Does Google owe an explanation for removing video game apps about the war in Gaza?

by mayukh sen

Roman Shapiro, creator of the widely-reviled Bomb Gaza video game, claims that his game was a joke conceptualized in the span of two hours. Bomb Gaza is an Android game that allows users to assume the role of an Israel Defense Force soldier commandeering an F16 fighter jet. Players are encouraged to drop bombs on Hamas militants and sidestep civilians. They lose the game in the event that they end up killing too many civilians.

His joke was incendiary. Within days of the game’s July 29 release in Google Play stores, reviewers and netizens responded with moral outrage. Though the game was downloaded nearly 1,000 times, it was officially removed from Google Play stores on August 4.

Since the conflict in Gaza began in early July, Google Play has seen a flood of games sympathetic to both Israeli and Palestinian militants. Bomb Gaza has been the subject of the most publicity, yet, on the pro-Israeli side, there’s also Gaza Assault: Code Red , a game that lets users control Israeli drones to protect the nation's citizens. Whack the Hamas , modeled after classic arcade game Whac-a-Mole, lets users defend Israeli citizens from Hamas members who are “popping out of their tunnels,” referring to Palestinian tunnel warfare. Both were removed a day after Bomb Gaza disappeared from the store. In addition, there’s also Rocket Pride, which lets players defend the Gaza Strip from “oppressive occupiers.” That game has also been taken down.

Gaza Assault: Code Red gameplay, via nothingisreal

Some games are still available on Google Play. Iron Dome – The Game doesn’t name an enemy specifically, only referring to the “terrorists” against whom players should defend Israel’s Iron Dome. The lack of a nominal enemy may have allowed the game to remain in stores. The Google Play store also has Gaza Hero , a game that allows players to transform IDF soldiers into food, water, cake, or medicine; in its description, the game criticizes those who simply “curse Israel” without marrying that to action, claiming to donate all the game’s proceeds to oppressed Gazans. Android users can also still download Gaza Defender , which encourages players to fire missiles at aircraft – it’s unclear whether these aircraft are Israeli – flying overhead.

In response to questions about the removals, a Google spokesperson claimed that the company doesn't comment on specific applications. The company operates reflectively by reviewing games after users issue complaints; there’s no pre-approval process. Rather, Google reserves the right to remove applications that violate the company's terms of service. Among these policies is a clause that prohibits applications that position themselves "against groups of people based on their race or ethnic origin." Another justifies removal of content that contains gratuitous violence. There’s also a blurb about bullying. It’s unknown which of these policies led to the removal of the games.

Gaza Hero gameplay, via muhammad adam.

To many netizens, the question of whether these games should be removed isn’t even up for debate – of course they should be taken down. Some argue this on the basis that these games are in plain bad taste. Critics suggest that it’s perhaps even worse to make these games when the conflict is so immediate; each day, death tolls are rising with distressing rapidity. They allege that the games make cartoonish leisure out of wartime aggression. These games don't facilitate a culture of peace in a political moment that desperately needs one. It’s pithy commercialization to profit from a conflict that has, quite literally, dehumanized thousands.

Others have responded to the removals with measured suspicion. Defenders of the games argue that they may constitute something of an editorialized response to the conflict, like some expertly crafted games on the historical Israel-Palestine conflict have done in the past. Interactivity – one of the unique qualities of video games – may allow users to more directly enter into and experience perspectives different from their own, infusing their beliefs with more urgency and compassion. The games may be attempts at satire, albeit crude ones.

In part, the debate on the removal of these games is predicated on the question of violence that has haunted video games since they entered the public sphere. Do violent images parrot real-life aggressions? Will players begin to internalize and mirror the violence they enact in these video games? Or are they simply exercising demons through channeling their aggressions into these games, knowing that these tendencies have little place in the real world?

More generally, however, cases of such games as Bomb Gaza and Rocket Pride recall questions surrounding what role corporations should play in policing content online. Skeptics suspect that there’s something spurious about letting this corporation decide what does and doesn’t belong in the public domain, particularly at the level of opaqueness with which Google has dished out these removals. What place does Google – whose main offices are located in United States, worlds away from the epicenter of the conflict at hand – have in becoming the sudden arbiter of acceptability?