Apple’s App Store: The Paranoid Theory

As discussed here before, I think video games are often treated with the faulty assumption that they should somehow be the only art form in existence to only have nice unobjectionable content that offends no one.

With the seemingly arbitrary rejection policies of the iPhone App Store continuing and no end in sight, it occurs to me that there is a theory that could explain Apple’s behavior as rational, if morally dubious. While the App Store policy is obviously horrible from an end-user and developer point of view, there may be some method to the apparent madness.

Look at it from Apple’s point of view. Here is what they get from having an opaque and inconsistent policy:

  • Apple avoids having to formulate a policy that works for all cultures across the globe. After all, standards for nudity, profanity and violence are completely inconsistent between the countries of the world.
  • Apple thereby avoids having to defend and argue about the policy.
  • The arbitrariness of the current situation has an intended chilling effect, by which developers self-censor in order to avoid having their applications blocked.

Anyway, that’s a theory that explains the seemingly arbitrary App Store policy as rational and deliberate. It’s either that, or Apple aren’t thinking clearly.

11 thoughts on “Apple’s App Store: The Paranoid Theory”

  1. So you’re suggesting that it’s not an inconsistent policy, it’s actually a mixed strategy. Might there be an optimal ratio of rejections to submissions that maximizes both submissions and self-censorship?

    Any economic game theorists want to take a shot? :)

  2. Ooh, you are asking for such precise terminology.

    I certainly recall that there is research saying that semi-arbitrary but strong punishment is the best way to shape people’s behavior – this seems to be such a case, doesn’t it?

  3. I don’t agree Jesper that the strong punishment is the best to change ones behaviour. Have a 3 year old and did some punishment tricks and they weren’t succesfull.

    As of Gaming policy. I always was confused how US government can be calm at guns, crime and so, but when i comes to nudity, all hell broke loose. I think here in Europe we are more tolerant towards nudity and sex.

  4. Martin Seligman did some experiments in 1967 on dogs that showed that, when subjected to seemingly-random electric shocks that they could not control, the dogs demonstrated learned helplessness. Even when introduced into a situation when they could escape the shocks, the dogs would just whine and bear it.

    It works the other way too… I think B. F. Skinner did some experiments in the 1950s that in which random rewards were pretty effective in producing systematic behavior in lab animals.

    However, I’m not sure if there exists any material that proves that such findings are applicable to humans.

  5. Full disclosure: I got the argument about excessive random punishment from a Raph Koster talk a few years ago. I am pretty sure the data is out there for humans. Looking for it.

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head, but you missed the most important clause of all: We do not discuss the existence or non-existence of any rules of exclusion.

    (Inspired by R.D. Laing, who put it thusly:)

    Rule A: Don’t.
    Rule A1: Rule A doesn’t exist.
    Rule A2: Do not discuss the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A1 or A2.

  7. Hey Jesper,

    I agree that ambiguous rules + arbitrary punishment = self censorship and that there is not enough objectionable/offending/subversive content going around in games. But why single out Apple? Isn’t the same thing going around everywhere in the industry? Seen anything worthy of mention on Nintendo/Sony/MS hardware? I mean apart from the glorified ultra-violence which seems to benefit from a weird consensus that it’s okay. In games you can kill cops and steal cars anytime you like but if you ever happen to have sex with a prostitute, there’s a class action suit waiting for you… There’s a puritanical straitjacket restraining games and it’s in people’s head not just because of a single company. I think Apple policies are stupid an unfair but no more than any other proprietary hardware maker. In fact, there might even be more racy content on the iPhone than on any other gaming platform…

  8. Olivier,

    Good point – ambiguous rules and arbitrary punishment are surely hurting games across all controlled distribution channels.

    The App Store is just a particularly high-profile example, but it is perhaps especially interesting because most everyone seems to have interpreted as incompetence on Apple’s part, rather than a deliberate policy.

  9. Actually, I was trying to say that Apple’s ambiguous rules allows for *some* weird content to slip through and get on the iPhone while I’m not sure I can say the same about other distribution channels…

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