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Phone Story Fingers On

The business model for this game.

I am a consumer.

or

I am a man from the Congo yelling at workers who are not working to my satisfaction, a gun resting in my hands, the intent clear.

or

I am the safety net who saves workers from suicides, so that they may go back into the factory that spawned many of the suicidal thoughts with which to begin.

or

I am the employee, satisfying the zombified demand for my product as the horde continues to advance, the phones I chuck at them being the brains they crave.

or

I sort and divide the thrown away materials, though many cannot truly be discarded.

or

I am really only the first, the consumer, but give life to all the other scenarios.

This is the basic premise behind Molleindustria's Phone Story: an App that was available in Apple's store yesterday, but was pulled for apparently violating the following:

15.2 Apps that depict violence or abuse of children will be rejected

16.1 Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected

21.1 Apps that include the ability to make donations to recognized charitable organizations must be free

21.2 The collection of donations must be done via a web site in Safari or an SMS

Via an interview with Gamasutra, Paolo Pedercini of Molleindustria states that the intent was to be within the guidelines of the App Store. Indeed, going to Molleindustria's Phone Story page, and clicking on the banner that states it was banned looks at possible ways to make the game comply to these standards. However, as Pedercini notes with Alexander at Gamasutra, the nebulous "excessively objectionable or crude content" bit makes it a bit difficult to ascertain if that can come to pass, even if speaking with Apple netted a response that the App could be made available again. Theoretically? Yes, it could. Will it?

After all, the game is a mix of documentary and game, which heavily criticizes the technolust Apple, and really any smart phone creators, has instilled.

What about the game, though? I actually had a chance to purchase and download it, and have uploaded a video (please excuse the sideways view and poor quality, had to make do with my somewhat aged digital camera) and have a few more thoughts.

(Many thanks to @belovedsanspoof for rotating the video for me.)

First, it is a documentary game, heavy on providing information. While that information is about the minigames and situations you are enacting, it does not guide the gameplay in any way. It provides context for the pixels you are manipulating.

You start off in a pit, controlling two guards who yell at the workers who stop working. They are mining for coltan, used in most of these devices. You must keep up the productivity goal so that you can progress to the end, so that the coltan can take its next step. The method of interaction is fairly simple. You keep an eye on the workers, and then you tap on them to get them to work again. There is no violence, though the threat of it is clear--the threat being more than enough to work in most such cases, after all.

This is perhaps the step furthest removed from how we receive these products, and the game itself confers much the same. We merely tap to guide the guards, but we do not directly control them in any way. This does not remove the responsibility, but it does remark on how removed this can seem for us.

Then there is the second game, where you are told about the issues that were highlighted with Foxconn not too recently. Here you control the 'safety net' that prevents suicidal workers from dying. The mechanics shift here, so that you are guiding the two people directly, preventing the deaths, and then watching the workers go right back to working in the factory. You are assuring life, but not quality of life, in essence. Sometimes it does become impossible to catch them all, and they will splat into the ground below; this does not end the game, so much as cause a productivity hit. Again, the goal is to fill the productivity meter before time is up. Acceptable risks, as long as you reduce the number.

In some ways, the message here seems to highlight this information, as much as point out that the alarm was over the number of suicides, and that what is often touted out in debates around this topic is the fact that there are places with higher suicide rates. Therefore, it is not the suicides that matter for some people, so much as how many suicides there may be.

Third is where you play an employee of the company who is selling the final product. You fling the latest phone into the raised arms of consumers who are swarming toward the store. If you miss them before they get past you, they crunch into the store behind you. Throwing a phone that misses creates a breaking noise. Your goal meter takes another hit.

This was the first time I failed, and the message the popped up clearly told me that I could not remove my complicity by just failing or refusing to participate. I already had the device in my hands: I was already a culprit.

Last comes the recycling plant. There are four materials you divide among four rather bedraggled-looking workers. Sometimes these materials would pop back on to the conveyor belt, and as the voice over explains, many of these materials cannot truly be recycled as we may think. It has the least amount of explanation, which seems appropriate given that we do not truly know the long-term effects of what this obsolecense will cost us.

Which leads to the final mode, where each iteration of the new phone means you go through the process again for the version 2.0, the 3G, etc. What we have created is a cycle where the product must continually be bought again and again, thereby supporting and perpetuating the industry. Meanwhile, at this point I noticed the score that was tallying in the top right corner, indicating I was only becoming richer, I suppose.

The progression of the games themselves seems appropriate in terms of communicating this information. The first game is the least intense in terms of keeping the audience's attention: it guides us into watching the screen and listening to information that is not necessary for the 'playing' of the game, just the contextualization. The second allows us to keep our finger on the device while moving, but still keep our attention focused. Theoretically by the time the third comes about, we are less distracted by listening to this discrete information while engaging, so that multiple fingers swipes and calculating angles is not as difficult. Then the fourth part is not as well explained, which means we need figure out where what goes, knowing it may well do no good anyway.

And here is where people will ask: what's the point? After all, what is an alternate solution? Is there one? With the Gamasutra interview above, it is noted that what is not being asked is to just boycott and stop the purchase of these devices. It seems instead to be aware of the issue at hand, and then to further acknowledge it while becoming aware of ways to mitigate and work for solutions. It also makes all these disparate pieces of information available in one package. When we receive these reports, as we did of Foxconn, it is more often than not divorced from the rest of the processes in this manufacturing line.

Are we, the purchasers of these products, complicit? Yes. Is Molleindustria? Yes. The issue isn't one of who is guilty of this, as the answer is many of us are. I don't even believe the point is to make us guilty with no response, but to leave us informed so that we can ask the appropriate questions and request the appropriate changes. It's asking for cultural awareness.

Update: Since posting this, it appears the app has appeared on the Android market for those interested.

3 Comments

Good text. Your last two paragraphs made me think, though. I completely approve the project and I think we need more of this. But I don't think acknowledgment and awareness should be the end of it. After all: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/23/18-awareness/

VorpalBunny said:

Oh, agreed. I was curious as to why further resources weren't given at some point as to organizations making changes. Part of that is likely expected to be known through the fact that the company itself is donating the proceeds.

mp said:

this is the best response to the game yet. Amazingly well stated and thought provoking. Thanks.

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