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Farting Permitted, Politics Prohibited? Does Apple Have a Problem with Political Games?

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Sometime this week, Apple will have achieved the impressive milestone of one billion application downloads for their iPhone/iPod touch App Store. Apple pioneered digital delivery of music with iTunes. With the App Store, they have set off the long-awaited digital delivery trend for games, entertainment, and utility applications. Google, Nokia, RIM (Blackberry), Nintendo, and even Microsoft are taking the cue and launching their own online storefronts.

Apple still reigns supreme in the world of online application storefronts. Google launched its "Application Market" for paid apps on their Android phones on Feb. 14, but the lack of consumer acceptance for the "Google Checkout" billing solution has limited the sales of best-selling paid titles to several thousand. Apple doesn't have this problem. Stories abound of some developer working from his couch and becoming if not a millionaire, at least a hundred-thousand-aire, quitting his day job, etc...

Stories also abound of the "diversity" of apps. The famous iFart app sold almost $30k on Christmas Day and was number one for quite some time. Games dominate the charts, with every conceivable genre and subject matter being represented, even a game called iSperm. In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the 1930's, Apple's IPhone is the New World, attracting developers hoping to strike it rich -- or, at least, pay the bills in these difficult times.

Apple's App Store does have rules. Apple doesn't want pornographic titles or other objectionable content. Apple initially blocked the aptly named "Pull My Finger" app back in Sept. 2008, then changed their mind about bodily functions as entertainment in Dec., unleashing a wave of sonic hilarity.

The web is filled with games that cover political issues. When an Iraqi threw his shoes at then President Bush, a flood of shoe-throwing games showed up on the web. Apple rejected a similar game for the iPhone, titled MyShoe, citing concerns over content that ridicules public figures. "Obama Trampoline," a game featuring cartoon caricatures of around 20 Democrat and Republican politicians was rejected in February. Apple has delayed the approval of other political games.

Here's my experience with this. Wanting to channel the frustration over the Bailout abuses by AIG and others, I thought a Bailout game would be a good idea. Borrowing from the classic video games of the 1980's, we created a game called Bailout Bonanza where a "Greedy Guy" is throwing bags of cash off of the stock exchange which the player has to catch. If you miss one, "Greedy Guy" makes some comment about a new Porsche or a corporate jet and you lose a basket. One of the programmers also added shoe throwing to the mix, something for the player to avoid.

We did some research on an appropriate charity and picked The Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.. Why not give 5 percent of the proceeds to the down-and-out in Apple's back yard? (Recently, we increased this contribution to 25 percent of sales.)

Based on our experience with ten apps in the store, we expected maybe 3 or 4 days for approval. We previewed the game to several journalists and got favorable press by late February.

Then we got the dreaded "review delayed" message. App Limbo. Apple has delayed apps for months, sometimes never approving them, because they violate some internal rule. The idea being if the app breaks a rule that is not in the agreement, the best thing to do is simply never approve it.

Meanwhile other, less satirical bailout games started to appear, approved and in the store. I don't know if it was the "Greedy Guy's" messages or the shoe throwing, but we started to seriously worry that Bailout Bonanza was going to be a bust.

Twitter to the rescue. For three days solid I used TweetDeck and replied to EVERY message I saw about the Bailout and keep pounding away that Bailout Bonanza (our iPhone game) was delayed, perhaps due to concerns about it's satirical nature. That message was then re-twitted by major bloggers to 10's of 1000's of followers. Bailout Bonanza was approved by the end of the three day twitter-blitz. Could be coincidence? Who knows?

Sadly the weeks of delay as well as some quirks in the release process, due to the older date of submission, the game never appeared in the first few pages of new apps in the action or arcade game categories. It has some nice user reviews in the App Store, but I don't expect we'll be feeding many people in Silicon Valley.

The real issue here is simply this: Is there an issue with political titles?

If an app with a political edge gets delayed, it can be as bad as being rejected. On the web games pop up based on current events in days. It would be a shame if that wasn't possible on the iPhone. The Video Game industry now rivals the Movie business in size. Games should be legitimate avenues for expressing a political opinion, no matter how satirical.

Apple changed their rules on potty humor. I hope they do the same for political satire.