Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander hit it out of the park this past week in her interview with developer Paolo Pedercini of Molleindustria about their game Phone Story. The game was submitted to the App Store, then pulled by Apple, citing app store violations. These include restrictions in the developer agreement against depictions of child abuse and "objectionable or crude" content. The other two app store violations include prohibitions against paid apps donating to charity. The app continues to be available for Android smartphones.
The game is essentially a documentary-like commentary on the smartphone hardware industry, an industry that the iPhone created and plays a major role in. The developer is, essentially, bringing awareness of the life cycle of the smartphone that we are using to play the game on to users who may or may not know the facts of the matter. Like any good documentarian, the developers elucidate the facts, put them into an art form, and release it to the public. Their website includes more facts, as in this page about Coltan, an essential mineral for electronic devices, and the focus of one of the minigames in the app.
This kind of awareness raising can only be a good thing. While I am not an expert on Apple's approval process, I can see how one of the mini-games can be construed as "depicting child abuse," as guards with guns are placed with a tap on the screen to keep the young looking workers digging up coltan. However, I think Apple needs to start looking deeper at the process of approvals on games that are clearly artistic or documentary-like in nature. I'm sure it's a tough call sometimes, but perhaps there could be a secondary process? I'm sure even the most concrete approval clerk could look at a description like the one on the Phone Story website and see that this is the case:
"Phone Story is an educational game about the dark side of your favorite smart phone. Follow your phone's journey around the world and fight the market forces in a spiral of planned obsolescence."
If Apple continues to want to be the arbiter of what gets published, and wants to be the front runner, they need to come up with some way to allow these types of games to get through. Would they pull a magazine app that reproduced the sort of information that is conveyed through gameplay? Let's hope not. It's my sincere hope that Apple works its way around this issue, both for Phone Story and for future indie games that have a clear humanitarian focus. Protecting users from hurtful content is one thing, censoring the fact that these things do exist, in the very market, is another, and as such, suspect.