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.

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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.