App Store approvals: rated MA (Mostly Arbitrary)

David Braue
24 July, 2009
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Here’s a quick test for you. Which application is worse for your kids: a first-person 3D shoot-em-up game in which the object is to shoot scores of zombie-fied humans; a 3D shoot-em-up game in which the object is to shoot and dismember scores of nasty-looking aliens; a 2D shoot-em-up game in which the object is to shoot and dismember scores of mummified humans; an electronic book reader that lets your children access scores of classic books; or an electronic book reader that lets your children access scores of classic books?

You will notice that I seem to be repeating myself. But I’m not, as you’ll see in a moment. For now, let me say that if even my cursory examinations are holding true, perhaps Apple should consider repeating itself a bit when rating applications it screens through its App Store.

The increasingly obvious problem with the App Store approval process is that Apple’s left hand has no idea what its right hand is up to, and its brain seems to be permanently out to lunch. How else to explain an approval system that deems the gore-filled Doom Resurrection (download) and the book-filled Barnes & Noble eReader (download) to be equally inappropriate for people under the age of 12?

That’s right: in what seems to be a decision of almost Fahrenheit 451-esque proportions, Apple’s censors have thrown the book at an innocuous piece of software that is designed to help people enjoy the wonders of modern (and ancient) literature. The victim, of course, is a new e-book reader from US bookstore monolith Barnes & Noble, which claims to have the largest selection of books on earth but has long played a distant second to in online book sales.

In warning us of B&N eReader’s myriad sins, Apple goes to pains to point out that the application apparently contains infrequent/mild mature/suggestive themes; horror/fear themes; cartoon or fantasy violence; sexual content or nudity; alcohol, tobacco, drug use or references to these; profanity or crude humour; and realistic violence.

That sounds like my kind of book! Seriously, though, what are we to make of a system that assigns these kinds of blanket warnings in an attempt to disclaim basically every type of offensive book people might ever read using an application? Especially when the same system decides that e-books aren’t suitable for people under 12, but that they are more than welcome to indulge in the mindless, zombie-hacking violence of Resident Evil: Degeneration (download). Or that the intensely exciting iDracula – Undead Awakening is somehow appropriate for kidlets down to the age of 4? Having played iDracula, I can tell you there’s no way the game is suitable for four-year-olds – if only because they lack the manual dexterity to come to grips with the game’s tricky control system.

Now, here’s the kicker: Kindle for iPhone [not available through the Australian iTunes store but viewable here), an e-book reader from Barnes & Noble archrival, has been rated by Apple as suitable for 4+ readers.

Has Apple learned nothing from its Eucalyptus embarrassment? Both companies’ readers are accessing the same material. So, too, is the excellent Stanza, which has been deemed suitable for those four and above but is just as capable of delivering Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Kama Sutra into its users’ hands. Even more ironically, Stanza, like the B&N eReader, is advertised with the cover of Twilight, a book that is decidedly inappropriate for your average four-year-old.

Why the difference? Apple will, of course, never explain to mere mortals how its rating system works, but at face value it would seem Barnes & Noble could press a convincing case that it is being commercially disadvantaged by being arbitrarily discriminated against. But I suspect things aren’t even that cut and dry: the biggest problem is that Apple’s utter lack of App Store standards has been exacerbated with a growing paranoia that customers might get anything even remotely offensive through the App Store.

This, from a company that is more than happy (in the US, at least) to sell movies like Zack and Miri Make A, um, Very Salacious Home-made Movie (censored because we’re a family-friendly outlet), American Psycho, the unrated (read: super-gory) version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the “Extended Killer Cut” of Friday the 13th.

Considering these (and numerous others one would find were one to spend the time) discrepancies, one can come to only one conclusion about the morality of Apples’ policies: Apple won’t sell customers iPhone apps that show pictures of naked women, but it is more than happy to charge people to use their iPhones to watch movies in which naked women are degraded, abused, and systematically dismembered.

Given this track record, Apple can hardly claim the moral high ground as arbiter of good taste; remember that it took a public outcry for the company to ban Baby Shaker. Hypocrisy? Double standards? A lack of standards altogether?

Banning applications for no reason at all is one problem, but the apparent arbitrariness of Apple’s rating system is an issue for concern on other grounds. Equally important, however, is the issue of public perception. People do depend on ratings to get a sense of what’s appropriate and what is not appropriate; this can be a lifesaver, such as in the case of the hilarious 2004 movie Bad Santa, which was the subject of extensive complaints from parents whose selection process began and ended with the word ‘Santa’. Those parents might have looked to other choices had they stopped to consider the film’s MA rating, awarded for a nearly continuous stream of obscenities and all manner of bad behaviour (as an aside, I could not locate Bad Santa on the App Store, nor Peter Jackson’s zombie classic Bad Taste either; has Apple drawn some imaginary, zig-zagged line in the sand that bans movies like this but allows ultraviolent slasher films?)

Ratings help us in such cases, but we can become immune to them if they seem to be incorrect or arbitrarily applied. This is why Apple needs to reconsider its apparently Victorian-era morality and lay down some predictable, reasonable guidelines for the ratings in the App Store. Rating one e-book reader as suitable for 12-year-olds while similar applications are suitable for 4-year-olds stinks of arbitrariness – and in the long run, such actions will simply devalue Apple’s attempts to do the right thing by its customers.

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