[Gamasutra talks to Molleindustria about Phone Story, the hardware industry critique that's been pulled from the App Store -- and about the culture of complacency that surrounds mobile game development.]
The rise of the iPhone has revolutionized communication in the modern world, and the game development industry has been one of the largest beneficiaries of this paradigm shift. Thanks to Apple's touch screen and App Store, mobile game development was dredged from its cultural ghetto to a legitimate avenue for big studios and indies alike.
It arrived in the nick of time, too, after the rapid contraction of packaged goods and the recession of a few years ago forced so many developers to seek more agile, less expensive and lower-risk spaces within the industry. Since then, powerhouse studios have been built and careers have been rescued on the back of Apple's must-have device.
But until now, few have been willing to turn the lens on this boom and examine what mass-market gadget lust is costing us ethically. Though we've since heard of suicides at Foxconn
, deplorable working conditions and hazards to the environment involved in the manufacture of the latest hot smartphones, game developers were mostly silent -- until now.
It seems natural that provocative serious games developer Molleindustria was the one to take the step. The studio, which has taken on forces like the Catholic church, McDonald's and big oil with games like Operation Pedopriest, McDonald's Video Game
, never pulls its punches as it uses games to sharply deconstruct the social and economic constructs most people take for granted.
Its latest title, Phone Story
, uses a series of minigames with voice-over narration to shed light on the human cost and high environmental impact of smartphone development. In one minigame, while the narrator explains that most electronic devices require the mining of coltan, a conflict mineral in Congo whose demand spurs war and child labor, the player must use the touch screen to guide armed soldiers to bark at exhausted child miners in order to meet the goal in time.
In another, the voice-over explains the suicides at electronics manufacturers in China, and the facile solution of "prevention nets" -- while the player must catch tumbling workers using a stretched trampoline.
Of course, Phone Story
is more interesting for the fact that players must interact with these messages while holding one of the devices discussed. Imagine being served hamburgers on a tour of a slaughterhouse. And all of the developer proceeds -- 70 percent of total App Store revenues, as per usual -- will be pledged to organizations fighting corporate abuses, starting with Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior
, which supports workers in abusive conditions internationally, including at Foxconn.
Or they would be, if Phone Story
had been allowed to stay on the App Store. Apple yanked it just a few hours after
the game was officially announced, citing four code violations: 15.2, which prohibits depictions of child abuse, and 16.1, which prohibits apps depicting "objectionable or crude" content. The other two, 21.1 and 21.2, pertain to Phone Story
's charitable bent -- and they don't seem to quite apply, intended instead for games that allow their users to make donations within a game, rather than a pledge by the developer to donate revenues.
Molleindustria makes an iPhone game to criticize the iPhone platform, and that Apple's chosen to silence it is an interesting punctuation mark on the developer's statement.
Gamasutra reached out to Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini about iPhone Story
, who credits the game's idea to recent international affairs graduate Michael Pineschi, to whom he spoke through creative activism group YesLab
. At the time, Pedercini already had some unusual ideas in the works for projects that could act as commentary on gadget fetishism.
"One of them was a multi-touchable virtual-pet vagina, monologuing about technological lust and willful submission to consumerism," he reflects. "Unfortunately, the flesh engine didn't work as I hoped so I went for a straightforward educational game."
But the intent was always to develop a game as commentary on the hardware industry. "Most of the adults in the Western world are somewhat aware that most of our objects are manufactured far away, in conditions that we would consider barbaric," Pedercini says.
"A lot of tech-aware people heard about the story of the Foxconn suicides or about the issue of electronic waste," he continues. "But with Phone Story
, we wanted to connect all these aspects and present them in the larger frame of technological consumerism."
He specifically wanted to highlight the goal that "must-have" consumer electronics culture plays in perpetuating these high-impact cycles; one of the levels of Phone Story
tasks the players with tossing brand-new boxed phones to swarming would-be buyers rushing a storefront. In his view, the marketing machine that makes people believe they absolutely need an upgraded hardware device on the day it comes out is what causes extremism in the supply chain.
"We don't want people to stop buying smartphones," he notes, "but maybe we can make a little contribution in terms of shifting the perception of technological lust from cool to not-that-cool. This happened before with fur coats, diamonds, cigarettes and SUVs -- I can't see why it can't happen with iPads."
Pedercini says it was essential to use the platform itself to stage a critique of that platform. "Almost like the device itself was speaking to the user," he suggests. "The idea was to make a sort of reminder that you can keep with you, like a way-less-permanent tattoo or a bumper sticker, something that you carry around and maybe show off as a conversation-starter."
But although Apple's immediate removal of Phone Story
makes for an interesting conversation point, Pedercini says he never intended it to happen this way: "I'm very familiar with the App Store policy, and the game is designed to be compliant with it," he asserts.
"If you check the guidelines, Phone Story
doesn't really violate any rule except for the generic 'excessively objectionable and crude content' and maybe the 'depiction of abuse of children'. Yes, there's dark humor and violence but it's cartoonish and stylized - way more mellow than a lot of other games on the App Store."
"What makes these depictions disturbing is the connection the player makes with the real-world situation," adds Pedercini. "Of course, the goal was to sneak an embarrassingly ugly gnome into Apple's walled garden, but not to provoke the rejection. If it was just a matter of provocation I would have gone way further... I'd be much happier if the game was actually available to everybody, and possibly generating discussions around the issues it clumsily addresses."
Editing the game to make it truthful without being objectionable will be some task: "a new version of Phone Story
that depicts the violence and abuse of children involved in the electronic manufacturing supply chain in a non-crude and non-objectionable way... will be a difficult task," he notes wryly.
"This morning, a dry and polite Apple employee called me personally to talk about the specific violations of Phone Story
," says Pedercini. "When I asked if I can submit a new version, there was a moment of silence and then he answered, 'Yes, if you can make it compliant to the guidelines.' But the truth is that there is no way to know what's 'excessive' and 'objectionable' in Cupertino."
Most alarming to Pedercini is how complacent so many developers have become to mobile development's culture. "Here's the problem: the unanimous reaction from developers community has been, 'Wow, it's incredible Phone Story
made through Apple's review process,'" he says. "To me, this signals a full acceptance of a regime of censorship, the equivalent, for developers, of what journalists call the 'chilling effect.'"
"I'm sure that Apple doesn't spend that much time in policing its marketplace, because the developers are already censoring themselves." he continues. "Of course, Apple has the right; it is the acceptance of Apple view about the cultural status of the 'App.' For them, games and applications are not part of culture like books or music."
Adds Pedercini: "Try to imagine what kind of reaction iTunes would provoke if they banned all the songs with 'excessive objectionable' content."
[UPDATE: Phone Story
is now available on the Android app store