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Surgeon Simulator: Inside Donald Trump, explained to my future children

Surgeon Simulator: Inside Donald Trump, explained to my future children


Anxiety and absurdity on the campaign trail

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Whenever I see some piece of election-related ephemera, I like to imagine how we'll look back on it later — not in eight years, which is already surreal enough, but in several decades, when we have to explain half-forgotten topical humor to a new generation of teenagers who will think we're idiots no matter how many witty tech blog posts we've written. But unlike your average throwaway Flash parody, the strange creature known as Surgeon Simulator: Inside Donald Trumpreleased yesterday as an add-on to the well-regarded and similarly odd game Surgeon Simulator — will at least be fairly interesting to muddle through. I thought I'd save time in the future by taking a stab at it now.

What is Surgeon Simulator?

Well, technically, it launched as Surgeon Simulator 2013, and it's a video game that simulates the occupation of a surgeon and was made in 2013.

This explains nothing.

It helps to understand a few things about the contemporary culture. The first is that around 2000, the video game world started adopting something known as "ragdoll physics," a revolutionary animation process that enabled virtual bodies to flop around like terrifying boneless skin-fish. The inherent humor in this helped fuel the rise of an extraordinarily difficult but popular game called Qwop, in which players used a computer keyboard to control each individual limb of an Olympic runner.

The second is that in the early 2010s, people started noticing that there was a weirdly beloved game genre composed of detailed simulations of mundane blue-collar jobs that often (but not always) involved driving some kind of large vehicle. A video game version of Tonka Trucks? The inherent absurdity of late capitalism? Who knows. But because it had become cheap and easy to make decent-looking 3D games at this point, some surprisingly high-quality parodies followed.

We love watching people play incredibly difficult video games badly

The third is that around the same time, people became incredibly interested in watching other people play video games over the internet, and there was significant demand for silly, experimental games that would provide good footage. Since "e-sports star" and "professional streamer" are probably two of the highest-paying professions in your world, I won't dwell on this one too much.

All these things were factors in the creation of Surgeon Simulator 2013, in which players individually control each finger of an imaginary hand in order to perform (or, usually, fail at performing) life-saving surgical operations.

No, seriously, I'm not reading all that. Why do people play this?

Because it's a "simulation" that's actually humorously unrealistic, it usually results in somebody's internal organs flying out of your hand like a bar of wet soap, and the team keeps releasing funny options and scenarios for it. Which brings us to...

Who is Donald Trump?

A New York-based real estate tycoon also known for running a beauty pageant, delivering a pithy catchphrase on a reality television show called The Apprentice, running an allegedly wildly fraudulent "university," subscribing to a tenuous and fairly racist conspiracy theory regarding the birthplace of President Barack Obama, and becoming the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential election. Among other things.

What's with the steaks and the vodka and the tiny hands?

Well, the first two reference his propensity for flashy self-branded products, and the last is a 30-year-old running joke about his finger length, embedded in a complex web of cultural associations concerning genitalia. As are most things, I suppose.

Give Trump a "heart of stone" or a "heart of gold"

If this is a game that's mostly about accidentally tearing out people's body parts, I guess the idea is that you can kill Donald Trump and that's funny?

That's the obvious assumption, and it would be a little bit creepy. Granted, Trump is probably the least creepy candidate for this kind of treatment, because he's wealthy and powerful; his public persona is that of a crass bully; and as a straight, cisgender white man, his physical body isn't marked with the kind of vulnerability that — in our era — would make harming it carry ugly historical baggage. But encouraging vicarious murder of a specific real person still isn't a good look, and the Surgeon Simulator developers seem to be staying away from it.

The actual premise is that Donald Trump needs a heart transplant, and you can give him a "heart of stone" or a "heart of gold," depending on whether you think he is (or maybe whether you want him to be?) good or evil. Then players' choices all get tallied up and posted live on the Surgeon Simulator website. "Stone" is winning right now, incidentally.

Again with the reading.

If you had to pin it down, I guess the idea is "Donald Trump is a human action figure, and people enjoy seeing him translated into slightly surreal video game form." It's not hugely biting political commentary, but it's harmless fun. In fact, it's a surprisingly good encapsulation of the anxiety and absurdity that was the 2016 election season.

That's all fine, but why am I talking in the style of the popular '10s web journalism "explainer" format? This seems awfully convenient for you.

You know what? Forget everything I just said. In the early 21st century, we chose the leader of the United States by implanting each candidate with a synthetic heart whose tissue was genetically engineered to represent the average American citizen, and the fittest survivor of the operations (if one existed) was elected to serve until the organ broke down after an eight-year period, representing the erosion of a popular mandate.

Surgeon Simulator eventually emerged as a cheaper, more efficient digital recreation of this process.