"That stick… the one going down the center of the screen? I mean, if you ask me, it looks a lot like a penis," Ryan said, referring to the video game I made. Ryan is an App Store employee with whom I recently discussed sex for about a half hour.
I should back up.
I made a game about sex called Oh. Oh is an infinite runner of sorts in line with Super Hexagon with hints of Luxuria Superbia. It's stressful, overwhelming, hard to keep track of what is going where, and it's incredibly judgmental of your performance. I'm a master of fine arts student at NYU, and when I thought about what kind of game would best express who I am as a designer, I landed on an abstract sex game in which you need to get objects into holes at ever-increasing speeds — and try not to finish too quickly.
Oh is not a joke, however. You see, games have an incredible potential to talk about important issues like sexuality and social standards, a potential that is presently wasted. For every Gone Home out there, a game that tackles a serious topic with care and beauty, there are forty God of Wars and Tomodachi Lifes, games that either take advantage of the taboo of sexuality or reinforce it, ignoring issues of sexuality altogether.
See, sex has a pretty high approval rating. I would suspect that, of the people who have been willful participants in sex, the vast majority would put it in the "more of that, please" column. Alternately, I would suspect that, of the people who have had to murder their own zombified children, relatively few of them would leave a five-star review. Nevertheless, the former is rarely in seen video games. The latter is not even the most disturbing visual in one of the most well-received games of the past few years.
If we can make games where we represent violence as silly fun, why not sex?
So Oh is fun, and that's it. There's nothing subversive about the game's sex metaphor. It's not trying to imply anything about the culture around sex, and it isn't trying to take advantage of the cultural naughtiness of making a game about sex. Sex is just a real thing, and I thought it was worthwhile to make a game that is, effectively, about the anxiety, stress, and fun of your first time. Why shouldn't games be able to talk about these kinds of often-ignored or often-hyped "serious topics" in a fun way? If we can make games where we represent violence as silly fun, why not sex?
That is the kind of representation that I think sex should have in games: it shouldn't be about making the player feel uncomfortable, it should be about making the player feel something positive.
In the original incarnation of my game, moans rang out from the iPhone's speakers each time you passed a goal. And voices would apologise to you each time you missed. I didn't intend for player's to glance around nervously and hope nobody heard. I intended for them to laugh and for others around them to chuckle and look over, curious. The sound effects were recorded with friends, between bouts of laughter — not in a sweaty office on a leather couch.
I made this game in school at NYU. I'm currently entering my second year as an MFA student at the NYU Game Center, a sharp difference in career path after six years working professionally in theatre. As part of my first year, I was in a class called Prototype Studio, in which we were required to create a separate, unique functional prototype every week, from scratch. These were always based on a theme provided by our professor Bennett Foddy, of QWOP and Sportsfriends fame. One week, Bennett allowed us to choose our own theme. Naturally, it was a tight race between cats, farts, and sex, but sex won out. And Oh was born.
I eventually wanted to sell Oh on the App Store. In the weeks leading up to my initial submission to the store, I was warned that I might be asked to "tone down the sexual content." However, a quick search through the store's current offerings left me emboldened. It only takes a cursory search for the words "sex" and "boobs" to find sex position apps, sexual glossaries, and an app in which you can upload a photo of your friend and make their breasts jiggle. Oh being considered more controversial than these seemed unlikely.
Here's an early trailer I made for the game:
Six days after submission, Oh was rejected for presenting "excessively objectionable or crude content." Disappointed but not surprised, I responded to the rejection, asking for clarification about which elements of the game would need to be tweaked to get it onto the store.
Minutes later, Oh's status returned to "in review." After a few hours of not understanding why this would be the case, I received a phone call from an App Store employee, which I would later learn is not particularly common.
This is my sex talk with Apple (paraphrased):
Them: Hello, Mr. Marion. We're calling about the status of your app which was rejected earlier this morning. Your app was rejected for containing excessively objectionable or crude content.
Me: Yes, absolutely. I was hoping to get a clearer idea of what exactly was found to be objectionable about the app.
Them: Uh… the whole idea… the sound and the visuals. Also the name of the game is 'Oh,' which we know is suggestive, it's a sound that people make while… while engaging in those kinds of activities. It's to do with the meaning behind your app. Your metadata… in the tags you put the word "innuendo," and I mean, come on, I think you know that that isn't appropriate for the App Store.
Me: What would still be considered impermissible if that app was rated 17+?
Them: You can change the age rating all you want, this is just… it's just not appropriate for the App Store. You're going to have to rethink the entire concept of your game.
Me: There isn't anything visually sexual in the app, and the content in the game is suggestive in nature, which is within the guidelines posted online.
Them: I think we both know what you're trying to do here.
When I spoke about this conversation to Frank Lantz, the director of the NYU Game Center and creator of Drop7, he described Apple's position thusly: "Apple seems to be working hard to maintain the status of games as innocuous entertainment, denying their capacity to engage with serious issues and participate in the complicated, contentious, grown-up conversations of culture."
Apple is complicit in the popular opinion that sex is not to be discussed openly, especially in video games. The previously described father-shooting-zombie-son scene is available right this moment on the App Store, but games in which sex is represented in any way, even positively, are rejected without exception.
The problem with this stance, however, is that it doesn't respect that games are a form of artistic expression, a respect that Apple already shows for movies and music.
My kneejerk reaction to my rejection was to write an article about why Apple and the App Store are evil, but this isn't the case.
Apple is a tremendous company that aims their products at families, and they don't want the responsibility of presenting potentially contentious material to all of those consumers, regardless of age ratings. The problem with this stance, however, is that it doesn't respect that games are a form of artistic expression, a respect that Apple already shows for movies and music, which go relatively uncensored.
Additionally, Apple is a platform holder. They are the gatekeeper between games and a huge portion of the gaming public. As Bennett Foddy puts it, Apple is "following in the footsteps of Nintendo, and attempting to avoid any contact with controversy and concerned-parents groups by eliminating any reference to sexuality."
Hopefully, Apple will lighten up their grip in much the same way Nintendo did. After all, you can see aliens get it on in Mass Effect 3 for Wii U.
In the end, though, you can (and should) go grab the game from the App Store right now. It's up there. It got approved. Tweaks had to be made to the sounds, and the word "rub" had to be removed, but it's the same game. It's my game. My first game. I can't wait to learn what you think, to make improvements, add new modes, fix bugs, and iterate on it. Have fun.
James Marion is an game designer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY whose work aims to focus on elegant and emotional experiences, but isn't afraid of dabbling in the lovably stupid. He spends his time as a level designer at Playdots Inc. in Manhattan and getting his Master's Degree at the NYU Game Center.