Developers, we are led to believe, wish they could try making videogames as art, or produce videogames as something more than trivial play things, but (woe unto them) Steve Jobs won't let them. After years of speculation, which of course came mostly from non-developers, here, finally, Apple has publicly confessed in their guidelines:
- No showing nudity
- No depicting violence
- No discussing religion
- No making a statement
There's a substantial problem with the above-mentioned narrative, though: these fears are not what the guidelines say, nor do they reflect Apple's app acceptances.
The existence of this new guideline document is to set in plain wording what has previously been buried in technical documentation, legalese, and Apple's submission feedback. The document begins with a colloquial introduction, including a few downright flippant statements:
- "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."
- "...we're keeping an eye out for the kids."
- "We don't need any more Fart apps."
- "If your App looks like it was cobbled together in a few days, or you're trying to get your first practice App into the store to impress your friends, please brace yourself for rejection."
- "We have lots of serious developers who don't want their quality Apps to be surrounded by amateur hour."
- "We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line."
Fortunately, that text is from the introduction, not the actual guidelines listed. The introduction secretly serves to protect us all from people who are too careless to read more than one page of text.
Change in Expectation
When the App Store came about, there was nothing else like it. It's at an awkward intersection between broadly accessible platform (giving development and publishing access to anyone with $100 for a license) and a closed, curated platform (attempting to filter submissions in the interest of protecting consumer safety and experience). Trying to get an application published on a Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft console, or even traditional mobile phones such as LG, Motorola, or Samsung requires a comparatively monumental financial, legal, and business maneuver that is orders of magnitude tougher than Apple's cheap, simple, online developer registration.
Apple's lower barrier to entry has opened the floodgates, bringing in hundreds of thousands developers that, in many cases, have gone from facing no publishing bureaucracy to dealing with a very lightweight and comparatively reasonable one.
Let's begin with the easiest distinction to highlight, pornography:
"18.1 Apps containing pornographic material, defined by Webster's Dictionary as 'explicit descriptions or displays of sexual organs or activities intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings', will be rejected"
Already the differences between the hysterical fear vs the in-context reality becomes clear.
While it's true that pornography isn't allowed, nudity is, so long as its purpose isn't erotic. If a journalist, artist, or educator has something to say which requires depicting nudity in a tasteful manner, Apple's guidelines don't object. Applications on their App Store are consistent with this:
From Clemente's Anatomy Flash Cards, (by Modality, Inc).
I think it's fine for kids to see this. Thankfully, Apple does too.
Perhaps drugs are the sore spot? They're just as taboo a subject in America as sexuality...
"2.18 Apps that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol or illegal substances, or encourage minors to consume alcohol or smoke cigarettes, will be rejected"
In one of the iPhone games I developed, Alice in Bomberland (article)
, I commented on drug use, and depicted hallucinogenic drug use in-game by making drugs a power-up. This was fine. Based on the above guideline, the line we actually can't cross is creating an app that commands: "Hey kids, use mescaline." I am not a lawyer, but my lay understanding of US criminal law is that, in most cases, commanding others to commit illegal acts is also illegal regardless of Apple's guidelines.
No breaking federal law with our iPhone apps--got it. Also, no Joe Camel games.
What about religion? The introduction for the guidelines, in its plain language, outright say that criticism of religion should be reserved for books. Do the guidelines agree?
"19.1 Apps containing references or commentary about a religious, cultural or ethnic group that are defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited or likely to expose the targeted group to harm or violence will be rejected"
In other words: we can't provoke violence. We can't fan the flames of hatred. If a developer has something articulate, mature, and constructive to say on the subject, that statement does not appear to be in violation of 19.1.
Another iPad/iPhone app I developed, Transcend (video link)
, refers to spirituality as an "imaginary view of the world," followed by a note that it "can have real utility." More directly, in the same app, I borrow Thoreau's words from Walden
, "No way of thinking or doing however ancient can be trusted without proof."
The New York Times app on my iPhone routinely comments on religious, cultural, and ethnic groups, but it does so in a non-inflammatory way that advances the state of public discourse on these core aspects of civilization.
A non-controversial iPhone app shown here commenting on Pakistan,
US presidential candidates, China, and The Congressional Black Caucus.
The religion guideline is actually a specific restatement of an earlier one:
"14.1 Any app that is defamatory, offensive, mean-spirited, or likely to place the targeted individual or group in harms way will be rejected"
Thus, religions and ethnic groups are protected exactly the same as any other group or individual. Don't target anyone for a riot or violent revolution. Check. But there's no complaint here about saying something that has journalistic, artistic, or otherwise intellectual merit. Such things are explicitly allowed under this umbrella provision:
"14.2 Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary"
Note: anyone that gets paid to do something is a "professional," and so, by virtue of selling a humor or political satire app, someone becomes a "professional" in their field. Thus, so long as someone is competent about what they're doing (we might say professional about it), Apple can welcome them into the profession simply by accepting their commentary.
Perhaps violence is the answer... to the question of how Apple's guidelines restrict our free speech? Here is the entire section on violence:
"15.1 Apps portraying realistic images of people or animals being killed or maimed, shot, stabbed, tortured or injured will be rejected
15.2 Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected
15.3 'Enemies' within the context of a game cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity
15.4 Apps involving realistic depictions of weapons in such a way as to encourage illegal or reckless use of such weapons will be rejected
15.5 Apps that include games of Russian roulette will be rejected"
No realistic portrayal of violence--
though if you've played any zombie games on iPhone (mine included
) you'll know that "realistic" is a fairly literal standard. Then there are the other items, which effectively translate to:
- No child abuse.
- No hate crime wish fulfillment.
- No making real people/groups/races/companies a target for violence.
- No promoting reckless use of real weapons.
Lastly, Russian roulette will be rejected - because, I suppose, that would be redundant with the $0.99 Russian roulette app Silver Revolvers - More Guns!
, which the author reports has been downloaded more than 35,000 times since March 2009.
Technically, it's not a game of Russian roulette. It's just a gun app,
with a revolver that defaults to be loaded with 1 bullet, which supports
flicking the cylinder to randomize the number of trigger pulls before it fires.
Also, the game's icon shows a revolver cylinder with 1 bullet loaded in it.
A handful of rare exceptions aside, those are simply not things that we find hanging in art galleries, held up as great journalism, or central to literature. The idea that Apple's guidelines are quashing free speech, the advancement of games as art, or use of games for journalism are generally out of touch with the contents, spirit, and practice of the guidelines.
If you're not bored yet--between the entirely sensible guidelines and Apple's fairly lenient, reasonable enforcement of them--
I encourage reading the rest
. The points not mentioned here mostly explain that Apple may reject a submitted app under the following conditions: it is broken, malicious, useless, unfinished, scammy, illegal, misleading, incompatible with Apple hardware, creating security loopholes, stealing user data, or unfairly tying up bandwidth.
Last, but not least, Apple offers a disclaimer in their guidelines - not only in the casual introduction, but also in its very own section at the end of the document:
"This document represents our best efforts to share how we review apps submitted to the App Store, and we hope it is a helpful guide as you develop and submit your apps. It is a living document that will evolve as we are presented with new apps and situations, and we'll update it periodically to reflect these changes."
Apple can not only made exceptions, but it can will back and change the guidelines specifically to suit new cases. The 14.2 exception for professional humorists and cartoonists came about after Pulitzer Price winner Mark Fiore's satire application NewsToons
was initially rejected
by Apple for violating the defamation guideline. Shortly thereafter, Steve Jobs admitted the rejection was "a mistake,"
followed by Apple reversing their official decision, accepting the app, and modifying their policy accordingly. Along with this turnaround, Mark Fiore and his NewsToons
app received a monsoon of free launch visibility.
Who doesn't want to buy the app that Steve Jobs himself acknowledged was good enough to rewrite Apple's app acceptance guidelines, which for a week prior had been both a forbidden fruit--never to be released--and held up by bloggers everywhere as confirmation that Apple stifles legitimate, journalistic speech?
In other words, even if a developer makes an app that clearly violates something in Apple's guidelines, provided that the application has genuine cultural, intellectual, and/or artistic value in a way that can be argued on reasonable grounds, Apple is in a position to either quietly grant acceptance or adjust their policy to include it. In either case, the app gets a competitive advantage by being first to market; in the latter case, it can wind up with a great deal of free publicity.
The world's Don Quixotes can tilt windmills all they'd like--and no doubt, they will. In the meantime, the rest of us can spend time making more things that Apple, according to the widely confused narrative, arbitrarily and unreasonably will not allow to be released.