Safe Space: An Open Letter to Apple About Keeping Out the Riff Raff

By Richard Clark

“We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. 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. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”

“We will reject apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.”

– The Apple App Store’s Submission Guidelines

Dear Apple,

I know you’ve been working hard lately to keep the wrong kinds of games out of your store. To you, games ought to be fun, innocuous, and nothing more. This must be really hard. It must keep you up at night, working to make sure games keep from offending or provoking users so that your store can be a place of simple and pure play.

"The last thing anyone is going to do these days is bet big on a thoughtful, insightful iPhone game about some major political or social issue."
I am writing to you because a host of games have crept into the app store under your radar, and inflicted their own brand of political and social statements onto an unsuspecting public. Men, women and children playing games from your store are searching for escape, but they’re finding themselves face to face with.. ugh.. statements. Can we do something about this?

Maybe you missed Angry Birds – I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it? It’s basically a game about suicide-bomber birds destroying a capitalist community. It’s a thinly veiled statement in favor tearing down the existing capitalist structures. You’ve heard of Animal Farm? This is like the opposite of that, with extra terrorism. Dangerous!

I know these birds have made you a lot of money, but have you ever stopped to ask "why are these birds angry?"

I know these birds have made you a lot of money, but have you ever stopped to ask “why are these birds angry?”

You may not be aware of this, but kids have gotten a hold of this game and are playing it with absolute glee. You should see the looks on their faces when they take out that last capitalist pig. You simply can not let this continue. Take it down.

Then there’s Canabalt. What seems to be a breakthrough iPhone endless runner that opened the door for a number of other meaningless and simple-minded endless runners is actually something deeper, darker, more complex and as a result, more subversive. The clarifying question one must ask to understand the insidiousness of Canabalt is, “What is this guy running from?” He wears a suit, signifying that he has just come from work – that he is perhaps running from work.

In the background, technology destroys civilization. Perhaps most frightening for you, Apple, is the billboards he often uses to jump across – they are blank. Canabalt presents the player with a world without advertisements or even companies to advertise. It is, in other words, a world without Apple. Instead, it’s a world dominated by the technology it has created. The technology you have created. In Canabalt, you’re not the enemy. It’s worse than that; you’ve created the enemy and been dominated by it. Quick. Destroy this insipid prophecy before it finds its way into the hearts of your devotees.

Tiny Wings has shiny happy window dressing. Players feel good when they first boot it up. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d want associated with your brand, right?

Keeping things warm and cuddly is good--this way players can tap their touch screens without being bothered to think about real world issues.

Keeping things warm and cuddly is good–this way players can tap their touch screens without being bothered to think about real world issues.

No, wrong, Apple. Tiny Wings gives the player a sense of the joy of flight and the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment, but after a while starts to feel like a taskmaster, leaving the player with little choice but to obey it’s constant demands. “Reach the 8th island.” “Gain 175,000 Points.” “Do 5 swoops directly after an island jump.” These are not not simple escapes, but brutal reminders of the sort of arbitrary and oft-impossible goals we’re tasked with in the real world. The game is a statement about the vapid and inescapable nature of a never-ending life of production. It’s play as a statement about work. Do you really want to be a part of this?

And while we’re seeking out games about the futility of life and work, how about Inifity Blade? Oh, and let’s not forget about the way Super Hexagon forces the player to stare deeply into a Neitzschean void and Plants Vs. Zombies preaches its pro-vegan political message. And Osmos makes a blatant case for evolution at the expense of the traditional Christian creation theory while Jetpack Joyride condemns scientific discovery.

Apple, you’re facing an epidemic. Your walled garden is no longer an Eden. Your consumers are biting into fruit, they’re tasting, and they’re gaining knowledge they were never meant to have. They’re thinking for themselves. They’re feeling things.

They’re craving more.

Then again, you’ve done a pretty good job on your own. You’ve taken down Smuggle Truck, which attempted to put a spotlight on the trials of illegal immigrants, smuggling its own message into the App Store in the guise of a cutesy physics based action title. You’ve finally wised up to Sweatshop, a game that had the potential to inspire a host of iPhone and iPad players to think about where their products might actually come from. In the end, you’ve created an environment that will cause game developers to think twice before they do anything clever or risky. The last thing anyone is going to do these days is bet big on a thoughtful, insightful iPhone game about some major political or social issue. After all, they could work for months, even years on that game, it could go up on the app store no problem, but then one day, if you grow uncomfortable with it, it could simply… disappear.

sweatshop banned

This is a good start, but there is sooooooooooo much work to be done!

Congratulations, Apple. You’ve done it. You’ve dug up the insurrection at its root. Or at least, you’re causing them to plant their tree of knowledge elsewhere.

But you could still do better. Every game in your app store has some moral presumption, some political viewpoint it assumes. I’m not sure how it happened, but they’ve sprouted like weeds. You’ve applied your boot to the foreheads of the most obvious ones, and I commend you. You’ve made it clear to developers not to try their luck. But it’s time to go a step further. Your most trusted allies are subverting you. They promised games that were fun and innocuous. But these games – every single one of them – they’re something more.

Written by Richard Clark

Richard Clark is the online managing editor of Christianity Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, a regular columnist at Unwinnable, and a former staff writer for Kill Screen. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.