How 'Papers, Please' Game Was (Wrongly) Censored for Pornography

Papers Please Logo

Gaming isn't just for console and PC anymore. Smartphones have made gaming appealing to just about everybody, but not without consequences. More platforms to appeal to means developers have to port their games to a variety of devices, and many of these devices have content restrictions.

Apple in particular is known for stringent rules about App Store content, rejecting anything that might tarnish its squeaky-clean reputation. While Apple’s “no pornography” standard is good in theory, for some games it paints with too broad a brush—not all nudity constitutes pornography, and the App Store’s current policy doesn’t address the nuances of individual games.

Pornography or purposeful nudity?

Papers, Please is a hugely successful independent game where the player assumes the role of border inspector in a country ruled by dictatorship. The game forces the player to make increasingly difficult moral decisions—should you allow the rebel immigrant through the border, or turn him in to feed your family? Should you buy medicine to feed your sick son, or pay the heating bill to keep your whole family warm? Do you support the totalitarian regime, or would you sacrifice your life for the liberty of others?

One of the moral quandaries the player faces in Papers, Please involves the use of a full-body scanner. As attacks on the fictional country of Arstotzka increase, the player can use a scanner that shows immigrants completely nude, to eliminate the possibility of drug or weapon smuggling. The game's deliberately pixelated graphics don't make for a particularly titillating image—the nudity is meant to be invasive and distressing, not sexual.

Players can turn off nudity in the game options, but many would argue the nudity is necessary for full appreciation and understanding of the game's purpose: forcing players to manage their total power and control over others' lives and dignity as a government agent. The first time you see the fully nude game characters it's a bit shocking; these bodies are not sexualized, and characters' submission to the body scanner can be disheartening. But it's arguably a useful and important game element that forces the player to confront their feelings on security versus privacy, and challenges their sense of human decency.

Papers, Please game censorship doesn't add up

Papers, Please's "Nudity Off" option.
Papers, Please game’s non-sexual nudity almost got it banned from the App Store.

Apple attracted a lot of attention when the App Store denied Papers, Please on the basis of pornographic content. They later apologized and labeled the rejection "a misunderstanding." Papers, Please is now available again in the App Store, with nudity being an option the player must toggle on. But the question remains: are nudity and pornography synonymous in gaming? The issue is complicated—one person's pixelated commentary on invasive government practices may be another person's pornography—but this game is hardly the only instance of nudity available through Apple's download services.

Plenty of iTunes movies feature live, full-frontal nudity, and other apps available through the App Store include scantily-clad, obviously sexualized women in the form of "sexy screen washes" and "tattoo catalogs." Many of these apps don't feature full nudity, but Apple's decision to classify Papers, Please's pixelated bodies as pornographic—but not the overtly sexual soap-sudsed bikini bodies of screen wash apps—is somewhat peculiar.

So what is it about Papers, Please game that drew Apple's ire? The initial rejection may have been a combination of the game's social commentary and the nudity, or it may have been based on the player's complicity in the actions of his or her border inspector character. Or, it may have been a total accident or oversight; it's hard to say for certain. But with the rise of games like Papers, Please—that push hard on challenging themes—distributors may need to create new policies regarding their restrictions for violence, nudity, and potentially objectionable content.

When App Store censorship backfires

Interestingly enough, the App Store's version of Papers, Please game may sexualize the in-game nudity more than the original does. By forcing players to toggle on the nudity feature, it changes the way nudity is constructed in-game. Rather than being invasive, because that’s what the game requires, nudity becomes something the player must seek out. It’s less critical, more titillating; even if the pictures are the same, having to turn the feature on makes it feel taboo.

How does distributor censorship affect game developers?

Papers Please Body Scan Screenshot

So is App Store distribution worth game restrictions or censorship? According to many developers, it depends. Papers, Please is a game with a message to get across, and the in-game nudity represents one piece of the larger puzzle about morality, patriotism, and fascism. For Lucas Pope, the developer of Papers, Please, sacrificing the default nudity was a fair price to pay for exposing more people to the game’s critique of oppressive governments. Though it might seem like compromising integrity, according to a Twitter post, Pope didn't believe the loss was "too severe.”

For other games, sacrificing objectionable content may not be worth it. And in those cases, Apple may not be the right distributor. While the additional exposure is tempting, a video game critique of, say, our culture’s demonization of sex and glorification of violence may rely on portrayals of both sex and violence to get its point across. For games such as these, sacrificing content could compromise the game’s overall intent.

Keep the censorship discussion going

The changes to Papers, Please game prove that Apple’s “no pornography” approach is a little too broad to work as a catch-all standard. So individual developers need to weigh the potential for censorship against their desire for exposure. The App Store isn’t under any obligation to change its policy, but the current broad strokes aren’t serving anybody well.

If nothing else, the rejection and ultimate acceptance of Papers, Please has opened up an important conversation about weighing developer sacrifice against integrity, and distinguishing game nudity from pornography. We hope that these ongoing discussions will change preconceptions and improve the landscape for developers pushing bold and controversial game concepts—and help them seek distribution that is both fair and objective.

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