Apple’s Wrongheaded, Dangerous Censorship of Satirical Sweatshop for iPad

Apple's removal of the satirical iOS game Sweatshop from its App Store continues a dangerous precedent of censorship.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Littleloud

Many of Apple‘s App Store approval guidelines — Apple playing judge, jury and bouncer — make sense. There’s the one about apps that crash outright, the one about apps not performing as advertised, the one about apps that try to charge you for push notifications, or the one about apps that target minors for data collection. Functionality, privacy, your pocketbook — who’s going to argue with safeguarding those?

And yet there’s also some profound weirdness here, in particular Cupertino’s folksy “just lookin’ out for you” preamble, whose second paragraph — often cited, since appearing in 2010, for its cultural backwardness — reads (in part):

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.

It’s a very strange way to convey what’s really a simpler point. It’s also hilariously wrongheaded if you’ve thought even superficially about how different mediums, especially “apps” like video games, work. One thing I doubt anyone’s going to dispute, is that it’s a euphemistic way of saying “We don’t care what you think, we’ll do what we like — our store, our rules.”

Stores have always had rules and the right to enforce them. Restaurants, for instance, sometimes sport signs like “No shirt, no shoes, no service” — I suspect most appreciate the latter (save, I suppose, for nudists, who have my sympathies). And I’ve seen all sorts of variants on the adage “We reserve the right to refuse service” — again, generally a good thing when it involves removing the drunk and belligerent. But stores have also carried signs like “We cater to white trade only.” A storekeeper’s prerogative isn’t unassailable. Sometimes the outlets through which we purchase goods or services — traditional or digital — get the rules badly wrong, and sometimes only time and reflection allow us to see why.

That’s looking to be the case with Apple’s quiet removal of an iPad app called Sweatshop from the App Store last month, a tower defense game described by its U.K.-based developer Littleloud as “light-hearted,” but also “based upon very present realities that many workers around the world contend with each day.”

I noticed the game’s removal belatedly — just yesterday, in fact, after Georgia Institute of Technology professor and game theory luminary Ian Bogost tweeted about it. Since the game no longer lives on the App Store, I had to pull up the still-available Flash version in my MacBook’s browser. It’s impressively elaborate, with polished, stylish visuals and incrementally complex gameplay that has you positioning different worker types (shirt-maker, hat-maker, etc.) around a conveyer belt as increasingly difficult orders roll through. You can assign children to toil away, of course — they’re cheap, but work slower. You get a time bonus if you speed up the belt, but this can overtask employees, who you can offer (think “click frantically”) things like beverages to keep from exhaustion. But all this stuff costs money, and as the orders and level strictures ramp up, it’s difficult to keep everyone happy and healthy without depleting your cash. Eventually bad things start to happen.

At the end of each stage, you’re ranked on metrics like how many workers you injured (or killed — yes, killed), how many you had to hire, how many you upgraded and so forth. Beside this, a “For Real” box offers information about sweatshops, say how the U.S. garment workers union defines a sweatshop, or how much workers might be fined for mistakes (costing up to two months pay) or what their sometimes ridiculously high daily production quotas are. At no point would anyone mistake a game like Sweatshop for an exploitive, pro-sweatshop game, in other words.

In fact according to Littleloud’s game overview:

Many of the clothes available in our high street shops have been manufactured in sweatshops, factories that routinely pay their workers less than the minimum wage, and prevent the formation of unions to campaign for better working conditions … In addition, there are numerous facts and figures spread throughout the game, highlighting the plight of the workers who may well have made the clothes you are wearing today.

Littleloud says it worked with British public-service broadcaster Channel 4 as well as “experts on sweatshops” to craft an experience that reflected some of these conditions. And longtime mobile-watcher Pocket Gamer calls it a “superbly crafted combination of tower defence game and management sim that’s consistently thought-provoking, yet never heavy-handed.” The site also handed it a coveted “silver” award.

Sweatshop seems to fit comfortably within Bogost’s “empathy” category (from his book How To Do Things with Videogames). According to Bogost, “One of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes.” What Bogost says in that chapter about his example game, Darfur Is Dying, would seem to apply here, too:

If a game about the Sudanese genocide is meant to foster empathy for terrible real-world situations in which players fortunate enough to play videogames might intervene, then those games would do well to invite us to step into the smaller, more uncomfortable shoes of the downtrodden rather than the larger, more well-heeled shoes of the powerful.

According to Littleloud honcho Simon Parkin (via PG), Apple yanked Sweatshop “stating that it was uncomfortable selling a game based around the theme of running a sweatshop.” Specifically, Parkin says Apple took issue with references in the game to managers blocking fire escapes, ratcheting up work hours and “issues around the child labor.” Littleloud attempted to mollify Apple by tweaking the app to clarify that the game was “a work of fiction” and that it had been designed “with the fact-checking input of charity Labor Behind the Label,” but to no avail.

That a company like Apple would bar thoughtful and intelligent political expression, or intimate that games (as “apps”) are somehow intrinsically different in terms of their curation from books or music is ridiculous. Never mind whether Sweatshop is good or bad as a game — I haven’t played it enough to say — it’s the idea that a game intended both as educational and intelligently satirical could wind up banned that’s dangerous. At worst, removing or barring this sort of game from the App Store is censorship. At best, it’s odious sanitization, sanitization as defined by a company that fails to grasp — or at best, badly misunderstands — the relationship of gaming to the other arts and the 21st century in general.

22 comments
ericwmast
ericwmast

This is the best promotion this app could have gotten! I never would have heard of it if Apple hadn't banned it. Now everyone can play the free Flash version online.

luscusrex
luscusrex

You miss the point entirely, Companies are dictatorships, they do as they see fit as long as money comes in, there is no voting, or opinion only the almighty  buck. What do you want to bet that 5 years from now, when OS, X,Y,and Z pulls 80% of all phones, Apple will relax it's standards for dollar just like a cheap wana be street worker, hummm? It is not censorship, it is image that counts, and whatever tarnish it, goes.

ByteMarx
ByteMarx

It is not censorship. Everyone who bought an Apple product agreed to let the Cupertino Mob do their thinking for them.

B O O H O O

georgiajim1
georgiajim1

It is sad that Apple does not want to face the truth!  Please tell me, how many ipadss were made in these sweat shops?

MAGuyton
MAGuyton like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hmm... I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that iPhones are made in a Chinese sweatshop owned by FoxConn...

AZWarrior
AZWarrior

Behavior like this, among other reasons is why I for one left Apple products behind. Who needs this aggravation. 

lemuel
lemuel

This is why I switched to Android from the iPhone.  I'm surprised that a number of people here aren't bothered by Apple censoring a harmless application, but here is why it matters when Apple does it.  Apple designed the iPhone so that you can only download apps from them.  If they only filtered out malware and the like it wouldn't bother me that Apple does some removal of programs.  Removing programs because they don't like the message, though, is pure censorship.  Google is starting to censor more with Android, but I am perfectly free to get apps from elsewhere without rooting my phone, a luxury Apple does not allow.  Apple should either quit censoring apps or allow alternate app stores.

ChikuMisra
ChikuMisra

Good for Apple. Maybe they don't want a lot of sleazy porn in the App Store. They could have made a killing no doubt, but they have morals and put their consciences and character ahead of money. It is a rare and unusual thing in this day and age and even more unusual in this capitalistic country. I really think Apple has set a great example in this regard and I will continue to heartily support them by buying their products. In just the last few months, I bought an iPod touch, which I sold along with my tv to buy an ipad, and a nano. Great products, and a good, honorable company making them.

auronlu
auronlu

@ChikuMisra Did you read the article at all?

This isn't about yanking porn from the app store. This is about yanking an app that teaches about child labor and unfair labor practices through a demo, with facts and figures telling you about real-world companies that many people buy from without realizing how the products are made. It's been lauded by charities for getting out an important educational message.

And it is unfortunate that Apple chose to yank THIS app, as opposed to other apps raising awareness about social injustices and other sensitive issues, since Apple is vulnerable to criticism about labor practices in its own factories.

This is not getting rid of porn or protecting users of the app store from trashy content. This is protecting them from learning about the real world and real world problems.

auronlu
auronlu

@ChikuMisra (and I say this as someone who has bought Apple products since 1979, and I'm typing this on a Mac with my iPad nearby. However, I do NOT think it's right to sweep it under the rug when Apple makes a mistake.)

JoeSirbak1
JoeSirbak1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Censorship, by definition, requires official action.  You're using an inapplicable term to sensationalize your story and get hits.  Apple is one of many players in the mobile computing space (and a rapidly-fading player from last decade at that, with Android holding a huge lead in market share in the current generation and Microsoft and even Blackberry driving the interface innovations that will define the next generation of mobile computing).    There's nothing worrying or inappropriate about Apple trying to compete in the marketplace by offering the most tightly curated app store, and this practice certainly isn't "censorship."

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator

@JoeSirbak1 You're just projecting when you throw out a cliched, lazy critique like "sensationalize," Joe (that, and you're wrong). In any case, I'm not sure what your version of the dictionary says under the term "official," but in mine, it applies precisely to what Apple did when it officially removed this app.

zkincaidible
zkincaidible like.author.displayName 1 Like

TIME suppresses ideas all the time. What's your point?

bradawhite
bradawhite

The developer should port it to Android. Sell it for $5, and say $4 of those dollars goes to anti-sweatshop charities, with in-app purchases to make donations of up to $50. I would buy it. 

kelley
kelley like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I guess the app hit a little too close to home considering Apples sweatshop like facilities for manufacturing their products.

GeorgeTults
GeorgeTults

One of the many reason to buy android.  While google may pull apps from their store, you don't need google's approval to run an application on an android device.  This is a subtle point lost on many people, but it is very important point none the less.

kevingrr
kevingrr

Sorry, Apple was never obliged to make Sweatshop available on their OS. 

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@kevingrr Right. Nor is anyone obliged to be silent about the inanity of the reasons Apple's given for pulling it.

kevingrr
kevingrr

@mattpeckham @kevingrr Like the inanity of reasons EA pulled single player from SimCity? Maybe you missed my mimicry of your other article.

So it is OK for you to criticize Apple and their consumer products and not ok for SimCity fans to criticize EA for theirs?

If Wal-Mart or Target refuse to carry a book, CD, or magazine that is their choice.  I remember this being more of an issue 15 years ago before 50 Shades of Grey was on every grocery store endcap and top our best sellers list.

I agree that Apple should not be censoring this sort of material, but then I'm not writing this on a MacBook Pro either.

consiliumetanimus
consiliumetanimus

Interesting article Matt. Not an Apple person myself, but I find the irony amusing. Odd though, you dont mention that the factories where Apple products are assembled had to put nets on the roof to stop the constant jumpers; that the workers make 10 yuan a month, and reports of mental/physical abuse by supervisors is common. Were you simply tip toeing lightly around the issue, or did you figure that everyone knows this already? Either way, the ironic nature of Apple pulling a sweatshop themed game is priceless.

mattpeckham
mattpeckham moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@consiliumetanimus Thanks! I considered adding that, but felt it worked better not to, if only to let the principle itself -- that games ought not be treated differently here -- be the guidepost.