For most of the US election, many people thought Donald Trump was a joke, or at least someone who had no chance of being President. It's no surprise, then, that many video games that featured or added modes involving Trump treated him that way, too. The creators of those games talked to us about the intent and impact of their art.
"I look at Mr President as an art piece [that] encompasses my view of the presidential race, how he spoke to the fear and hate many Americans have," said Game Developer X, the developer behind Mr President, a game where you defend "bankrupt billionaire" Ronald Rump from ridiculous assassination attempts. "It is a statement that should not be forgotten or changed because of the outcome. Art is a product of it's time and should be viewed that way."
Game Developer X added that, while his game is pretty silly, it didn't shy away from the divisive ugliness at the core of Trump's message. "I feel that Mr President very clearly visualized some of the radical statements and stance that he had over the presidential race," they explained when asked if they felt that treating Trump like a joke might've ultimately helped trivialise or normalise his abhorrent message and virulent racism. "In the game you can see him lock up women for abortions, in front of a crowd of KKK members, etc. This was not the shallow Surgeon Simulator content that was just cashing in on the name for a game that is four years old."
The game Game Developer X was knocking, Surgeon Simulator, involved a new mode that let players operate on Trump. "Having Trump as a patient and giving players the choice to 'vote' with a gold or stone heart in surgery was a fun and relevant addition to the game in 2016," Bossa's Richard Earl told me. "Whether you love him or loathe him, Trump was, and continues to be, a public personality ripe for parody across all types of media."
The folks behind multiplayer murder mystery The Ship, a game that lets people play as caricatures of other world leaders as well, felt similarly, though they ultimately pivoted away from Trump stuff after a bit of time passed. "We were careful to make caricatures of [Clinton and Trump] both in a good-natured way and had a lot of fun adding them to our existing World Leaders so they could feature as part of The Ship's trademark slapstick humour," said the game's developer, Blazing Griffin. "The feedback from our players was that they had a lot of fun playing with them as well."
The makers of real-time strategy war game Supreme Ruler took a more realistic approach. They added DLC called Trump Rising that let players control Trump or minimise the damage as another world leader, but they figured Clinton would win, and they were planning to remove it from the game after the election. Now, though, Trump Rising is being reworked as a core game element.
"Outside of players blaming us (in jest, mostly?) for Trump's win, the Trump Rising DLC really fit well into our particular game environment because so many of our world sandboxes and scenarios are based in the near future," said BattleGoat's George Geczy. "In particular, our storyline was set around a 'chaotic near-future world,' dominated by nationalism and isolationism, and what could be more chaotic than a Donald Trump Presidency? In fact, if we had created this as part of our storyline five years ago, we would have been dismissed as being too unrealistic."
Geczy added that in Supreme Ruler's particular case, recent events not just in the US, but across the world have shaken up the game's design. Among other things, they had to account for the virulent nationalism of Brexit in the UK and the Philippines' new president Rodrigo Duterte, who has publicly compared himself to Hitler.
Geczy and co now have an eye toward the future, with hypothetical in-game scenarios like "Divided States", which simulates the US divided along red and blue lines, and a scenario that begins in 2020, which now marks the end of Trump's first term. Previously, Supreme Ruler offered Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush as potential US leaders in the latter scenario. Now, though, they're letting players vote on whether Trump should be replaced in the game's imagined 2020 or if he should get a second term. "So far," said Geczy, "'Trump all the way!' is well in the lead."
Now that the election is over, I imagine the belching volcano of election-themed games and DLC will recede back into slumber. But art can be used for protest, too, and if recent events are any indication, these next four years will bring no shortage of it.
"I want to make more games in a punk rock style and with some substance, even if it is wrapped up in goofy-arse physics mechanics," said Game Developer X. "I think you can still make games with a message and have them be enjoyable to play and share."