This Wednesday, as the impeachment hearings roared onto televisions and iPhone screens across the nation, my team at Basket of Adorables launched a Kickstarter for a new game called TanTrump. It’s billed as “a Don’t Wake Daddy for the darkest timeline,” but it’s actually a really strategic and clever game. Here’s what it looks like.
Yes, that’s Donald Trump sitting behind the Resolute Desk. In the game, you are a harried White House staffer, maybe Ben Carson or Kellyanne Conway or Anthony Scaramucci. You play manuevers and bring various stuff to his desk— from a cheeseburger to a bust of Putin to an immigrant kid in a cage—and then pump the Trump Pump behind his shock of Troll doll hair. If he gets outraged on your turn, he flips out, knocking the desk over and sending stuff flying everywhere. Then he rage-tweets your firing across the internet. You don’t want to be fired on the internet!
Our launch of this game made a lot of people very happy, but others grumpy. I’ve been asked by a few people, “Why would you politicize gaming?” Or, as one former participant on our mailing list said today
What boyo here may not quite grasp is that gaming and the creation of games are necessarily political; they are about freedom to write and interact socially, often around activities others find socially unacceptable. We gamers exist in the margins, and often in anonymity. We need to come out into the light if we want to be heard. Despite us creating some of the most thought-provoking works on the planet, some do not want us to speak. They have made that abundantly clear, often through the most offensive hate speech they can muster. They think that if they buy a game, they buy silence. They are wrong, and will be wrong forever.
But this column is about the game theory of why people do things, and so I’m interested in why people insist designers and other creatives should remain silent. Obviously, there’s the likelihood that they don’t agree with the person expressing the opinion, but I’ve heard it from people who say they agree with me too. The logic goes something like this: Games are a safe space where people can come together regardless of their political opinions and enjoy each other. This is wrong on many levels: Gaming is a space where many women and minorities do not feel safe. And I don’t know about you, but if I know someone promotes Nazi-like policies and politicians, I’m far less inclined to want to roll up characters and play D&D with them.
In fact, my team has the opposite view: Games are a space where we can promote positive change. Our game Apocrypha is inspired by those coping with Alzheimer’s disease. The Ninth World is set in a post-racial society a billion years in the future. Thornwatch is a parable about environmental destruction. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game features dozens of gay and trans characters. These are our non-political games.
And so, the idea of a “protest game.” Protest art is nothing new. The concept of the protest song is as old as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” to say nothing of “This Land Is Your Land.” Song is an art form that brings people together, and its ability to impart powerful messages is what makes it change the world. “Strange Fruit,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Ohio,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Born in the USA,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” “People Are People,” “Killing in the Name,” “We R Who We R”—the Billboard charts are loaded with protest songs. But there’s a key element that holds them together and makes them classics.
For a protest song to be great, it must first be a great song.
Bad protest art is just bad art. So when we decided to make a protest game, we channeled everything we had been feeling over the last three years into the box. Liz formed her knot of tension over the state of the world into a spring-trigger chaos mechanic. I sacrificed a full day reading everything ever said by some of the most vile people in the White House orbit and wrote their quotes onto their cards. (Did you know Jeff Sessions once said, “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot”? Or that Sean Spicer wrote of Trump, “He is a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow”? I didn’t either till I gave up that day.)
Key to this was an analysis of what it meant to be around someone who is constantly flipping his lid. My therapist talks about how paralyzed you are when your lid is flipped; you surrender to black-and-white thinking and crush the hope in everyone around you. We wanted to build a simulation of what it would be like to be in that world constantly. The staffers should work together to get through the day, but they backstab each other so that the tyrant’s rage gets directed elsewhere. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for mental breakdowns the way Apocrypha is a metaphor for Alzheimer’s.
TanTrump would be a horror game in our line of games like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Apocrypha. And we gave it a great villain. Say what you want about Donald Trump—I know I do—but I don’t think we’ve had a more terrifying villain on the political stage since Osama Bin Laden. Trump’s very face inspires tension, and in this game he has two of them.
But all that wasn’t good enough. Following the protest song model, for a protest game to be great, it must first be a great game. So after we channeled that energy into the concept, we did what we always do: playtest and refine it till it was the most fun it could possibly be. When it comes out, it will take its place near games of ours like Unspeakable Words and Lords of Vegas as environments where people can communally tell a hilarious story of optimizing possibility in suboptimal environments. You know, entertainment.
Entertainment is highly prized in any game environment. Politics, of course, is absolutely a game-rich environment. That’s why NBC News tweeted this horrible tweet on the day of the first public hearings:
Oh, the lack of pizzazz! Just your garden variety ambassador and deputy assistant Secretary of State telling the world that the president of the United States shook down a foreign leader for dirt on his political opponents and withheld vital military aid against the Russian invasion of their country. But to NBC, if it isn’t fun, it isn’t important.
I kinda get that. We made TanTrump fun because a protest game needs to be fun before it can deliver the protest. If you get a copy, we promise you many hours of entertainment. And also a bit of knot-in-your-stomach fear. When you’re done playing, you’ll be inspired to kick that goon out of the White House. I know I am.
This is the 48th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, and the Berlin wall. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link, or get as part of the TanTrump campaign.