Since the horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate Flag has been at the center of much debate -- debate that may be near an end. Among other cases, the governor of Alabama has ordered for the removal of the flag from his state's Capitol and Wal-Mart has stopped selling products that feature the symbol.
But the removal of the flag from store shelves isn't just physical. This morning, TouchArcade reported that Apple is now allegedly removing games that feature the flag from the App Store. Primarily, this means they're taking down most if not all games about the Civil War.
According to the story, Apple told the developers of one removed game, Civil War: 1863, their game was removed "...because it includes images of the confederate flag used in offensive and mean-spirited ways." The developer, HexWar Games insists this isn't true.
Despite what they claim, Apple doesn't seem to be removing games because they glorify the Confederate flag. Apple appears to be removing games simply because the flag exists in them. A friend of mine on Facebook put it well by saying this isn't Apple being "politically correct," it's Apple making "an inept attempt to avoid controversy."
(Note: I was able to find an exception. The game Cannon Shooter USA: The Battle of Gettysburg is still available on the App Store as of this writing, and it showed the Confederate flag on an early screen while allowing you to play on the side of the Confederates or the Union. The flag doesn't seem to be very prominent in the gameplay itself, however, so it's hard to say if Apple simply missed this game in its purge or doesn't care.)
If this move were a careful, targeted attempt to remove hateful content from games on iOS devices, then fine. It's an unfortunate reality that horrifically racist, sexist and hateful video games do exist in the world, and it's Apple's right (perhaps even its duty) to keep those sorts of things off of their hardware. Removing hateful iconography out of respect is noble, and in fact there might have been games removed by Apple that should have been removed. Without access to any sort of list of what was banned, I can't say for sure.
Control over software would be nothing new -- Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all regulate what shows up on their systems as well, though they generally defer to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings in most cases.
But Apple's execution of this flag ban doesn't appear to be careful or calculated. Instead, they've removed games that have a legitimate reason to use the flag as a symbol of history -- not of hate.
Apple has told developers that if the Confederate flag is removed from the games in question, they can be allowed back onto the App Store. For some, this isn't an acceptable option.
Game-Labs, the developer behind the now-removed Ultimate General: Gettysburg issued a statement saying that they are proud of their game's historical accuracy and refuse to alter its content to suit Apple's wishes.
"We wanted our game to be the most accurate, historical, playable reference of the Battle of Gettysburg" the statement says. "All historical commanders, unit composition and weaponry, key geographical locations to the smallest streams or farms are recreated in our game's battlefield. We receive a lot of letters of gratitude from American teachers who use our game in history curriculum to let kids experience one of the most important battles in American history from the Commander's perspective."
The Game-Labs team continues by making what I think is the most important point in this whole controversy: That Apple is treating games differently than they treat other artistic mediums, like movies.
"Spielberg's Schindler's List did not try to amend his movie to look more comfortable," they say. "The historical Gettysburg movie (1993) is still on iTunes. We believe that all historical art forms: books, movies, or games such as ours, help to learn and understand history, depicting events as they were. True stories are more important to us than money."
The PC version of Ultimate General: Gettysburg is still available on services like Steam.
This is not the first time Apple has come under fire for their decisions regarding video games on their devices. A popular example of the company being strict is the removal of Sweatshop HD, a game with cartoon graphics that tasks players with, predictably, running a sweatshop. While that may sound like a tasteless concept on the surface, the game was more serious than its appearance would lead you to believe, exposing some of the horrible things one might do in order to maximize profits at the cost of human life.
Sweatshop HD was one of several sweatshop-themed games removed from the App Store, some of which more blatantly referred to Apple's own involvement in the working conditions at factories like Foxconn. Other games that have gotten the axe from Apple include a game that involved war in Syria.
Apple's guidelines make no secret how they feel about games. "We view Apps [as] different than books or songs, which we do not curate," they say. "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."
The issue isn't the flag. I would argue that even as a symbol of hatred, the Confederate flag has a place in certain works of art (the same way Nazi iconography, while representing despicable acts, appears in many movies and games), but the deeper issue is Apple's complete disrespect of games as an art form. If you only allow video games to be lighthearted fun, then sure, it's hard to make a case for any use of the Confederate flag in an iPhone game, historical or otherwise.
Apple refuses to allow games to make a point. But if we don't acknowledge games as an artistic medium capable of meaningful expression, we don't just lose games about history; we lose games that could have a message. Maybe none of these games about the Civil War had much new or relevant to say about racism or the Confederate symbol, but Apple is actively discouraging the development of new games that might encourage us to think different.