Apple Overcorrects as It Sweeps Confederate Flag Apps from the App Store

Apple goes too far as it attempts to handle the Confederate Flag controversy with a hammer instead of scalpel.

Op-ed by Mike Williams, .

Update #2: It looks like some of the games that were removed from the App Store, like Ultimate General: Gettysburg, have returned.

"Ultimate General is back. Unchanged," wrote the developer in a Facebook post. "After several late night phone calls with Apple yesterday and today the game has returned to Appstore the way it was... in 1863."

Update #1: Apple has told BuzzFeed News that it did not intend to remove titles that used the Confederate flag in historical context. The statement does not make it clear if titles like Ultimate General: Gettysburg will return to the App Store.

“We have removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines,” an Apple spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We are not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses.”

Original story: A bit over a week ago, a 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The attack was later found to be racially motivated, according to survivors of the attack, a rambling manifesto, and racially-charged symbols found in pictures of the murderer. These images include the flags of apartheid-era South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Civil War-era Confederacy; the common marker is all three flags can be taken as symbols of white supremacy.

The latter has begun a national conversation about the appropriateness of the Confederate Flag as a symbol flown over federal and state property. Many African-Americans view the Confederate flag as a symbol of a group that fought to keep them enslaved. Continuing the fly that flag after the deaths of nine black people by a murderer who proudly sported the symbol feels like a slap in the face for some citizens. In South Carolina, while the United States and state flags were lowered to half-staff to mourn the deaths, the Confederate Flag remained high. The reason? The flag is locked in place and SC law prevents the flag from being altered without the consent of two-thirds of the state legislature. Others agree that the flag should not fly above property owned by a government that's supposed to represent all of its citizens equally.

In response, the Confederate Flag has begun disappearing from government buildings and businesses everywhere. Alabama had the flag removed from its state capitol. Amazon, Wal-Mart, Sear, eBay, and Etsy have all prohibited the sale of merchandise with the Confederate flag on it. Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina have all decided to discontinue their specialty Confederate-flag license plates.

Personally, while I see the flag in one way, as a symbol of oppression and slavery, I understand that there are those who may have imbued it with a sense of their heritage. I agree the flag has a history; as such, it should be something you put in a museum, not above your state capitol. If you want to fly that flag on your personal property, I may look at you with disapproval, but that's your right.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg still have a home on Steam and GOG.

"So what does this have to do with games, Mike?" you may ask if you somehow skipped this article's headline. Well Touch Arcade noticed this morning that Apple has removed all games featuring the Confederate Flag from the App Store. This includes strategy games based on the American Civil War, where the flag exists within its historical context. Titles like Ultimate General: Gettysburg and Hexwar's Civil War 1864 and Civil War: Gettysburg have found themselves without a home on the App Store.

"Apple has removed our game from AppStore because of usage of the Confederate Flag. Ultimate General: Gettysburg could be accepted back if the flag is removed from the game's content," wrote the developer of the game in a blog post. "We accept Apple's decision and understand that this is a sensitive issue for the American Nation. We wanted our game to be the most accurate, historical, playable reference of the Battle of Gettysburg. All historical commanders, unit composition and weaponry, key geographical locations to the smallest streams or farms are recreated in our game's battlefield. We are not going to amend the game's content and Ultimate General: Gettysburg will no longer be available on AppStore. We really hope that Apple's decision will achieve the desired results."

People are noticeably angry, but they're also trying to whittle this down into an easy tagline for Twitter and Facebook, when this is a more complex situation. So let's dig into it.

People are throwing around the word "censorship", saying that Apple's decision shuts down free speech. In reality, while you might be able to term it censorship in the absolute broadest terms, this is Apple exercising its own free speech rights. The company is allowed to say what can and cannot be on its platform and the banned titles are still free to be sold on other marketplaces, like the Amazon Appstore or the Google Play Store.

This is similar to a user getting banned on a forum for violating its code of conduct: Apple instituted new rules and these games now run afoul of those rules. It's their platform, they can do with it as they wish. The App Store is not, and has never been, an open platform. Wal-Mart recently ran into a similar situation when it decided not to stock UFC champion Ronda Rousey's autobiography in-store over its violent content; an odd choice for a place that sells guns and ammo, but still not really censorship. The question is this: Does a company have the right to decide what it sells on its platform?

This is one of the issues that pops up with free speech: various speech may conflict. To say "You can't exercise your free speech" to protect the free speech of others is hypocritical. In the U.S. we allow for certain limitations to free speech for concepts like protected classes and imminent lawless action, but they don't apply in this case.

Sweatshop HD was pulled due to the focus of its content.

This is a poor decision by Apple though. For one, many of these games place the flag itself in its correct historical context, so the removal comes across as an attempt to scrub this part of history. The games are not intended as a glorification of the negative connotations of that symbol. Apple needs a more nuanced handling of the matter, not a blanket removal.

It's an issue that's persisted across the company's walled garden for some time now. Back in 2013, Apple removed SweatshopHD from the App Store, a game intended to shine a light on the problem of cheap child labor. Smuggle Truck, a satire game by Owlchemy Labs about their frustration with the U.S. immigration process, was pulled down and only brought back up when it was renamed Snuggle Truck. Endgame: Syria by developer Tomas Rawlings could not release on the App Store without significant cuts, while the Android version remains complete.

Even worse, the removals are horribly selective in their aim. The swastika, an older symbol later adopted by the Nazi party, still has a place on the App Store despite having a horrible history of its own. The Confederate Flag still appears in films, television shows, and books across the Apple App Store. Dukes of Hazzard (loved that show as a kid) is still on iTunes, as is Gone With the Wind and Glory. The company has directly codified this odd stance in its App Store review guidelines, which are horribly fuzzy at best.

"Those Duke boys haven't pissed off boss Apple yet."

"We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate," read the guidelines. "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."

"If your App doesn't do something useful, unique or provide some form of lasting entertainment, or if your app is plain creepy, it may not be accepted," the guidelines continue. "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."

"If your App is rejected, we have a Review Board that you can appeal to. If you run to the press and trash us, it never helps," one frightening line reads.

That is the actual text on an official Apple web page. That is the App Store. That is Apple flexing its own free speech on its own platform. It's not censorship because we and developers can go elsewhere; there are other avenues to release your work. The truth is Apple simply doesn't care about games or apps in a cultural sense. They only care about them in the sense that they're types of content consumers have said they want. Apple wants to provide what it feels is a safe and clean experience for its customers, similar to Amazon, Wal-Mart, Ebay, and Etsy above.

Can developers really afford to ignore the App Store? In reality, no. The truth is we give Apple that power, knowing that it holds tight onto its walled garden. If a game was removed from Ouya's storefront, there would be little outcry because the Ouya lacks the power and reach that Apple has with iOS and the App Store. If I had a personal storefront of Android games and decided to not to feature certain titles for whatever reason, that's my choice. The difference is Apple is a juggernaut that we all are pushing forward.

This decision is indeed wrong, another in a long line of previous wrong decisions Apple has made. So yes, I urge you to use your speech and tell Apple in a civil manner that you disagree with the removal of these games. Apple needs to change, because these are choices that don't need a sweeping hand, they need nuance and an understanding of context. But realize also that your words may not be backed up by your continued use of Apple's platform. As long as the money flows in, there's little reason to change. And Apple has a lot of money flowing in.

Guess Android may look like a more welcoming platform in the future.

Ars Technica ran a great article on the impact of retailer restrictions last year. Worth a read.

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Comments 19

  • Avatar for jeffcorry #1 jeffcorry 2 years ago
    Ah. The new age. The PC age...and I don't mean computers.
    I understand doing our best to live in harmony with our fellow man. Definitely.
    But our society is so OVER reactive and over sensitive that we seem to have lost sensibility. We seem to be making ourselves hyper-sensitized and taking offense in areas where no offense was meant.
    I believe in a company's and individual's right to express and show their freedom of speech through creation or statement (though they should be willing to accept the consequences of that decision.). However these types of responses set a ridiculous precedence: Either they are championed for their "forward thinking" or demonized for their overreaction.
    There's got to be middle ground somewhere...and Apple doesn't appear to have found it with this move. Maybe they'll try again.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #2 Lord-Bob-Bree 2 years ago
    I mean, this may be free-speech, but you are right that Apple has far too much power in this are for them to exercise it like this.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #3 pdubb 2 years ago
    The confederate flag flying over Columbia has been an issue for years and needed to be removed from there. But the confederate flag doesn't need to be memory holed.

    I can't believe that in June 2015, I am mad about the confederate flag being removed from places. Life very strange.
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  • Avatar for Daikaiju #4 Daikaiju 2 years ago
    Hammer indeed. It's also very lazy. They don't want to take the time to make the distinction.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #5 SargeSmash 2 years ago
    Agreed. It's ridiculously lazy. We have all sorts of games that have all sorts of horrible content, with symbols that represent hate. How many WWII-themed games have we all played with Nazi imagery, again? Why haven't they pulled those? The Nazis were far, far worse.

    I'm proud of my ancestors, but ashamed of slavery. My ancestors did not fight personally to preserve slavery, but their bravery, and the flag they fought under, is part of my heritage. Scrubbing all references, even when they are in context, is the sort of knee-jerk reaction we should be avoiding, regardless whether you view the flag as a symbol of hate, heritage, or a mixture of the two.
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  • Avatar for docexe #6 docexe 2 years ago
    @jeffcorry I don’t think this specific case pertaining to Apple is a matter of political correctness, so much as a company merely taking the laziest, quickest approach in order to not deal with a controversy: “Instead of investing time and resources in looking at every app on a case-by-case basis, just remove or forbid all the apps that contain a certain element and problem solved”. Unfortunately, like the article pointed out, this has been their modus operandi for a while and, as usual, only when it comes to games. 9_9

    That being said, I do see what you mean with how a measure of nuance tends to be lost in this kind of controversies. The world is never that black or white, context and intent matter.Edited June 2015 by docexe
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #7 jeffcorry 2 years ago
    @docexe I like what you said: "context and intent matter."
    That's a statement that would put a lot of companies under the microscope for their content...if it were worth the trouble!
    I was probably being a little facetious with my comment. I guess I had to make a social statement. Apple probably is being lazy. Maybe Taylor Swift needs to write them a letter about this also...
    Maybe not!Edited June 2015 by jeffcorry
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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #8 KaiserWarrior 2 years ago
    This is the direct, logical, and completely predictable endgame of a culture knee-deep in the midst of a moral panic over peoples' feels.

    The murderer was scum. People that think as the murderer did are scum. People that hate other people purely because of their ethnicity are scum. People that fly the CSA flag with the intent, openly stated or no, of signalling their contempt for other people purely because of their ethnicity are scum. Let's get that out of the way right at the start.

    Trying to erase all traces of the existence of the CSA flag is a foolish, wrong-headed endeavor. Doing so with absolutely no regard to context or intent is an incompetent endeavor, on top of being foolish and wrong-headed. But this is what happens when you are so afraid of wounding anyone's feels that you no longer care about context or intent. This is what happens when "callout culture" is allowed to exist. This is what happens when feels, and "concern" for them (whether that concern is genuine or not is often very questionable, given the general behavior of those that claim it), are frequently weaponized in an attempt to utterly destroy anyone that disagrees with you.

    All Apple has done is exactly what many, many people on the internet have wished would happen to other forms of content they disagree with. You reap what you sow.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    I fear this is another example of misaimed power, power fighting battles that can be won, not those that should. Join in convincing people it's time to leave that thing behind, (and just get it down off the statehouse lawn FFS).
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #10 Monkey-Tamer 2 years ago
    If Columbine happened today video games would be banned. Hope and pray the next killer, and there will be a next, doesn't like, promote, or wear anything to do with you. Out it will go in a misguided attempt to "heal."
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #11 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    I find it interesting that after every mass shooting in the US, the conversation quickly turns to things not causally related to the shooting. In this instance - flags, the crime's status as terrorism (or not), etc. The flag things is obviously relevant on this site (being game-related) but the wider coverage of it just seems like misdirection.

    Not saying I know what caused this atrocity, but it wasn't a flag. And the ubiquity of guns in your country didn't help.
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  • Avatar for docexe #12 docexe 2 years ago
    @VotesForCows Yeah, to me that is the issue as well.

    It seems that every time a tragedy like this happens in the USA, the conversation seems to quickly deviate from actually addressing the root problems that lead to the event to something that seems relatively superfluous in nature. I understand why some people consider the flag a symbol of racism, but even then, banning it doesn’t really solve anything. It seems like a misdirection or palliative measure.

    I suppose that’s because actually addressing the root causes of the event is always incredibly complex. And it’s not only the proliferation of guns in the USA but a myriad of other issues as well, all that are incredibly difficult if not impossible to tackle: drug abuse, the racial divide and tensions that persists to this day in the country, the identification and treatment of people with mental disorders, the fact that an entire generation of youngsters feel hopeless due to the economy, the lack of employment, the state of the educational system, etc., etc., etc.

    At least that seems to be the case to an ignorant foreigner like me ^^
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  • Avatar for Jbumi #13 Jbumi 2 years ago
    I am, admittedly, not a youngster. I've been bitching about the flag flying in the south since the first time I went south of Jersey & saw it (this was 40+ years ago). So I feel it's long overdue that they're FINALLY starting to take them down from governmental buildings.

    When I was a kid adults always told me change is slow, but omg must it be so glacially slow?!
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  • Avatar for abuele #14 abuele 2 years ago
    Pulling things out of context just for the quick fix is just the manner of showing what the real intentions behind these juggernaut companies are.
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  • Avatar for Concession #15 Concession 2 years ago
    Nazis. Apple is an awful hypocritical company. May the USA continue to support duopoly in all forms. That's all I have to say.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #16 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    @docexe Yeah, no easy fix. Shocking stuff though. Sad that it's co-opted for people's agendas, but that's no different to how it works here in the UK.
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  • Avatar for Flashgoodall #17 Flashgoodall 2 years ago
    As an Englishman who loves historical gaming, I'm against censorship of the Swastika in games or any flag that doesn't fit with current PC trends. We're getting to a point where eventually we have to pretend that certain awful things never happened, so as not to offend. Is it right to remove these kinds of symbols from videogames, if you think yes then do you think it right to remove them from history books? Personally I think it's a silly kneejerk reaction from Apple, who sell books on their store containing the exact same images. It's history and should be treated as such.
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  • Avatar for albertjmartin91 #18 albertjmartin91 2 years ago
    This is all total madness. The confederate flag was not designed to represent slavery alone. A flag's purpose is to symbolize a broad spectrum of things. I'd like to see how far an Irishman would get trying to censor the union jack or how far a Sioux native would get trying to censor the stars and stripes. Who wouldn't put forth an argument that those things represented more than the cruelty heaped upon the Irish and the Indians (a moniker I have no trouble using because it's completely harmless and I'm part Indian myself) of North America? But if they did succeed and everyone got to censor something, how many flags would be left? This is complete and total madness ripped right from the likes of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Not to even mention other fashionable flights of madness that have come to the fore in recent days that take the blowtorch even to nature herself. Love is the operating principle of the universe. Evil people love to do the evils they do. Thieves love to steal; liars love to lie; and murderers love to kill. To suggest that all love is good love is completely fractured and broken reasoning, and abject lunacy. Of course love wins. There is only love. Good loves and evil loves. I love eating food. If I were to indulge my love for food beyond the limits of just order, I would pay the consequences in the very health of body that food was supposed to secure. This is the irony of life. Is it not Freddie Mercury himself who said Too much love will kill you?

    It's days like this that I feel I made the correct decision by checking out of the inferno of this world to live a pseudo solitary existence.
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