In early April, as discussion of Hillary Clinton’s private email server dominated news coverage, Kevin Colligan was hit with a sudden stroke of inspiration. The 46-year-old app developer has always had an interest in politics, and spends his free time drawing what he calls “silly little pictures” of politicians. As a registered Democrat and Bernie Sanders supporter, he was also becoming increasingly aware that he could possibly be, as he puts it, “stuck with Hillary.” And the prospect of a giant email scandal on the Democratic nominee’s shoulders was just too great of a satirical opportunity to pass up.
“I thought, Oh, this could be a perfect, kind of humorous thing for a game,” Colligan told me. “There’s definitely tons of material there.”
The end result, which launched in June, was the iOS app Hillary’s Email Adventure. It opens with a text message conversation between Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz — who announced her resignation last weekend after the DNC’s own email scandal — and Clinton, who realizes she must recover her emails from the “bad guys” wiping her server. The player is then tasked with bouncing a Clinton caricature around a circuit board to recover as many emails as possible while racing against a fire rapidly spreading at the bottom of the screen.
“It’s kind of like Angry Birds meets The Daily Show,” Colligan said. “I wanted it to be a game that’s fun to play if you’re not into politics, but I wanted to stuff it full of inside jokes. What I’m trying to do is turn games into a sort of content platform.”
Colligan is not the first person to parlay a juicy news story into an app. Since the early days of both Google Play and the Apple app store, developers have capitalized on trending stories. Forty-eight hours after a tape of the earth-shattering 2014 Jay Z and Solange’s elevator incident leaked, a cheap 8-bit game that allowed users to kick the rapper with a peachy Phillip Lim–clad foot emerged in the Android app store.
But the 2016 election has inspired other app developers beyond Colligan. As of midweek, a query for “Trump” in the app store returned 2,109 iOS apps, while a query for “Hillary” returned 334. Not all are of the results are explicitly political in nature: According to Sensor Tower’s Wes McCabe, some of these — such Oovoo or Go On — have nothing to do with the candidates and are looking to capitalize on trending searches. It’s called ASO, or app-store optimization, and it’s a cousin of SEO. “It becomes very strategic for developers to get organic downloads through search to submit viral keywords,” McCabe, a product-marketing manager at the app-store marketing firm, told me.
But amid the inevitable flurry of entrepreneurs simply hoping to cash in on candidates’ names, some developers have turned to campy apps as a form of political commentary, using them as a medium to express frustrations under the premise of mindless entertainment. A seemingly endless feed of titles such as Trump Dump, Avoid Hillary, and Whack Hillary have become a form of digital pulp fiction: a quickly produced, cheap, and effective — if temporary — form of escapism that, according to McCabe, are mostly downloaded by 18- to 21-year-olds. Even The Washington Post — the Pulitzer Prize–winning legacy newspaper that broke Watergate — released a Flappy Bird–inspired app named Floppy Candidate earlier this year.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Dave Colman, who, earlier this month, released 10 candidate-specific apps modeled after whack-a-mole. Their titles include Whack Hillary, Mash Marco, Thump the Trump, Squish Bush, Hit Mitt, Stop Cotton Necking, Bash Bernie, Bruz Cruz, etc. Their premise is simple: The titular political figure pops out of a hole in the grass, and the player taps furiously until a hammer descends on his or her head. Colman, a 33-year-old who works as an independent software developer and volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, said he began the series with the Trump-themed game to highlight what he sees as the absurdity of the Republican nominee’s candidacy. But after recognizing that social media and smartphone apps are an effective way to communicate with people younger than 30, Coleman decided to expand his offerings.
“I felt that the younger voters had to be more involved in the process,” he said via email. “What better way to stimulate their interest than by reaching out to them through a platform they utilize the most?”
Dominick Malzone, a 20-year-old business student, decided that instead of making a statement about politics, he wanted to test the power of Trump’s social media tactics. Though Malzone doesn’t plan to vote in this election and prefers to stay out of politics, he was inspired by Trump’s ability to capture attention with polarizing statements. (“As he states in his book [Trump: The Art of the Deal], ‘All press is good press,’” Malzone told me.) After noticing that many of Trump supporters on Twitter had called to “lock up” Clinton for her email-server scandal, he exploited the meme by creating yet another Flappy Bird imitator called Handcuff Hillary — this one featuring Clinton in an orange jumpsuit, riding a magic carpet, and attempting to fly through openings in barb-wired, concrete barriers.
Malzone has used some ASO techniques to ensure his app comes up high on the list when you search for “Hillary Clinton” in the App Store, and on its first day on the market, it received close to 100,000 impressions. He has reached out to the Trump campaign to see if they’re interested in promoting the app, and, in the meantime, has run some preliminary testing via Facebook ads. He’s found that — shocker — Trump supporters love the game, and Clinton supporters hate it.
“Hillary supporters like to talk,” he said, referring to the comments and reviews that drag the app. “But all attention is good attention.”