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The Story Behind Phone Story, Apple's Latest App Store Ban

Paolo Pedercini's sharp critique of Apple and modern tech consumerism was approved before it was banned.

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Apple approved Phone Story for sale in its App Store last Friday. The application's developer, Molleindustria, decided to be patient and prepare a formal announcement for the week after. Just before noon, only hours prior to the official news going out, Phone Story was taken down. As of this writing, it's still not available in the App Store.

Phone Story is not a traditional piece of software. It's a game and interactive statement, using the attraction of game mechanics to pull players into a charged narrative that has a very specific message to convey. Phone Story wants to remind users about the impact their love of electronic devices and how an obsession with The New Thing has consequences around the world.

Phone Story is split into four mini-games. First, you're directing soldiers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to maintain an efficient workforce of children extracting the resources needed for the devices we love. In another, you're directing a grounded safety net around to catch assembly line workers from committing suicide, a commentary on the ongoing tragedies at factories abroad, such as Foxconn. In the third mini-game, you're an "Apple" employee tossing devices at hungry, mindless customers. The final game invokes the dirty process of recycling discarded devices, as different iDevice pieces come down the screen.

A narrator is present throughout the entire experience, putting the mini-games in context.

Paolo Pedercini intended to make a statement, but Apple's content guidelines are not very clear.
Paolo Pedercini intended to make a statement, but Apple's content guidelines are not very clear.

30-year-old Pittsburgh, PA resident Paolo Pedercini is the creator of Phone Story, a designer unafraid to shock you--but doesn't come across as someone merely hoping to shock. He also wants you to listen.

When I first emailed Pedercini, I asked the obvious question: didn't you know this would happen?

"I'm very familiar with the app store policy and the game is designed to be compliant with it," he said. "If the project was just about being censored we could have gone further. [...] 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."

Pedercini wouldn't expand on Phone Story might have changed if he'd purposely gone "further," but to underscore his provocateur nature, Pedercini told me about an application he had been mulling over. It's...explicit.

"A similar project that I was planning to distribute only to jailbroken devices," he said, "involved a dominatrix talking vagina the user was supposed to lick regularly (little known fact: touch screens work with your tongue) like a virtual pet for phone fetishists."

Like I said: provocateur.

Players click/touch the children who decide to take a break from mining more materials.
Players click/touch the children who decide to take a break from mining more materials.

Pedercini received a phone call from an Apple employee named Richard when Phone Story was removed. The employee was open to a discussion, but their conversation didn't last very long. Pedercini was told his application had been removed for violating the following guidelines:

  • 15.2 Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected
  • 16.1 Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected
  • 21.1 Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free
  • 21.2 The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS

Phone Story does not solicit donations through the application--that would be handled when profits came in from sales. Since Phone Story has been removed, it's unclear whether that will happen with its iOS release, as Pedercini isn't clear how many people were able to purchase the application before it was pulled down. 15.2 provides the biggest issue for Pedercini, as his depiction is front and center in Phone Story, and while he may disagree with Apple's interpretation, the App Store is curated.

"We are considering to make an app that uses broad metaphors to address the same issues," he said. "That's what directors used to do during McCarthyism and artists used to under totalitarian regimes. In an Apple-controlled technological world, where computers are replaced by dumb tablets, we'll have to resume strategies from the dark times of our history."

If you have an Android phone, you don't have to wait, as the application is now available there. I played Phone Story on my Mac and not my iPhone, thanks to a version he provided me. It's unclear if what I played will be released.

Suicide nets were installed at Foxconn facilities following a large number of employee suicides.
Suicide nets were installed at Foxconn facilities following a large number of employee suicides.

The App Store is familiar to this kind of controversy. Now former Apple CEO Steve Jobs' personal stance, which defines Apple, has been clear on pornography, but when it comes to satire, politics and social commentary, where the line should be drawn hasn't been clear.

Pulitzer winner cartoonist Mark Fiore had his application pulled for poking fun at political figures. Media outrage prompted Apple to allow it back. Such decisions come on a case-by-case basis, however, and small, independent developers like Pedercini have little way of fighting back.

"I own an iPhone and I've been following all of the issues addressed in the game--things that make me uncomfortable as a consumer and as software developer," he said. "Since the App Store [opened] people kept asking me: 'Why don't you make a game for iPhone?' and I had to talk for a while about what I think is wrong in this Apple-complex. This game is basically the answer to that simple question."

Even though Phone Story is available on Android, don't assume that's explicit approval of Google, either. Pedercini has his own concerns there, but for now, pivoting there is his only option to respond quickly.

"I'd be much happier if the game was actually available to everybody and possibly generating discussions around the issues it addresses instead of creating even more debate around the controversial App Store policies," he said.

More information on Pedercini's concerns about modern consumerism, its effects on the world, proposed solutions to the problem and what you can do to influence the cause one way or the other can be found at Phone Story's website.

Patrick Klepek on Google+