If you're below a certain age or simply not all that familiar with the history of video games, perhaps you haven't heard about Postal. Originally released for the PC in 1997, Postal was an isometric top-down shooter - think Contra with some better graphics. Postal was, by all accounts, a fairly unremarkable game; its mechanics were simple and its story was rudimentary. What made it notable was its intense violence and the depiction of the "gone postal" protagonist shooting defenseless civilians.
According to an administrator on the forum of Postal developer Running With Scissors, Google has refused to allow a port of the original game on the Play Store. The company denied the game on the grounds of "gratuitous violence," something that is forbidden in Google's developer agreement. Google, as the owner and arbiter of the Play Store, has the right and the duty to censor its content when it feels appropriate - I don't think anyone would object to the removal of, say, "Lynching Simulator 2015" or "9-11 Bombing Run." Here are some screenshots from the original Postal, presumably similar to what would have been included in an Android port. Screenshots are taken from the Steam re-release of the game.
As you can see, Postal does indeed depict gratuitous violence, albeit in a fairly low-resolution form. The isometric view of bodies strewn around various environments can, in the right light, call to mind mass shootings and other real-world catastrophes. Google is probably justified in the decision not to allow Postal on the Play Store, according to a strict interpretation of its four-level rating system.
However, deciding what's OK to show in an app or game becomes tricky when you're talking about a store with tens of thousands of entries. Entries (as noted by the original forum post) like Grand Theft Auto III, Max Payne, Carmageddon, Half-Life 2, and The Walking Dead. These are all handled with varying degrees of "reality" - Carmageddon in particular is meant to be over-the-top and comedic in a sort of grindhouse cinema way - but calling Postal more or less violent than these games seems like a stretch at best. All of these games, and many others in the Play Store, have been rated "M" for mature on other platforms by the ESRB.
Gameloft's Modern Combat series displays semi-realistic military shooting: opponents bleed and die, and you get extra points for a headshot. In Grand Theft Auto you can murder civilians and police officers - indeed, many missions require you to do so. Shoot someone in the head with GTAIII's sniper rifle and it pops off with blood shooting from the neck. Carmaggeddon awards extra points for running over pedestrians in weaponized cars. TellTale's adventure game based on Game of Thrones shows the graphic and, yes, realistic murder of a child in the very first episode. And that's without mentioning the hundreds and hundreds of zombie games where rotting human corpses are blown to smithereens.
Let's check out a direct analog to Postal, shall we? John Woo's Bloodstroke is an isometric top-down action wherein the main character shoots and stabs her way through hundreds of "bad guys." The comic book style and lack of civilian targets may grant the game a pass, but there's no denying that it's just as violent as the original Postal, possibly more so thanks to the black, white, and red color scheme.
One of these games has "graphic violence" and one of them has "gratuitous real violence." Can you tell the difference? Because Google can.
The deciding factor here seems to be the idea of "real" violence, as described in the Google Support page above. But the concept of reality is flexible when applied to video games. Postal's world is just as fictional as Grand Theft Auto's, or Modern Combat's, or Gangstar's. Games like Carmageddon and The Walking Dead are obviously more fictional in that they exist in a world where impossible things happen, but that's a dangerous road to go down when you compare it to Hollywood-style escapist violence as seen in Die Hard. Which, by the way, also has its own Android game. It looks like Google is applying the good old pornography definition to the shady line between "graphic violence" and "gratuitous real violence": they know it when they see it.
Later this month Warner Bros. Interactive is scheduled to publish a mobile version of Mortal Kombat X. If it's anything like the console version, incredibly violent deaths will be lovingly detailed in high-resolution, slow-motion, and x-ray shots that would make any horror movie producer green with envy. I wonder if Google will allow it on the Play Store. And speaking of the Play Store itself, R-rated movies, horror comic books, and graphic depictions of violence and sex are readily available in the movie and book sections of the store. Why do those mediums get a pass while video games are treated with kid gloves?
This is where I'd put a screenshot of a Fatality attack from Mortal Kombat X, if I weren't seriously disturbed by the sight of someone being dragged crotch-first through a spinning buzz saw. If MKX makes it into the Play Store as scheduled, Google will have serious ethical contradiction to deal with.
I'm not exactly an evangelist for violent games - to be perfectly honest, I find the level of gleeful violence in Postal and Mortal Kombat off-putting. And Google's not the only mobile distributor to get squeamish about violence. Recently Apple told its developers to remove guns from all screenshots in the App Store - not to censor the apps themselves, mind you, just the publicly-visible promotional material. But if Google wants Android games to be considered the equal of console or PC titles, they need allow the same kind of titles that PC and console players have access to, blood and all. These are games meant to be played by adults, not children, and are clearly labeled as such by Google's own rating system.
A fairly typical scene from Grand Theft Auto III. Screenshot credit: Steam user KayJay23.
If Google evaluates a game and finds it to be really, truly offensive, then removing it is within their rights. Valve probably did the same thing with indie game Hatred, which resembles Postal in many ways, before eventually allowing it back on Steam again. But if Google is indeed going to play judge and jury for both developers and its end users, then they need to apply an even hand across the entire Play Store. To put it simply, if Postal shows an unacceptable level of violence, then so does Grand Theft Auto. The fact that giant developers and publishers seem to get much more leeway than independents like Running With Scissors shows an even more disturbing side to Google's uneven patrolling of the Play Store.
Running With Scissors vice president Mike Jaret reached out to let us know that Postal has also been refused from the Amazon Appstore. That's particularly odd, because in addition to publishing many of the games mentioned above, Amazon sells the PC version of Postal on its own digital download service. Amazon also sells violent and sexually explicit movies, TV shows, books, and comics, both in digital and physical form.
Amazon's policy on app content is surprisingly lenient - based on the terms related to violence below, you'd think that the "maturity ratings" Amazon provides for other apps could be applied to Postal.
Offensive Content: What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect. We reserve the right to determine the appropriateness of all apps and to accept or reject any app at our discretion. We also have full discretion to publish maturity ratings for the apps.
Mr. Jaret has provided Android Police with the rejection letters from both Google and Amazon and given us permission to publish them. Both letters refer to the policies above - which govern other violent games on the Play Store and Appstore - and both inform the applicant that submitting similar apps may result in the suspension of the developer account.
Mr. Jaret added that Running With Scissors has submitted the Android version of Postal to Humble (the organizers of the Humble Bundle) and third-party Android app store Aptoide. The game may also be made available on the Running With Scissors online store.
Amazon has reversed its decision. Postal is now available for download from the Amazon Appstore for $1.99. It is still not available from the Google Play Store.
- Running With Scissors forum