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.
"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.
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.
"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.