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An Open Letter To Tim Cook About Game Censorship

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.


I’m a huge fan of Apple’s products including my new iPhone 6 Plus. It’s gorgeous. I’m even more of a fan of what Apple has done for games in the last half decade. Prior to the App Store, selling games to the mass market was an expensive and difficult mess of approvals by powers-that-be, often at massive disadvantage to the game maker. Apple opened that closed shop, which in turn spawned multiple revolutions. It led to many new kinds of game, new powers, new economics for games and a whole raft of other innovations.

I bring these examples up to frame my appreciation and disappointment appropriately. I think you’re doing an incredible job but there is one area in which you’re letting me down badly: Censorship.

Movies might get age certificates and music might get stickers warning of offensive lyrics, but they don’t get banned. They used to. From the early days of pulping books like Ulysses through to the Comics Code and “video nasties”, every medium has had to face allegations of offense or indecency. Every one has had to make the case that their material is worthy of being treated as free expression. And – thankfully – they’ve all won. Except games.

Game developers are regularly treated as second class media citizens. It was only in 2011, 40 years after their creation, that video games were finally declared to be a protected form of free speech by the Supreme Court. Throughout the history of the industry we have had self-policing, legal suppression, publisher, platform and retailer demands for creative changes to games based on censorship. Some are ridiculous (bans against showing blood) and some are allegations of prurience (nudity in games) and some are baseless fears of corruption (video game violence).

Whether it’s a console or a big retail chain, we game makers have long had to put up with a level of interference that no other medium faces. We’re consistently told what our medium should be like, often by people with a poor understanding of it. We frequently get accused of leading the world astray in ways that are not supportable. All this at a time when the first generation of game makers is passing the torch (Ralph Baer RIP). The second generation often wants to make fun games, but some of them want to use games for other means. Games like Depression Quest and dys4ia, for example. Games like Papers Please. Games like Sweatshop. Games like Howling Dogs.

But even though Apple has done many amazing things for our industry in liberalizing its economics (with great thanks) the company nevertheless buys into the urge to suppress games. And it’s just morally wrong. Tim I don’t believe that this is a position that you’re actively taking. I think it’s happened as a result of a couple of related issues that have bred an awkward censorship.

First there was the issue of trying to keep iOS relatively consumer friendly by keeping porn away. Apple’s position has been that people are welcome to go out onto the Web and do as they wish. If they really want their adult material, Safari is their gateway. Second was the fact that because games are made in software there is frequently confusion in many minds over whether they are a medium or a product. Approval of software is essentially a checklist of what’s permitted or not, much as a technical requirements, violations, bugs and so on. It’s (mostly) entirely binary.

The problem for us game makers is that the Safari answer usually doesn’t work for us. Software is not permitted to get to iOS devices via the Web because to do so invites malware, and that would be a major problem for such a high-profile platform. And secondly evaluating games in the manner of software checklists strips them of context. It is literally “this game contains boobs” as in Lucas Pope’s Papers Please. Ban or change.

It doesn’t feature whether those boobs are appropriate or not, as they might in other media. Via Apple today I can purchase Game of Thrones episodes or Lady Chatterley’s Lover even though both have invited questions of appropriate content in their time. Why? Because Apple understands context. Media gets protected even though some would find it offensive because it matters. Except for games. If a game is philosophically seen as like an app then it falls under a certain remit. If a game is philosophically seen as like a book or album, it goes another way. Shifting from one to the other view is what needs to change.

I imagine that the experience of the team vetting Papers Please was a little like the Fox censor character from the Simpsons. He reads a script and marks “no, no, no” then sees a joke which makes him laugh out loud before marking it “no”. I imagine that in playing Papers Please or many of the other banned or censored games on iOS that the team knew it was good but had no option to approve it. It didn’t fit the checklist.

I don’t mean to make light of your own situation, but Tim you know what it is to express your true self. You know that being free is important, supremely important. Yet through a series of circumstances the company founded by one of the designers of Breakout finds itself in this position of saying no, of insisting that games fit in a box and be culturally relegated. Great revenues maybe, but creatively they’re not being allowed to be all they can be on your platform.

Would taking the view that games are media and thus not censoring them alter the bottom line of the App Store? I doubt it. Would it need some thought as regards age categories and appropriate handling? I would think so, yes. So it’s likely a net drag to actually do it. But you should do it anyway.

It’s been a hard fought battle for some of us within the games industry to get to the point where we’re not thought of as drug dealers or child-corrupting monsters. We’re trying to overcome that Comics-Code perception, and slowly succeeding even despite resistance within and without. The big platforms often still stand in our way, still act like games should only exist in certain boxes, but they’re slowly shifting.

Tim you control the biggest gaming platform in the world. Mobile games will surpass PC and console soon enough, and when they do they will become the new core gaming. The games won’t all be just Candy Crush and Clash of Clans forever though, any more than TV stayed as its 1960s incarnation forever. Communities and cultures form around games in a way that’s important to the overall culture, and will only increasingly do so.

Given your position of power do you really feel it’s your place to stand in the way of the development of a medium? To say “game developers you get to live in this box only”. I don’t think you mean to, but that’s kind of where you are. Tim I need Apple to lead on this, as it has so often before.

Featured Image: Lucas Pope's "Papers Please"