games / Columns

Shadow President: A Reflection Of Our Times

October 26, 2016 | Posted by Paul Meekin

This one time in the 90s I nuked Mexico. Just because.

I had my finger on the button and a terrible case of curious, and wanted to see what would happen. Well, quite a lot happened. My cabinet immediately resigned, the entirety of the world condemned my actions, my political approval rating dropped to a number so low you’d need seven decimal places to read it, oh, and millions of people died, including me. I was assassinated – allegedly an inside job.

You never heard about this though – not because of mainstream media bias, but because this act of war was committed in a gem of a game called “Shadow President”. Released on PC in 1992, ‘Shadow President’ is a game of overwhelming substance and nearly impenetrable data. From a first-person-view of the “Shadow President” Terminal, you read reports, fight The Cold War, analyze charts, make informed choices, manage interest rates to increase the GDP, and study the CIA World Fact Book like it’s your job. Because it is your job. The goal is to keep your approval rating above 50 percent so you can win election, and hopefully leave the world a better place.

If this doesn’t sound particularly exciting to you, that’s because it shouldn’t. ‘Shadow President’ is a niche spreadsheet game like “Extreme Warfare Revenge”, “Football Manager”, or even “Crusader Kings II”. The miles deep depth is the appeal. In a world where a Presidential Debate will simultaneously spark vitriolic outrage *and* hilarious memes and gifs, “Shadow President” is the kind of game that reminds you politics could use a bit more C-SPAN, a little less WWE, and a lot more maturity.

There is no hyperbole, no agenda, and the focus is entirely on the actual business of running the most powerful country in the world in the 1990s. Every action you can take comes with a litany of possible outcomes presented to you by your advisers. At one point I cut federal aid for the majority of the Middle East, and the actions were seen as abusive and hurt my standing in the view of the world, resulting in commendation from the USSR and other countries as well.

After this election, it’s frankly exciting to deal with something as ‘boring’ as lifting political sanctions on Cuba. And yes, while you have the option to unleash the full force of the United States’ Military Arsenal at any moment – optimal play, and basic human decency discourages it.

Also discouraging, in a different way, is the fact I had to travel back in time 23 years to find a game like this. A game about politics that’s thoughtful and (apparently) realistic. Do a Google search on President or Politics Games and it’s clear that to the majority of game developers, Politics are a joke. “Run for President” is a comical mini-game collection. “Presidential Race” is a Mario-Kart style racer. “Gangnam President” features Obama dancing to “Gangnam Style”.

On the world’s second most accessible gaming platform, Mobile, there is a shocking lack of games that take Presidential Politics as seriously. It’s a damn shame too, because I am of the belief gaming can save us all. Think for a second about the things gaming really taught you. It taught me American Geography via “Oregon Trail”. It taught me the 3-4 defense thanks to Madden Football. It introduced me to the concept of Supply and Demand via Sim City.

What has gaming taught you?

Shadow President is a game that teaches. Most games about politics are class clowns – distracting and amusing, but about as enriching as cheap diet soda. Shadow President is a dry professor that’s really, really, really smart, and happily engages with you as long as you’re engaged back.

And sure, there are games like “Democracy” and “Geo-political World Simulator” and “Political Machine 2016”  but these games have a tenuous relationship with reality. “Democracy” using an odd spider-web of choices, and Geo-Political World Simulator being needlessly difficult to understand and janky as all get-out.

So, what are your options if you’re looking for something a little more modern? Shockingly, amidst the parodies and shovel-ware, is a little game called “Sim President: The Decision Game”.

Yes. I *am* naked.

Developed by Canadian company Qliq, “Sim President” takes real world issues and asks you yes / no questions in order to raise your political approval rating. It’s not a particularly deep game – I had a 100 percent approval rating very quickly thanks to my 3 day weekend policy, drug legalization initiative, and take-down of big banks. There isn’t much challenge here, but the game does let you know, briefly, the concerns associated with any issue. It’s moderately educating and decently entertaining, a five minute dive into a really smart 5-year-old’s view of what being President would be.

A particularly neat element of this game is that sometimes popular choices can still end badly. Sure, condemning the military-industrial complex seems like a good idea – but if you piss them off you might just find yourself on the wrong end of a coup de tat.

Even better, at the end of your term as President you’re greeted with a gravestone and how your choices affected the country over the course of the next 100 years. Turns out I earned an “F” despite my high popularity – I guess giving the people what they want isn’t always best for them, eh?

And if that isn’t an educational take away, in an election that is anything but, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps there’s hope for us after all.

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You can find “Sim President” on Facebook and Mobile. “Shadow President” is abandonware and can be found anywhere by simply googling it and hooking it up to DosBox.

Thus, what say you, 411maniacs? What are your favorite games about the American Political Machine?

article topics :

Shadow President, Paul Meekin

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