Politicians in video games: from George Washington to Donald Trump

7 months ago

An alien-fighting Lincoln, or Reagan and Gorbachev killing terrorists together; anything can happen in video games!

We are used to see politicians 24 hours a day on TV, we hear them 7 days a week on the radio, and read about everything they say or do on newspapers. Well, as if that wasn’t enough they have also managed to infiltrate the video game industry. From shooting games to sports games, we can find famous political figures, former presidents and even dictators. Often spotted as simple and brief cameos, they can also be the main characters of the games.

In NBA Jam, a basketball arcade video game published and developed in 1993 by Midway, you could choose President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore as players of your team. They were hidden characters that could be unlocked by entering special codes, and throughout the history of the game they have become more popular than the actual famous basketball players.

EA Sports took over the franchise and in 2010 they released a new version for Nintendo’s Wii in which the political presence was even greater. The game offered an unlockable team of Democrats, featuring President Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore, as well as a team of Republicans with George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, John McCain and Dick Cheney

When ESPN interviewed NBA Jam’s creative director, Trey Smith, he said that they found it “pretty fun to take these politicians and add them in the game and not take them so serious. Instead of talking about all of these serious world issues, it's kind of fun to see the lighter side of politics”. They grabbed high-resolution pictures of the politicians to use them as their dunk faces just like with the other players, Smith said. “We found these pictures that showed off the emotion of all of these politicians, and some of them are classic. (…) The politician dunk faces are some of the best dunk faces in the entire game”.

Indeed, video games are the one place where we don’t have to listen to political speeches and propaganda, and can actually switch roles: we get to control our politicians! Although it is just a virtual control it’s a fun way to lead with politics. For example, in the boxing game Ready 2 Rumble: Round 2 you got to choose between Bill and Hillary Clinton as your player. The game was also developed by Midway and was released in 2000 as the sequel of the 1999’s Ready 2 Rumble Boxing. The game was available on Nintendo 64, PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and Game Boy Advance, and the Clintons were credited as “Mr. President” and “The First Lady” on the ring.

It seems Bill Clinton was very popular among video game developers in the nineties! Although he wasn’t the only politician to feature in more than one video game. Surprisingly, the former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev has been the star of many curious video games. In 1991 the Japanese industry released a game named Gorby’s Pipeline Plan. Developed by Compile, it was available for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) among other consoles. The game was named after Gorbachev’s nickname “Gorby” and he appeared in the cover of the game portrayed with a manga style.

The aim of the game was to assemble water pipe segments to build a pipeline from Moscow to Tokyo to strengthen the relationship between Japan and the Soviet Union. This puzzle game has many similarities with the classic Tetris (1984): it’s a falling-block puzzle game where a little girl dressed with the Russian national costume pushes tiles with parts of water pipes that you have to rotate and place. When you manage to link an inflow pipe from the right to an outflow pipe on the left a row of tiles disappears. If your pipes go to a dead end a row will be added. A true work of Soviet engineering!

But Gorbachev’s communist proletarian politics were really patent in Sega’s game Ganbare Gorby. This game was released in 1991 for the Game Gear and was named Factory Panic in Europe. The word “ganbare” is used in Japanese to encourage someone who is working hard, and in the Nippon version Gorbachev was a worker in a factory who had to help his co-workers by sending them items in conveyor belts and fight against the security guards. Video games might not be the place to avoid propaganda after all…

Curiously, the star of the video game in Europe wasn’t Gorbachev but a random character, and there was no sign of the former Soviet leader. It’s not so strange if we think about the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Western culture during the Cold War in the late eighties and early nineties. What might sound odder is the game Reagan Gorbachev in which USA former President Ronald Reagan allies with Mikhail Gorbachev in order to avoid a nuclear war. Can you imagine anything more surreal than the Cold War leaders (and enemies) fighting and killing common enemies in 1986 hand by hand?

This game was released in February 2016 for Xbox One and in it you control both Reagan and Gorbachev who have been taken hostage by militant extremists during an emergency summit about nuclear weapons. They have now to work together for their freedom and to avoid a nuclear attack.

But Reagan Gorbachev isn’t the only video game in which political enemies have seen themselves in the need of working together to save the world. In 2010 the famous Call of Duty series released Call of Duty: Black Ops with a zombie survival mode in which you could take on the role of President John F. Kennedy, former President Richard Nixon, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro. In this zombie mode all of these politician have to join forces when the Pentagon is attacked by zombies. Is there any better solution than to get armed to the teeth?

 

Nixon and Kennedy join a list of deceased American Presidents portrayed in video games; their predecessors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have made cameos in a bunch of games too. In Nintendo’s game Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Lincoln has to fight Aliens that are invading the planet Earth. The game was released in 2015 for Nintendo 3DS and is based in a steampunk fantasy version of London. The story is told as if you were reading a comic book and features the former President as a steampunk warrior leader of the Strike Team Eliminating the Alien Menace (S.T.E.A.M.). 

George Washington has also have the privilege to fight against aliens thanks to the huge imagination of video game developers. In Sega’s first-person shooter video game for Wii, Conduit 2, he and Lincoln appear at the end of the game in cool futuristic armors to help the main character fight extraterrestrials who use humans as slaves. Washington has also be seen in Age of Empires III as a British Colonel, in the Civilization series, and in Assassin’s Creed III.

It is more and more common to glimpse political cameos in popular video games. However, politicians are not always fond of these appearances. Fidel Castro wasn’t very happy when he was the target of a mission in Call of Duty: Black Ops. It turns out that even if Kennedy and Castro made peace to fight zombies, Americans still wanted to get rid of the Cuban leader and that’s why there is a mission in the game that takes place in Havana in which you have to kill Castro. Cuba responded through the state-run news web site Cubadebate: “What the United States couldn’t accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually”. It just goes to show that video games can actually be quite political.

 

The Call of Duty saga has gotten in trouble many times because of political cameos. Former Dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, sued Activision while he was in jail in 2014 for appearing in Call of Duty: Black Ops II. He considered that the company was using his image to show him as an undesirable person and they were making money out of it, so he wanted his share. No, Noriega didn’t want to cancel the selling of the game even if he accused the company of “portraying him as an adversary and as the person responsible for many hateful fictitious crimes”. He just asked for some money that he was willing to accept as a compensation for Activision’s “illicit enrichment”. 

That didn’t stop Activision to keep on doing controversial cameos. In February 2016 France lived its first legal process for defamation in a video game, and once again Call of Duty was involved. The children of Jonas Savimbi, founder of The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), were shocked by violent scenes featuring their father and sued the company for showing him as a cold blooded killer in Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Politicians are always a tempting target! That’s why Spritted has created a new and fun game featuring American politicians. On the occasion of the United States 2016 elections the team at Spritted introduces the Trump on Top game where you get to choose a Republican player or a customized Donald Trump to literally fight for the White House in this thrilling battle game!

Article written by Paula Gil Alonso.

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