Ethically opposed to smartphones? There's an app for that


Most iPhone users have a few games installed to while away the spare minutes at the bus stop or while the kettle is boiling – Angry Birdsor Bejewelled, that sort of thing. But if you downloaded Phone Story, a game by Italian company Molleindustria that was available on Apple’s Appstore last week, and expected a few minutes of distraction, you’d have been sorely disappointed. Instead, you were treated to four mini-games that critique the very device you’re playing with. This game lived up to its billing as “the anti-iPhone game for iPhone”: there’s a lot more righteous anger than in Angry Birds, that’s for sure.

In one level, you control armed militiamen forcing exhausted children to keep mining for coltan, a mineral used in capacitors in the circuit boards of most electronic devices, and sourced mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In another level you must save desperate factory workers leaping from a rooftop, referencing the spate of suicides at the Chinese factories that manufacture iPhones and iPads. The other levels mock excessive gadget mania and the toxic effects of electronic recycling.

As a piece of game design, Phone Storyis unremarkable, but as a piece of 21st-century agitprop, it’s ingenious, using the very device it is criticising as the vehicle for its criticism, which gives a whole new meaning to the term metacritical. It’s like a butcher staging a protest against animal cruelty in his own abattoir.

But the masterstroke came in the form of Apple’s inevitable response: Phone Storywas removed from the Appstore (for depicting cruelty to children, among other supposed infringements). What was at first a somewhat gimmicky protest game became a cause celebre, another high-profile example of overt corporate censorship – Phone Storywas going to need a whole new level to mock this behaviour, surely.

Molleindustria’s motto is “Radical games against the dictatorship of entertainment”, and previous targets have included the Catholic Church (Operation Pedopriest) and Big Oil (Oiligarchy).

“Of course, the goal was to sneak an embarrassingly ugly gnome into Apple’s walled garden,” Phone Story’s designer Paolo Pedercini said in an interview with the Gamasutra gaming site after the ban was put in place. “For them, games and applications are not part of culture like books or music. Try to imagine what kind of reaction iTunes would provoke if they banned all the songs with objectionable content.”

While Phone Storyis not the first game to make a political point, it hints at how much fun it might be if more games championed moral positions and political awareness. The next Gears of Warcould focus on interplanetary diplomatic efforts; Grand Theft Automight have levels on the benefits of early-access educational programmes in disadvantaged communities; Super Marioought to advocate for, say, plumbers’ unions.

Of course it’s easy to be facetious about a company that comes out with such self-righteous gibberish as “the political and artistic emancipation of this [video game] medium”. In a larger sense Phone Storyis tapping into the cultural phenomenon of anti-consumerism – the self-styled subversive genre that found voice in Naomi Klein’s No Logoand has a monthly manual in the shape of Adbusters.

It’s a tightrope walk for ethical consumers: keeping track of which company is behaving badly at any given moment can be time-consuming, and a rigorously applied boycott of problem products will leave you with a wardrobe of Aran sweaters and only your bookshelf for entertainment. In this case, it’s not quite fair to suggest that the electronics industry is responsible for civil war and child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For its part, Apple asserts that it requires its “suppliers of tantalum capacitors to certify they use only materials that have been produced through a socially and environmentally responsible process”, while acknowledging that the long supply chain makes ensuring that nearly impossible.

“Don’t pretend you are not complicit,” Phone Storyrepeatedly admonishes us. As consumers, we are all implicated in the problematic realities of mass-production and globalised trade. It might fail in the playability stakes, but where Phone Storysucceeds is in helping us lift the veil of ignorance and denial when it comes to our collective responsibility. In time and with more awareness, there might well be a demand for ethical electronics and conscientious gadgets.

Until then, give a moment’s thought before playing another game of Plants vs Zombies. . .