Every week, Barack Obama allows himself a little bit of downtime. He doesn’t play golf, as you may have heard. That’s just a cover. Instead, he flies into Bowman Field in Louisville, KY and comes to my one-bedroom apartment to play video games. Sometimes I try to vacuum before he arrives, but you know life gets busy.
While many expect the sitting president to worry and work on domestic and foreign problems day and night, Obama’s increasingly worn-out appearance and short temper had tipped off his staff to the need to spend some time blowing off steam. Video games, Obama had heard from a young intern, are excellent at this. This intern had read a previous, politically-oriented article of mine on Bit Creature and suggested that I understood Obama’s commitment to bi-partisanship. Because of this arbitrary indication, he chose me as his playing partner. We decided to meet up every Saturday morning at 10 am.
I am not a morning person, especially on Saturdays. After a week of getting up early for work, Saturday was the day that I paid off my sleep debt. Can’t do it on Sundays – I have church. But the President was coming, so I planned to drag myself out of bed at 9:00 am, planning to get a shower and throw on some decent clothes in preparation. Instead, I awoke at seven o’ clock to the horrifying sound of secret services pounding on my door, demanding that I let them in immediately. I could hear someone walking overhead on my roof.
They swept through my apartment, checking every crevice. They opened and investigated the old bass guitar I hadn’t used in ages, and discovered the small Dillinger my dad gave me before he died (I explained, with a crack in my voice, and the agent looked more annoyed than suspicious). By 9:55, they all left, and in came President Obama, who introduced himself to me as I stood there shirtless and in pajama bottoms. My hair was all over the place.
“Great,” I thought. “I’m the perfect gamer stereotype.” Meanwhile Barack, always certain of himself, plopped down on my mushroom chair, powered up the 360, and launched right into the game that was in the disc drive: Borderlands.
“Ahh, this looks like something that, uh, I might find engaging. What do you think?” he asked. I winced.
“It’s alright. It’s kind of immature.”
“I think that we should play it,” he commanded. I obliged.
I let Barack have the first pick at a character. When he chose Axton the commando, the most straightforward character-class, I volunteered that “Oh you would have really liked the commando in the last game.”
“Oh really? Why?”
I winced. “No reason.”
This week, I would be ready to show him something more impressive than meatheads shooting other meatheads. I met him at the door in my best cardigan, ready to show him the nuanced and metaphorical gameplay of Papo & Yo. I sat him down on my couch, handed him my controller, and set him loose.
“Want a beer?” I asked? It was early, but this was relaxation time.
“Sure, I think I could use a refreshment.”
By the time I came back with an expertly poured Breckinridge Vanilla Porter, Barack looked deflated. “What do you think?” I asked. I watched as he maneuvered through buildings in a run-down shanty-town and manipulated the volatile monster that existed as a metaphor for the developer’s own alcoholic father. This symbolism may have been lost on Barack. After all, Barack was looking for a good time, not a reminder of the brokenness of the world.
“It’s alright,” he said optimistically. “What else you got?”
Maybe, I thought, he wanted something more exciting. I saw Spec Ops: The Line on the shelf. Now this was a game that could show him the potential of the medium, but he’d need to stick with it. “How much time do you have?”
He had enough time to finish the campaign with a bit of guidance from me. By the end of it, he looked haggard and depressed. On second thought, maybe a game that drove home the cost of war wasn’t the best way to help the President unwind on a Saturday. But Barack was gracious.
“Hey, that was alright.” He had a knack of saying theoretically neutral things in ways that sounded like compliments. “Next time can we try something a little less cerebral?”
I winced. “Sure.”
This week was all about light-hearted fun. Still, fun didn’t have to be dumb. Video games have the potential to stretch us intellectually, and that was something I was determined to demonstrate to a president who has referred to video games in the past as if they were little more than mere frivolities, meant to pass the time and nothing else.
Spelltower, I explained, was an iPhone and iPad game that an independent developer from New York created. I explained that he made it because he had never played a word-game he enjoyed, and he wanted to solve that problem. I showed Mr. Obama a demonstration, explaining how the game stretches the mind in the same way crossword puzzles or chess might. Then, I suggested we play a two-player game.
There is a really awkward moment that happens, when you tell the President of the United States that you can play multiplayer Spelltower on two different devices, but that one of you has to use an iPad and one of you has to use an iPhone. “Which one do you want to use?” I asked the president, implying he might be interested in playing Spelltower on a 4” screen.
“Well, uh, um,” he remarked, looking back and forth between the two devices on the coffee table. The Secret Service guy standing in the corner coughed. I had committed a faux pas.
“I’ll take the phone, sorry.” I said with urgency.
We played Spelltower for hours, keeping score throughout the day. By lunch-time, Obama had won 27 games, versus my five. I had to stop him. “Don’t you need to head back?”
“Oh. You’re right.” He hesitated. “Uhhm, do you think I could borrow this iPad for the week?”
I asked him if there was a big debate coming up, because, of course I knew there was. I just didn’t want to be the reason he screwed it up. Not like this.
“Yes, you’re right. There is. But I need to take a break sometime. I want to play this some more.”
What was I supposed to say? The president can take care of himself. If he wanted my iPad for a week, who am I to resist him?
A couple days later I check out the leaderboards and saw his name right there in the 24th spot.
No no no no.
To be honest, I didn’t think he’d show up. His secret service arrived right on time at 7am, did their routine sweep, and took their stations. Barack was late.
“Are you guys sure he’s coming?” I asked the guy in the corner by the closet. He just shrugged.
Finally, at 10am, Obama walked through the door. I jumped up from the couch and stood to my feet. Impulsively, I asked “Are you okay?” I winced.
His assistant came in behind him and handed me my iPad. “This will be President Obama’s last week with you. Thank you very much for your assistance to your country.” He did not mean it. I could tell.
Barack plopped onto the couch next to me, his elbows on his knees. “Look,” he said, “I’m just tired. I really just want to relax.”
Meanwhile, he powered up my Playstation 3. His eyes lit up at the comforting sound of an orchestra tuning up that plays when the system is launching. Browsing through the games, he came across Journey. “What about this?”
“If this is the last video game you ever play, that would be okay.”
Without hesitation, he clarified, “It will be.” His assistant nodded.
But Barack started Journey alone, wandering in the dessert, stumbling around and exploring landmarks that seemed meaningless. His curiosity never wavered. I never gave him any guidance, because he never asked me any questions. He was content to go on this journey alone.
But then, another wanderer found him. Barack must have assumed he was merely a computer-controlled character, or maybe just another assistant. He led the way to the next landmark, only to turn around after a minute of walking to find that his companion was gone.
Obama turned and looked at me. He wasn’t upset, just surprised. “Where’d they go?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “they stop following you and just do what they want to do.”
“Wait.” He seemed confused. “Who are they?”
“I mean, there’s no way to really know. It could be some guy next door, or it could be Joe Biden.” His assistant guffawed.
“So you mean.. it’s like..” He was processing. “These people are real?”
“What are we supposed to do with each other?” He asked.
I shrugged. “I guess you just kind of just go places. Just you follow one another around, basically.”
Barack looked back at the screen, amazed. He wandered around until he found another person, sighed deeply, and followed him the rest of the way.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.