Do Apple’s policies impede the growth of serious games?

22 Jul 2014 by Lies van Roessel on Serious games

In June 2014 the news about an educational game on slavery, called Journey to Freedom, was all over Dutch newspapers and blogs (e.g., Parool, Volkskrant, PocketGamer), indicating the game had been barred from Apple’s App Store. This case is only one out of many rejections of serious games by the App Store. It shows Apple’s refusal to take games seriously as ways to address sensitive or controversial topics.

Potentially offensive elements

The slavery game - with the original title Tocht naar de Vrijheid - was commissioned by the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). It aims to teach players about the history of slavery, and how living as a slave on a Suriname sugar plantation might have felt like. In the game, the player becomes a slave who is taken from Ghana to Suriname in 1723, and who then needs to decide whether to flee from or stay on the plantation. The game is non-profit and was available at no cost, serving a purely educational purpose.

Yet, Apple rejected the game from its distribution platform. In an e-mail to development company Pepergroen, Apple provided the following reason: “We found that your app contains content that is defamatory or offensive that would be considered objectionable by many audiences, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” After the developer requested a more specific explanation, Apple stated that “The game illustrates various elements that may be offensive to a particular ethnic group and particularly when the gameplay emphasizes slavery and mistreatment of these individuals.” Developer Martijn Reintjes told the Internet Policy Review that the content of the game stayed as close to actual historical facts as possible – even though these facts are not pretty. For instance, a scene of a slave punishing another slave might be interpreted as offensive. Apple has however not specified exactly which elements they were referring to.

Not an isolated case

This case is not an isolated one. About three months ago, the app Happy Play Time (HPT) was also submitted to the App Store. The developers describe HPT as a “sex education game whose aim is to eliminate the stigma around female masturbation”. The game was barred despite the developers’ deliberate choice of an abstract graphical style, so as to prevent objections on the basis of the review guideline about explicit graphic content. Developer Tina sent a letter for the appeals process, mentioning, amongst other things, the several international organisations that had already supported the app. However, Apple stood firm, stating the app was “not appropriate for the App Store” and that it included “erotic and mature themes”. The developer had to search for other ways to bring the game to a broad audience, such as publishing it on its own website and on the Google Play store.

Other examples of serious games that were rejected include Endgame Syria, a game about the Syrian conflict, and Pacific Strike, a World War 2 game that included actual accurate Japanese flags. Seemingly, Apple is not willing to regard games on a similar level as books, films or music.

This is also illustrated by the fact that the movie Django Unchained is available in the iTunes store. This film bears some interesting similarities to Journey to Freedom. Besides the topic of slavery and “mistreatment of individuals”, the blockbuster film also displays a comparable scene of slaves punishing other slaves with a whip.

The educational potential of games

It is about time that games be treated equally to traditional media. Games can be employed to address controversial or serious topics. The general idea of using games to teach, train or inform has been around for a while. In the academic field of game studies, authors such as James Paul Gee, David Shaffer, Ute Ritterfeld and Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen have argued that games have a great potential as ‘learning machines’ (Gee, 2005). Players voluntarily spend hours learning and mastering complex systems, and leveraging this power for instance in traditional education could make for more powerful and effective learning experiences.

More recently, the book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal also reached an audience outside academia. McGonigal claims that games and game principles, if designed and integrated well, can contribute to a better life. First endeavours to address possibly sensitive and heavy issues are also popping up. These include, for instance, a downloadable game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a browser game about tax avoidance. Board game Train further addresses the Holocaust.

Serious games are often offered for free and funded by public institutions. An important reasoning for educational institutions, NGOs and other serious game commissioners to use games as their medium of choice, is that they regard it as the most suitable way to appeal to a younger target group. As some of the above-mentioned scholars describe (Gee, Shaffer), the current young generation grows up with games and interactive media, and often feels drawn to them in ways that books or movies cannot. Since mobile devices are conquering the market with a fast pace, especially amongst teens (see here and here), the App Store seems to be an important platform to publish on. Although the more affordable Android and Blackberry phones are also popular amongst youngsters, iPhones in general make up for a considerable market share. Next to an iPhone, chances are the parents own an iPad tablet as well, which their kids use to play games on. In other words, by not including the Apple platform it decreases the possibilities for reaching a widespread young target group with serious games. It seems however that Apple is a difficult hurdle to take.

Impeding the maturation of serious games?

Apple does not hide its approach when it comes to games and apps addressing serious topics. In its guidelines, the company explicitly states:

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.

Although Apple, as a commercial enterprise, is free to define its own corporate policy, it is remarkable that games seem to be on such a different level than books or movies. In the case of Journey to Freedom, there were public objections to the game - which was already available in the Google Play Store - voiced on social media. However, the debate on whether these opponents have a point will not be addressed by Apple, as the game’s actual content was not analysed. In other words, the game seems to be barred for being a game in itself. I would therefore not claim the game should at any rate have been accepted, for a more extensive analysis of the content would be needed for that. However, as long as Apple’s verdict gets stuck on the level of ‘the medium is the message’, it’s hard for serious games in the App Store to be judged beyond the surface.

According to independent game developer Jonathan Blow, Apple will eventually change its guidelines if games tackling serious topics become publicly more accepted. And, so he argues, it’s up to game developers to show that games are capable of that: “Apple is treating games as shallow commercial entertainment experiences because they have been taught by game developers that this is what games are. If we had built a world where games routinely work with serious issues in ways that people care about, Apple would not be able to take this stance because it would not make any sense.”

If one is to follow this stream of thought, the solution lies in developing many good serious games, and publishing them on other platforms. However, with Apple’s considerable share in distributing mobile applications, this won’t be an easy endeavour. At the same time, myriads of games with more ‘harmless’ themes, such as collecting candy, building farms or making birds fly through green pipes flood the App Store. Thus, if Apple continues to filter out a significant number of games that try to address important topics, while publishing all these others, can games ever really grow up?


Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2005). Beyond Edutainment: Exploring the educational potential of computer games. Unpublished PhD. IT-University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave/Macmillan, New York.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is Broken. Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The Penguin Press, New York.

Ritterfeld, U., & Cody, M., & Vorderer, P. (2009). Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects. Routledge, London and New York.

Shaffer, D. (2007). How Computer Games Help Children Learn. Palgrave/Macmillan, New York.

1 Comment

Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

27 March, 2015 - 17:53

Thanks for putting a spotlight on this - it is quite a shame. We have three of our games rejected so far, and is not very positive towards trying with our Global Conflicts games :-). (two games in this series) (slave trade one in this series)

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