Phone Story is an educational and satirical mobile game that takes players through the smartphone manufacturing process. It was created by activist Michael Pineschi and designer Paolo Pedercini with Molleindustria in an attempt to reveal the dark side of the smartphone industry, Apple in particular, and incite critical reflection among phone users who may not have realized their complicity. It was originally released in 2011 on iOS but was banned from the app store after four days. It was re-released for Android in 2012 and is now available for download on the company’s website as well. The developers created the game with the genuine purpose of enlightening consumers on the horrific working conditions in smartphone factories and the wasteful impact of the industry. Their focus on education is apparent on their website where information is made available and their commitment is clear through their donation of all profits to relevant NGOs.
Phone Story is a narrated game that takes players through four short games that involve them in the process of manufacturing, purchasing, and disposing of smartphones. In the first game, the player acts as a guard in a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo who must watch over workers and ensure that they remain active without taking breaks. The second game takes place outside a factory in China, and the player must move a net from side to side to catch workers attempting suicide. The third game is set at an Apple store with the player acting as a salesperson who must slingshot the products to the shoppers. In the fourth game, the player is at a disposal center for old phones in Pakistan and must separate the parts. As the player goes through the steps of the game, the narrator provides information about the context of the issue being highlighted. For example, when moving the net outside the factory, there is information narrated about the the unfair working conditions and the many suicides that have resulted, an issue on which the company has focused a great deal of resources. Also, during the recycling game the narrator explains the environmental impact of smartphone waste and the medical threats to workers dealing with the materials. It ends with the phrase, “And the cycle continues” as the game repeats.
As explained, Phone Story is openly advocating for causes surrounding the negative impact of the smartphone industry. The developers created the game in response to the lack of awareness from consumers of their role in what has become a global crisis on multiple levels surrounding the industry and its supply chain. Its criticism of the industry led to its removal from the App Store, exemplifying Apple’s willingness to censor apps more than other content. According to Apple, Phone Story was breaking four app store guidelines related to charities and donations as well as crude content in the form of violence and child abuse. The violations, especially in the category of violence, are quite ironic considering the satirical approach of Phone Story. It’s meant to mimic Apple’s business practices and yet they consider the imagery, in the form of cartoons, too inappropriate for their store.
Means of Expression:
Phone Story uses a simulation for players to behave as if they’re working at a mine, a factory, an Apple Store, and an electronics disposal center. Most of the tasks simulate real-life activities, though the tasks of the Apple Store worker, for example, is more metaphoric as the player must slingshot the products to the consumers, a highly exaggerated version of the sales process. The structure of the game is more controlled by the narration than the gameplay, though the basic rules for playing are important as one can’t move on in the game without achieving the simple tasks. The audiovisual elements include the important narration along with subtle background music that doesn’t seem to be particularly meaningful. Visually, the perspective is from a third person outsider’s perspective at a true level and the graphics are done in a two-dimensional cartoon style of caricaturism. The design is very basic, fitting the ironic or satirical nature of the game. In Phone Story, flow is unlikely. The game is completed quickly and the player is simply going through the motions of the game to continue the narration and education. In that way, it’s very similar to an informational video with interactive qualities. The game is successful in its goal, to inform consumers and players about the impact of their phone. It achieves this ironically, by having the player experience the game on the very device in question, creating greater impact and cause for reflection. Despite its successes, common criticisms center around its short gameplay and lack of entertainment value, making it unlikely for anyone to play it more than once. The true purpose of the game seems to be to direct players to further information on the topics instead of to create repeat players. In that case, the developers were successful from an activism standpoint though the game is not considered critically successful in the gaming world.