ago
I think this game is meant for pubescent teenagers and not for pre-pubescent children. Of course it is up to every country to decide at which age a person is no more a child. But I do believe each teenagers should be treated equal no matter the gender.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
Nah, this obviously was not aimed at children. More like teenage women. Keep in minds that feminine masturbation is still a implicit taboo even in liberal and developed countries. This is not about sexualizing but more about educating.
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Eoin Moran Studying Bachelor of Engineering, University of Melbourne8 years ago
I wonder if the game would be let through if the vulva was changed to a different colour (say green). Arguably it would defeat the purpose of the game, yet it would highlight the bizarre acts of the censors when it comes to sexual liberation.
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Barry Northern Development Lead, Amuzo8 years ago
Great advertising for the Android version
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