I Made a Game About Social Distancing, Apple and Google Didn't Approve
Last month, when I went out for a walk I noticed that the social distancing put in place to help us hold back the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't being as respected as I had hoped. Groups of people were walking around as if there wasn't a contagious coronavirus being spread by asymptotic people. I wondered what can I do about this? So I tried making my first endless runner game in which the player needs to avoid people.
Making a simple game to convince people to stay apart turned into a larger endeavour than I thought it would. Apple and Google wanted to keep their distance from the game with gusto.
Why make a game about social distancing?
The primary motivation stemmed from not seeing people adhere to good social distancing practices. It would be nice if more people stayed physically separated so we can flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Even though nearly ever y country on Earth is experiencing very real consequences from the pandemic there are people who are risking lives by not taking it seriously.
Making my social distance game
The game is divided into two parts: an endless runner and a stay at home option.
Gameplay is predictable for the endless runner since it works well with the theme of keeping away from things. The other part takes place in the home in which the player can look outside or watch TV.
I create rules for myself for fun little side projects like this one; the most important rule is my self-imposed time limit. The time limit is there to keep me in check and, as you will see, is a good way to keep my sanity.
Anyway, I stated by making a prototype using a kit. At first it felt like a match made in heaven and got a quick prototype up and running.
Went for a walk last week and felt like I was the only one practicing #SocialDistanacing so I whipped together a prototype using a kit. You can try endless running or stay at home and relax #screenshotsaturday pic.twitter.com/4fSehC21Er<script async="" src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
— Adam Clare (@MrFacePlant) March 28, 2020
But then the kit and I didn't get along. I ran into HTML5 build errors I couldn't fix, Unity collaboration issues (even though I was the only one working on it) and a myriad of tiny annoyances with how the kit was built versus how I build things. I reached my self-imposed time limit of the weekend and decided to pack up the project and put in my archive of failed ideas.
Everything changed when the United Nations asked for help.
To be very clear, they never asked me for help they asked all of us. And they are paying in exposure.
A few days after packing up my failed attempt I the United Nations call out to creatives - help stop the spread of COVID-19 got released. I rebuilt my game from scratch the following weekend, thankfully I was able to reuse the home scene and models at least.
You can see on the right screen below a message directly from the UN call for creatives.
Basically rebuilt by endless runner and will be submitting it to the #UN call out for creatives to help stop the spread of #COVID2019 https://t.co/0x4QrlCdKF pic.twitter.com/ah6HsxIiai<script async="" src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
— Adam Clare (@MrFacePlant) April 4, 2020
Finished and rejected
Upon completion* of the game I submitted it to Apple and Google and got rejected by both.
I've never had a game rejected before, let alone one that gets flagged for "potentially objectionable content, such as nudity, pornography, and profanity." At first I was shocked, but then I saw their rationale.
Clearly I have a Pollyannaish view of the world and I assumed my playful little game wouldn't cause a fuss, heck it might even be a moment or relatable levity in a stressed-out world. I should have known better.
Obviously, I don't think that what I made is offensive or is inappropriate otherwise I wouldn't post this. It's important to stop the spread by avoiding contact with other people. Don't listen to me, listen to these smarter people.
It appears that any submitted app which mentions COVID-19 is rejected unless it is accompanied with evidence that it's from a reputable source. And that makes sense to me. There is so much misinformation being spread that it's rational to try and block any non-health app referencing COVID. I do see a problem that there's no step to figure out what is unethical profiteering or spreading misinformation and what is somebody making a game just to commiserate with others (like mine). Personally, I wouldn't want to be on the reviewers end trying to filter through all the chum tossed at the respective app stores.
Each company reacted differently, with Google being the most severe.
Google went one stop short of the ban hammer for our entire account. Stating that even submitting the app was a strike against our developer standing and if we crossed the line again they might disable all of our accounts and related accounts! All hail the monopolistic flexing of Google.
Here's the boiler plate text they sent:
Please note that additional suspensions of any nature may result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.
I honestly have no idea if hosting gameplay footage on YouTube (owned by Google) will only get me more punished.
Apple let me resubmit as much as I wanted, so for about a week I got into a routine of getting a daily rejection.
The rejections were vague at first with nothing specific mentioned, leaving me unclear what exactly the problem was. I naively figured using copy suppled by the WHO would be ok.At first, I thought it was overt COVID-19 text flagging the app. For example, linking to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund (even though it's legit).
As I submitted edited versions to Apple they finally narrowed down that COVID-19 was in the metadata. Fair enough, so for about 15 minutes each day (remember how I mentioned I limited how much time I'd spend on this) I would hunt down what I thought they found, modify it and resubmit. Searching Unity, then Xcode, and double checking all the non-game content for any mention of COVID provided zero results.
Ultimately, I gave up on April 18th when I got bored of the rejection routine and it became abundantly clear Apple won't accept anything remotely connected to physical distancing. From the last rejection:
[Y]our entertainment or gaming app inappropriately refers to the COVID-19 pandemic in its concept or theme.
At least they didn't threaten to remove my account and any related accounts.
So what now?
I heeded the objections from Apple and Google and updated the Itch.io page. It now warns people that COVID-19 is mentioned in the game. Play it for yourself and make your own decision about the game.
[caption id="attachment_5352" align="aligncenter" width="225"] This was removed from the submitted game.[/caption]
To be very clear: I'm not a victim in any of this. I just wanted to share this story about my social distance game with the world since I can't effectively share the game itself. This whole episode also gets me thinking about how much cultural power Apple and Google have. I understand why they reacted to my app they way they did (well Google could've been more chill), but we must think about what other instances may exist in which these two American companies filter or censor what gets distributed globally.
*Obviously this can use more work and I would like to make it looks better myself but it's the end of the semester and things like grading are more important.
- I made a game about social distancing.
- See the UN's call for creatives to stop COVID-19 spread.
- Google & Apple don't seem to let any non-health app mention COVID-19.
- Stay safe, stay healthy, and please listen to health care professionals.