Dangerous games

A video game produced by a Reno artist provoked the multinational tech company Apple Inc.

Ben Poynter uses his phone in his “Apple Store.”

Ben Poynter uses his phone in his “Apple Store.”

PHOTO BY Allison Young

For more information, visit benjaminpoynter.com.

Reno artist Benjamin Poynter is having trouble getting his point across, and it’s not for lack of a polished, articulate, engaging work of art. The question he’s run into is how to distribute his video game, which Apple removed from its offerings less than an hour after he uploaded it to iTunes for purchase.

Apple says Poynter violated its terms of use by mentioning a corporation in the game. Poynter says he didn’t violate the terms, as he blocked out the name of the company before submitting the game. Meanwhile, representatives from the art world and the online media have responded with concerns about corporate censorship and about the discrepancies between our hunger for foreign-made electronics and the human costs of the cheap labor it takes to produce them.

Save your soul

Poynter, an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno, designed a game called “In a Permanent Save State.” It’s a tribute to the migrant workers in China who committed suicide in 2010, allegedly in response to working conditions at Foxconn, a factory in China where Apple products are assembled.

A January 2012 article in the Guardian gives some background: “In 2010, a total of 18 [workers] in the Shenzhen campus of the Taiwan-owned company did attempt suicide; 14 died. Some employees and labor organizations blamed a combination of factors for the workers’ deaths: low wages, long working hours—sometimes up to 16 hours a day—and inhuman treatment.”

In Poynter’s video game, he says, “You play in the afterlife of the workers.”

He uploaded it to the iTunes store on Oct. 12. Within an hour, after 53 sales, Apple removed the game.

Poynter, who started out his artistic career making videos, says he spent about 800 hours on the game, and it shows. When an animated skeleton tries to ascend from a dark, cartoonish underworld to daylight, its rat-in-a-cage anxiety is loud and clear, even on a phone-sized screen. His imagery is at once visually indulgent and darkly, dystopically surreal, seamlessly blending a century-long timeline of aesthetics, from retro-Victorian collage to nearly Holocaust, to a wiggly, hand-drawn hipness that would befit the likes of an iPad ad. The game’s ambient, dark fairytale soundtrack, composed and performed by the Reno Video Game Orchestra, sounds like a score from the world of contemplative, contemporary Asian film.

“For me, it was kind of disturbing,” says Stacey Spain about the game. “It was supposed to be.” She’s director of Sierra Arts, where the game and a related exhibit, also called In a Permanent Save State, were on display Oct. 8-19.

“It creates a little melancholia,” says Spain. “Do you want to send this man through this world? Once you ask yourself that question, you realize you’re playing it on your iPhone, so you have played that game.”

Reporter Mary Elizabeth Williams put the question more bluntly in an Oct. 16 piece she wrote for Salon: “Were we, with our dependence on the newest, shiniest hand-held devices to entertain us, in any way morally accountable for the fates of factory workers half a world away?”

To broadcast his point, Poynter built and staffed a cardboard Apple store inside Sierra Arts, where visitors could play the game on iPhones. He also enlarged some images from the game in photographs on the gallery’s walls and had the Reno Video Game Orchestra play a live concert.

“This young artist was really thinking about, how many different ways can the public receive this work?” says Spain. “It was pretty interesting and multi-layered.”

Poynter wrote in his artist’s statement for the exhibit that his work “raises questions about how comfortable the Western mind is in the midst of its own spectacle.”

Apparently, though, those weren’t questions Apple was prepared to answer.

Apple’s Oct. 12 email notice to Poynter simply read, “Dear Benjamin Poynter, The status for the following app has been changed to Removed From Sale.” The note included brief instructions for how to make changes to the game and how to contact iTunes with questions.

Later that day, in a phone call, a rep from Apple said he’d violated the game-developers’ guidelines, which state that the hardware and media giant will not offer games that “target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.”

Poynter had blocked out the names of companies in the game’s intro text before he released it, which he believes signifies compliance with the above terms. The words “Foxconn” and “iPhone” were typed in, then blocked out, as if with a marker. They’re hard to discern, but not impossible.

Within a few days, several online magazines, among them The Verge, Gamepolitics, Salon and Forbes, had mentioned the game and/or its removal by Apple, each sounding warning bells about corporations censoring information.

Apple did not return RN&R’s call, and apparently other media outlets did not secure comments from Apple either. One online search turned up nine stories about the removal of the game from iTunes and no direct quotes from Apple.

According to an article posted on Digital Trends on Oct. 13, “This isn’t the first time Apple has drawn the curtains on a game alluding to the creation of its beloved iPhone. ‘Phone Story,’ a satirical game that looked at the ethical and environmental issues created throughout the lifespan of a smartphone—complete with a ‘Suicides’ mini-game—was also banned from the App Store for being ‘objectionable.’”

Joseph DeLappe, Digital Media Professor at UNR and chair of Poynter’s MFA thesis committee, says, “I think it is very dangerous when any media outlet, in this case, Apple’s App Store, censors content. We are in treacherous waters in that Apple controls the source for accessing any content to be used on Apple devices. Considering the ubiquity of Apple technology in our daily lives, this presents a problem in that they will seek to control any content that is at all critical of their company. … The work actually seeks to connect us to the circumstances behind our consumption. Yes, the work implicates Apple as well as us, as consumers.”

DeLappe points out that he uses Apple laptop himself.

“I am very troubled by the fact that a major global national corporation has such direct control over our experience of content,” says DeLappe. “Yet, at the same time, is this not the general fact of the situation in our corporate/media state? Apple apparently would rather us not think about such things. ‘Think Different’ indeed!”

A few days after iTunes removed his game, Poynter was not much in a fighting mood.

“I certainly like the attention, for better or worse, but I want to continue making the art instead,” he commented. He was preparing for the Digital Media 1 class he teaches at UNR. His lesson was on a chapter of the book, Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. (Amazon’s description of the book reads, “As we enjoy the Net’s bounties, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?”)

Poynter is happy for now that his game got as much attention as it did: “I introduced a lot of people in the digital gaming world to this crisis at hand. The views on my trailer are getting up to 20,000.”

He’s considering reducing the game’s file size so he can offer it on his website, benjaminpoynter.com.

“It’s not over yet,” he says. “What I’m going to do is re-release the game for the Android platform Nov. 12.”