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Was This ‘Sweatshop’ Simulation Game Too Offensive for Your iPad?

Screenshot from "Sweatshop HD" game

One of the “perks” of getting apps through the App Store is that, unlike downloading desktop software from a random website, Apple screens and approves each and every one of the hundreds of thousands of available apps. For better or worse, that means Apple gets to decide what’s fit for consumption and what’s not.

Most of the time that means blocking copyright violations and pornography, but every once in awhile something will get flagged for reasons that are a bit more unclear.

A bitingly satirical iPad game called Sweatshop HD was recently yanked out of the App store because, according to LittleCloud, the studio that built the game, Apple was uncomfortable with the game’s themes. LittleCloud resubmitted the game with an added disclaimer that the game’s intent was primarily to educate people on social justice issues, and that it was designed with input from the Labour Behind the Label campaign. Apple still wouldn’t lift the ban.

I checked out the game myself (still available as a flash-based browser game) to see just how offensive, beyond the title and premise, this game could be. The game opens with a brightly animated and stylized opening, where customers swarm to grab “Le Shoes” designer sneakers. The camera then pans rights to the shoe warehouse, right again to a fleet of shipping freighters, and finally back to a sweatshop conveyor belt, manned by tired, dehydrated, injured, and underage workers.

You play as a member of middle management, who needs to hire and position workers to handle the flow of materials down the conveyor belt. You’ll routinely get yelled at by your boss to maximize profits and approached by a wide-eyed Dickensian child worker asking for basic things like water. Naturally, since it’s a game, your competitive side will encourage you to cut corners in any way necessary to get the highest possible ranking, usually to the detriment of your workers.

It’s all fairly tongue-in-cheek until you start completing levels. Each time one ends, you’ll be presented with two paragraphs or so or real-life information and statistics about life as a sweatshop worker. These jar you out of the fantasy of the game every few minutes, and set the project pretty firmly on the side of satire, not just gallows humor.

While developed by an independent studio, the game was produced in part by Channel 4, a British commercially funded, but publicly owned, broadcasting network. That fact lends a lot of credence to LittleCloud’s claim that this game was intended primarily to be educational. As a piece of publicly funded entertainment, this is basically Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

So why was Sweatshop‘s brand of educational satire considered inappropriate, but the casual, maniacal violence of, say, Grand Theft Auto III acceptable?

LittleCloud points out that Apple’s developer guidelines are somewhat vague, and grant Apple a fair amount of leeway on what it will and won’t allow. LittleCloud highlighted one line in particular from the weirdly casual guidelines:

“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.”

I understand Apple’s need to give themselves carte blanche in making judgment calls, but personally, I find this statement more dismissive and offensive than anything in Sweatshop. The patronizing tone of “If you want to criticize a religion, write a book” is pretty bold insult to the countless game designers who’ve tried to make games with goals loftier than killing time.

Having games criticize real-world themes isn’t exactly a revolutionary concept. Bioshock was a retro-futuristic sci-fi that doubled as a criticism of ObjectivismSpec Ops: The Line criticized the fetishistic way most games idolize modern warfare. Another browser-based flash game, Darfur is Dying, intended to spread awareness of atrocities committed in Sudan by letting you manage a virtual refugee camp.

The developer guidelines’ blanket condescension of games’ ability to address serious issues is entirely unfair to both the people who want to make, and to play, games about something more than, let’s say, throwing birds at pigs.

You can play the game and make your own call here.

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