Over their nearly 40-year history, video games have been vilified for their unrealistic depictions of violence and war. But every now and then, a war game or shooter will come along to help provide counterplay to gaming’s more fantastic portrayals of war. The Arma series, for example, is committed to realistic portrayals of real-life combat. Spec Ops: The Line was also lauded for daring to question the modern war Shooter game; among video game critics, its closest associates are often Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness.
This War of Mine and 1979 Revolution, meanwhile, offer players alternate perspectives on the horrors of genocide and revolution. The former lets players walk in the grim mile of Sarajevo survivors during the Bosnian War, while the latter grants us the opportunity to view 1979 Tehran from the perspective of a young photojournalist.
Rasheed Abueideh’s Liyla and the Shadows of War might be the smartphone’s first significant entry into this pantheon of critical wartime gaming. Liyla is an Adventure game for mobile phones that places players in the role of a young Palestinian girl, who is living in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 Israel-Gaza Conflict. The player’s goal to rescue the girl’s family from the chaos of Israeli bombings and escort them out of the city, solving puzzles and witnessing tragic scenes along the way. Presented in a similar high-contrast monochrome to Playdead’s avant-garde platformer, Limbo, Liyla seeks to share with players the sadness of the 2014 conflict from “a different point of view.”
And, considering the amount of praise Liyla has been getting on Google’s Android Store, the game seems to be sharing that experience with players quite effectively. While some criticize Liyla’s control scheme, many players are reporting that they’ve been genuinely touched by the game and the message it aims to deliver.
It’s unknown whether iOS users will be able to experience Liyla’s interactive narrative, however. Yesterday, Abueideh shared a rejection letter he received from Apple, which prevented him from publishing the game on Apple’s App Store. Apple’s reasoning for turning Liyla away: the app had a political statement, and was therefore “not appropriate in the games category.” Instead, it would find a better home in the News or Reference app categories.
— Liyla (@Liylawar) May 18, 2016
As can be gleaned from the responses to Abueideh’s tweet, many fans of Liyla were outraged at the news. While it is easy to point fingers at Apple and whatever reckless policies it might employ, it would be more prudent to first take a look at Apple’s App Store guidelines.
First and foremost, Apple takes a strict – yet hazy – stance on just what kinds of questionable content are allowed on the App store.
We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. 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.
Moreover, while Apple has stated that it will reject any apps that it deems “over the line,” its general guideline for doing so follows the mantra of “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Following that is a list of commandments that dictate what thou shalt not publish on the App Store. Strangely enough, none of these entries mention politics or political messages of any kind, except an exemption for “political satirists and humorists” when it comes to making politically charged apps.
To be sure, Liyla presents a very clear message: we must attempt to view tragedies from all perspectives involved if we are to comprehend how they impact our societies. But that message is not presented in a dogmatic way. Nor does the app overtly paint one country as a villain over another, which would normally be cause for knowing objectionable content when you see it.
It would behoove us to remember that Apple’s actions do not seem to be the tech giant’s lumbering pitch into the ‘Are video games art?’ debate. Rather, they seem to be the result of some rather befuddling legal policies surrounding who and what determines a game’s fate on the App Store.
As a reader on Ars Technica named Adam Starkey aptly noted, “the problem is not that Apple’s guidelines are so vague that developers can’t clearly understand them, it’s that they’re so vague the Apple reviewers can’t clearly understand them.”
Indeed, this isn’t the first time Apple’s nebulous App Store guidelines have been the cause for controversy and confusion. Naomi Clark of Dead Pixel Co pointed out the irony of the Liyla rejection by juxtaposing it with another app on the App Store titled Israeli Heroes, in which players take control of a smiling anthropomorphic missile adorned with the Star of David, which must be piloted and crashed into an unnamed city.
— Naomi Clark (@metasynthie) May 19, 2016
The App store also got into a spat of trouble last year regarding a series of American Civil War-themed strategy games, which were removed on the pretense of using the Confederate flag “ in offensive or mean-spirited ways.” The developers of these games then contacted Apple, who announced that they would be looking to reinstate these games as games with “historical or educational uses.” At least one of these games, Civil War 1863 by Hunted Cow Studios Ltd., has returned to the App Store.
At the same time, other apps currently existing on the App Store also address themes of wartime strife. One such app is an iOS port of This War of Mine. As noted at the beginning of this article, This War of Mine strives to accomplish a similar goal to Liyla: invite players to view war from the perspective of its victims. Given this contradiction in Apple’s terms, many users have pointed out that there is an internal incoherence in Apple’s App review policies that must be addressed in some form or another if we are to bring progressive voices such as Abueideh’s to the fore.
Will Liyla be welcomed back to the iOS App Store? And will Apple take greater measures to police what falls under the purview of acceptability in the App Store? We can’t say for sure, though we have reached out to Abueideh himself for a response on whether he plans to discuss the matter with Apple themselves (he announced on his personal Twitter earlier today that he will be away from the Internet for the next three days).
We will end on this quotation from Apple’s App Store guidelines:
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.
Abueideh didn’t run to the press and trash Apple. Yet anger and disbelief are already fomenting within the press and the indie gaming community at large. And, judging from Liyla’s official Twitter feed, Liyla itself is enjoying quite a lot of success in international gaming trade shows. Perhaps gaming’s Grapes of Wrath will help bring Liyla back to the App Store? Only time will tell.