A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors

By Benjamin Parzybok

Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he’s all but lost control of, he relishes the little bit of control that can be got by sticking oneself behind the cockpit of a WWII airplane or facing off against a small band of Nazis. His fellow council members know this about him. He shows up disoriented and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep at council meetings. Some have embraced this (for what else can they do?), and purchased civilization-building games for him they suppose might give him a leg up on his duties, such as SimCity 2000! But Mayor Bartlett only plays first-person shooters. He desires that raw, unhinged control of an avatar with a machine gun.

Based on this character, I began to wonder what video games other leading politicos might get addicted to. Below I’ve detailed my research.

Genghis Khan — Fascinated by foreign technologies, tolerant of religions, brilliant strategist, and destroyer of pretty much anything that crossed his path. In his hands, civilization crumbled to nothing, and yet he continued to seek it out, crushing former empires one after the other. Hey, that sounds exactly like Civilization! He either played the game or the game played him, as they say.

Yu the Great — 22nd BC century ruler in ancient China, famous for his introduction of flood control. Drawing from his father’s experiences, he found a way of digging channels to conduct water to the sea. Tetris. For what is Tetris, but an anxiety-inducing, nightmare-causing flood of falling blocks that one must control. And honestly, who hasn’thad a nightmare about this game?

Vlad the Impaler — The Romanian hero and ruler who fended off the Turks in the 15th century, and who became known for his excessive cruelty (i.e., impaling his enemies), was also schooled in logic, the Quran, geography, mathematics, German, Latin, classical arts, philosophy, Turkish, and literature. Also, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. On the other hand, his frequent imprisonments, his habit of stabbing his enemies with wooden stakes (sometimes in the tens of thousands, where their corpses, on a forest of spikes, rotted for days in the sun), and the siege upon his final hold-out by his own brother, might have left the poor chap yearning for a normal life. Vlad would have become fascinated with The Sims, a game where you control, well, life. Make friends, get along with others, no impaling required, etc.

Mao Tse-tung — Phew! What a résumé Mao has: the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, a communist revolutionary, creator of the cultural revolution (in which most Chinese legacy: culture, religion, intellectualism were banned and swept out of the country), and accidental instigator of the greatest famine of all time (~36 million deaths?). Hardly leaves a fellow much time to exercise, and unfortunately that’s readily apparent from his portraits. Mao would most definitely have opted for Wii Fit, where he could get a little time in “at the gym” without having to go to the gym. I can see Mao now, standing before his cadre of counselors, doling out instructions as he did simulated leg-bends. Of course, he would have renamed it the Mao Fit. Go Mao-ow! Go Mao-ow! Go Mao-ow!

A replica of Hitler’s Volkshalle (never
constructed) built in Minecraft

Hitler — This man hardly needs an introduction. A former art student cum dictator cum holocaust initiator. I’m tempted to say computer Solitaire, for after wiping so many millions of people from the face of the planet, it’d be hell finding someone interested in going head-to-head with you in dual-player mode. But I think we’re talking Minecraft. Start in your own world, alone, build whatever you want — Hitler had a passion for architecture, and especially landscapes without people. Also, everything in Minecraft exists at a blurry, 8-bit, blocky resolution — and weirdly just about all Minecraft creations squintily look like Hitler’s own drawings.

Rob Ford — You’ve probably already heard of the various adventures of the mayor of Toronto. The ranting, dancing, crack-using blunderbuss of a mayor is a continual source of entertainment for those who live outside of Toronto. And for Torontonians? …Sorry guys. This is hitting a low bar here, but I’m pretty sure Rob Ford would capital-L Love Grand Theft Auto, where you’re a car-jacking, drug-running madman in a chaotic cityscape.

In fact, put him in front of a console post-haste, so that his various IRL (in-real-life) accomplishments can be virtualized.

Richard Nixon — The only American president to ever resign (which he did before he was impeached). Suspicious, paranoid, accused of bugging the offices of his opponents; really, an ideal gamer. In the game Portal, you are prisoner of a sarcastic, scheming, resentful robot who is all that’s left of a massive company that has succumbed to, and been destroyed by, a sort of runaway unethical capitalism. Besides it being one of my personal favorite games, Nixon would have taken great pleasure in this. He lived a good portion of his life with the sarcastic, resentful (and, OK, occasionally enraged) voice of the public, and he would have adored the ability to have a portal gun (essentially a wormhole-firing device) to blip him out of there. Now you see me, now you bzzt!

Queen Elizabeth I — Daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, she was certainly born under inauspicious stars. Her mother was beheaded when she was only two by decree of her own father, and Elizabeth was declared an illegitimate heir. All the same, she struggled through adversity and rose up to rule Britain for 44 years, setting the country up to become one of the world’s most dominant powers. The last of the Tudor line, she was certainly haunted by many ghosts, which makes Pac-Man an obvious choice, pursued as he is by relentless ghosts while snacking on (tea and) crumpets.

Winston Churchill — You know, the guy who won the Nobel Prize for Literature? The amateur bricklayer? He also had something or other to do with commanding several important battles (one disastrously) during the First World War, and leading Britain in the Second World War. I adore this quote about him, written by his chief of staff. “Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again… Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent.”

And so, for gaming? Which he’d surely take to like a madman? I think, sadly, it’s going to have to be good old Angry Birds, for what else did the Allies do but launch themselves repeatedly at the Axis, bashing their heads against their fortifications. And seriously. Look at that face. Now the other face. Separated at birth? I think so.

Benjamin Parzybok is the author of the novels Sherwood Nation and Couch. He has been the creator/co-creator of many other projects, includingGumball Poetry (literary journal published in capsule machines), The Black Magic Insurance Agency (citywide, one-night alternate reality game), and Project Hamad (an effort to free a Guantanamo inmate and shed light on Habeas Corpus). He lives in Portland with the artist Laura Moulton and their two kids.

This piece originally appeared on the Powell’s Books Blog. Visit the blog for essays, interviews, playlists and more.

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