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Mobile GPS Technology Allows Smart Phone Game Apps to Cross Realism—Maybe Even Criminal—Barriers

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Mobile GPS technology has recently spawned the development of smart phone games that blur the line between the game world and the real word by utilizing a user’s real-time location as part of a game’s competitive strategy.  However, when one such game—Drugs Lords—allowed virtual drug dealing, Apple cracked down (no pun intended) to ban the app from sale on the AppStore.

The issue, according to Apple, was that the game violated Section 3.3.12 of the iPhone Software Development Kit (“SDK”) Agreement because it was “obscene, pornographic, offensive or [included] defamatory content . . . .”  However, given the extreme violence and drug use in many games today, this explanation doesn’t seem like the whole story.  Drug Lords allowed users to make virtual money by buying virtual drugs for cheap and then selling high.  However, instead of showing different virtual prices as your “character” moved around a virtual world—like most economy-based games in this genre do—the prices at which you buy and sell “drugs” in this game depended on where you went in real life.  Furthermore, the “dealers” from whom you bought drugs could be other real people.  Prices therefore fluctuated based on where you physically were and what the other users were willing to offer.

Unsurprisingly, this computer-generated black market for virtual drugs looked a little too much like an app to facilitate actual drug sales, leading many to oppose its sale on the AppStore.  Notwithstanding the hurdles of how exactly a real drug buyer was supposed to tell a seller of virtual drugs from a real seller, these voices ultimately prevailed in getting the game banned.  A-steroids, the game’s developer, responded by rebranding the game as “Underworld: SweetDeal”, which uses virtually the same platform but allows for the exchange of virtual candy, not virtual marijuana, cocaine, etc.  As at least one review site points out, the fact that this update made it past Apple’s censors suggests that they take a rather literal interpretation of their SDK Agreement, blind to the possibility that real dealers could simply use candy code words for illicit drugs and thereby utilize this app to the same effect as before.

Despite its checkered past, the game is wildly popular and becoming more so—A-steroids just announced that a sequel, Underworld 2, is on the way.  Location-based games that blur the lines between fantasy and reality seem to be the wave of the future.  One can only speculate as to the legal and ethical challenges they might bring.

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