Apple’s Censored Garden

Apple's Censored Garden

“Because I said so.” That is the hefty hammer of rule wielded by many parents and suffered by many children. Why can’t you buy this book at the book fair? Because I said so. Why can’t you stay up to watch one more episode of [insert show kids watch]? Because I said so.

Sometimes it’s for genuine protection. (Like, seriously, don’t stick that fork in the toaster.) But it becomes frustrating for the kid when an explanation doesn’t follow the denial. Or worse than that, the decision turns from a faith in logic to an arbitrary admonishment, a lack of consistency. Understanding makes us tick, but it also makes us unravel.

Just yesterday, Lucas Pope experienced this firsthand as he prepares to release Papers, Please for Apple’s App Store. The iPad version will have actually already come out by the time you read this, but there is one significant change from the original PC release: there is no full nudity option. Apple’s reasoning? “Pornographic content.”

If you recall from 2013, I really enjoyed Papers, Please. Well, “enjoyed” is an odd word for it. Papers, Please is a taxing game. It forces you to push aside your humanity—your empathy, your emotions—and do your job. Follow orders and get it done. All day, every day.

The nudity that Apple refers to comes up once you start using body scanners to determine if immigrants coming through your border station are hiding dangerous items, like bombs or guns. It is also a sharp, pungent reminder of what you’re doing. You’re violating precious privacy—personal privacy, too, one of the few allowed in Arstotzka—just to shuffle more sheep through the line and get more money.

It is, in a word, necessary. While you can still play and “enjoy” the game without it (the original had the ability to partially clothe people), a substantial gut-punch is removed in the process. Nathan Grayson over at Kotaku actually has already written about this, if you want to read about it.

Papers, Please

While important, that’s not the main problem with this censorship. It is, in fact, Apple’s application of it that is the problem. Firstly by their methodologies, it is frustrating. For the longest time, Apple has been viewed as a walled garden, holding tight to restrictions regarding its and others’ content when offered through or on their platforms like the App Store and iOS devices. It certainly has benefits (e.g. guaranteed interoperability), but it is also has huge drawbacks.

The most obvious, of course, is the opaque review process. Apple has very clearly stated guidelines, but there are significant gray areas that allow for things to get muddied. 16.1 of their guidelines state the following: “Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected.” Those two words. “Excessively objectionable.” Both of those are independently dependent on perspective.

Without context, it is certainly an app that provides images of digitized pixel nudity. With context, it is a contributing factor to the dehumanizing sensation that makes Papers, Please so affecting. Consider an image of two colors squares on top of each other. Half a tetromino, right? Now we give them names like Betty and Bob and play this music. Now it is sexual in nature and liable to be rejected from the App Store as well.

Papers, Please

What I’m trying to say is context is important. That’s the first problem with this censorship. This is a superficial rejection (or so we can assume, since we have no idea how Apple really feels about it other than “no”), but with the number of app submissions Apple gets a day. In 2012, they got 26,000 a week, and by 2013, they were adding almost that many per month. That’s too many to keep up with and subject each submission to in-depth analysis.

The next problem is the inconsistency. With that much input to go through, it’s a problem solved by throwing more bodies at it. This means a lot of different opinions of what is “excessively objectionable” get to say what gets through and what doesn’t. The end result is something saliently pointed to by The Guardian: an iOS app by very real porn star Rocco Siffredi was just released, an app that allows you to insert your face into an image of a woman being taken from behind and share it.

Apple even bothers in that article to refer to Jacobellis v. Ohio, the famous Supreme Court decision on obscenity where Justice Potter Stewart stated he could not define pornography, but rather that “I know it when I see it.” It’s hard to believe that this is not considered pornographic by Apple but this is. How can that be frustrating and defeating to everyone else but especially Lucas Pope?

Mass Effect 3

Then there’s also the whole bit about artistic expression and the value of wholly encompassing some creator’s vision. Remember the kerfuffle surrounding Mass Effect 3‘s conclusion(s)? While it shouldn’t be free from criticism, BioWare should also be free to create something as they see fit. And criticism is vastly different from censorship, let alone the absolutely absurd petition to wholly revise another creator’s product.

While we haven’t quite reached that point, it’s still telling of where both the App Store is and where it’s headed. Of course, the other end of the spectrum is Google Play where it’s like kindergarteners running around with scissors and glue and every once in a while you’ll see someone conducting business. One remedy, though, is simply to become even less opaque, a transition Apple has made even once before. Yes, they used to be more inscrutable. But I guess it’s not up to us. Why?

Because Apple said so.

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