Apple rejects the notion that games are the place for comment, but it’s built right into the medium

Why does Apple hate videogames so much? The gatekeeper of the walled garden that is the iOS games store is routinely geekslapped for turning down games it deems too edgy. A couple of months ago, a WWII naval game was rejected for featuring the Japanese flag. More recently, Apple rejected Littleloud’s Sweatshop HD, a blackly satirical and highly enjoyable game of labouring in factories to make clothes for corporate retailers. According to an interview by Pocket Gamer with Littleloud’s Simon Parkin, “Apple removed Sweatshop from the App Store last month stating that it was uncomfortable selling a game based around the theme of running a sweatshop. Apple specifically cited references in the game to clothing factory managers ‘blocking fire escapes’, ‘increasing work hours for labour’, and issues around the child labour as reasons why the game was unsuitable for sale.”

You might think that those should count as reasons why the clothes made in sweatshops are unsuitable for sale, not why a rigorously fact-checked game about the phenomenon should be denied a place in Apple’s own sales channel. Evidently, the truth is worse than it would be if Apple just hated videogames – at least that would imply a passionate negative engagement with the medium. Instead, Apple simply doesn’t understand games. According to the App Store developer guidelines, Apple thinks of games and apps in general as different from “books or songs, which we do not curate”. This is a particularly odious usage of that self-regarding modern buzzword ‘curate’, which generally implies that on the Internet everyone is their own private museum director. For Apple, curation means slamming the profit-door in the face of apps and games that attempt to rise above their station. “If you want to criticise a religion,” Apple advises, “write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.”

One obvious rebuttal to this dummkopf’s idea of electronic art is that videogames based around social commentary – newsgames, critical games, and so forth – have been around for longer than the App Store. But I would like here to insist on a more general point, which is that it’s impossible to make a game – or even an app – that doesn’t contain some social, cultural, or political commentary, whether it is made explicit or buried implicitly in the aesthetic decisions, or what Ian Bogost calls the game’s “procedural rhetoric”.

Let me take a look at what is currently installed on my own iPad. The Room, for a start, is arguably making a sardonic comment on the virtual age’s incurable nostalgia for the haptic mechanical; it does seem to imply, after all, that the most satisfying application for a flatscreen fondleslab is to simulate protuberant gears, knobs and drawers. It is in content a dream of an alternative steampunk present, and in format the most savage possible indictment of the very technology that makes it possible. If you think that is far-fetched, you will at least agree that Waking Mars could easily be cosponsored by NASA and Greenpeace, since it is a (very beautiful) game whose implicit argument is that we should treat space as an arena for ecological thinking, rather than just a twinkling backdrop for blowing up everything in sight. And Little Inferno is rather obviously a bonfire of modern vanities, a deliciously cynical counterblast to the ruling ideology of accelerated materialism. How that ever got past the gimlet-eyed Apple thought police is difficult to imagine.

There is simply no such thing as a videogame that embodies no social or cultural comment at all. Like all artworks, videogames are products of human creativity at a particular time in history, and cannot help reflecting that fact. But the lesson doesn’t stop at games. Look at the stealthily political arguments made by the aesthetics and functioning of Apple’s own iOS apps.

The nasty, skeuomorphic faux-leather trim of the Calendar app, for instance, projects me into the stifling psychic space of a 1970s mid-level executive and quietly encourages me to conduct my professional and social life accordingly. When I turn on the Do Not Disturb feature, I get an unhideable crescent moon in the info bar, as though it’s somehow OK to disturb me at any moment as long as the sun is shining. And the fact that the phone number app is called Contacts shores up the weird modern hegemony of this term, which – according to Melissa Gregg’s brilliant book Work’s Intimacy – is designed deliberately to blur the distinction between the categories of ‘colleague’ and ‘friend’, so that the workplace feels like our emotional home.

Dig deep enough, in other words, and we’ll find that not just all games but all software has buried political, social or cultural biases for which they implicitly argue. I recently read in Ian Sansom’s wonderful Paper: An Elegy that the architect Yona Friedman was an early refusenik of computer-aided design. He complained that “All the pre-fabricated software has implications that are not stated.” This remains true of the software we use today, from Office to BioShock. To be perfectly consistent, Apple should really ban all of it.

Illustration: Marsh Davies