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Crapshoot: Shadow President, a sim that lets you press the big red nuke button

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. What would be the point of it otherwise? To make the world a better place? Not with this many nukes!

At the start of the 90s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the promise of an end to the Cold War, the United States decided to put all the power of the President into one single computer program. Nobody there having seen The Terminator, this seemed like a good idea at the time; as indeed did calling it the "Shadow President" system, which was not sinister at all. Not even a little. Nope.

CHIEF OF STAFF: Mr. President, meet Shadow President. Would you like to sit through an informative but incredibly boring tutorial, or would you prefer to mash all the pretty buttons like a deranged chimp while we all hope you don't accidentally have us invade Utah again?

THE PRESIDENT: The one that feels less like learning stuff.

CHIEF OF STAFF: Very well. At least watch a few seconds of this video so that you understand the basics of what you can do here, and admire the single ugliest title screen in the history of art. My god, it's an impressive bit of failure, matched only by the fact that the second version is going to be called CyberJudas, which won't even be cool for the '90s.

THE PRESIDENT: So many buttons! I can't count them all!

CHIEF OF STAFF: There are nine buttons, Mr. President. Let me introduce you to your staff. I am Chief of Staff, but you may call me Chief. These are National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Economic Advisor.


CHIEF OF STAFF: Oh, yes. We also have a Girl.

PRESS SECRETARY: Mr. President, while we wait for this neanderthal to catch up with the world, I've prepared this report. Your current popularity is 50%, which roughly means that given a choice between your administration and a house brick, the average voter would already be half-way down the street after telling our pollster that, sorry, they have somewhere really important to be. I recommend you do something to establish your administration as an instrument of the American spirit early on. Thank you for your time. This being 1990, I am now forced to ask if anyone wants coffee.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Three sugars. Sir, I suggest we focus our attention on Russia.

THE PRESIDENT: Those are the baddies, right?


CIA DIRECTOR: A most concise, even insightful view of one of the most tense political situations of all time. Bravo. Give me the word, and I can install a small team of specially chosen agents in the shadow of the Kremlin, who will work in the shadows to—

THE PRESIDENT: How many nukes do we have?

CHIEF OF STAFF: Please tell me this is just for a trivia contest you're going to.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: You have... you have 5,000 nukes, Mr. President. Might I suggest though that we first attempt to resolve our differences through a slightly less apocalyptic method?

THE PRESIDENT: Fine. Bring me that telephone.

UNITED STATES: Hey, Russia! You suck!

RUSSIA: Hah! In Soviet Russia, Russia sucks... uh... it is YOU who suck!

UNITED STATES: Oooh, good comeback!

THE PRESIDENT: And that ends the Cold War. Next challenge!

PRESS SECRETARY: Um. Um, not quite, Mr. President.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Yes. For some reason, publicly slapping them in the face moved them to form a closer alliance with Iran and begin shipping weapons to our enemies.

PRESS SECRETARY: On the plus side, you did get a popularity point for effort. So, y'know...

CHIEF OF STAFF: This would be a good time to show you some of your other options, Mr. President. Your basic tools revolve around influence rather than direct action. From the map, you can see what each nation is currently focused on, and apply pressure from numerous vectors—social and economic being the most important. You can also call on the CIA and the Military for more direct action, though at obvious risk of retribution if your actions are discovered.

THE PRESIDENT: I see. What's that final button?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: That fires the nukes. Please stop tapping out the theme to Ghostbusters on your keyboard now.

THE PRESIDENT: Nukes are that easy to trigger?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: If thinking so will make you stop that bloody noise, then yes.

CHIEF OF STAFF: We should perhaps save the Russia situation for another day, Mr. President. It is a... slightly complex matter. In the interim, I suggest we consolidate our alliances.

THE PRESIDENT: Who are our closest allies at the moment?

CHIEF OF STAFF: We have several, but I would recommend the British. We have a long history of working with them, we speak a common language, and they are about to have a splendid decade of TV to help spare us the endless re-runs of Are You Being Served.

THE PRESIDENT: So, if I opt to strengthen diplomatic ties...

THE PRESIDENT: Let me get this straight. Our friends, an open hand, and we've still only got a 50-60% chance of them not telling us to go stick our heads into their choice of pig? What kind of friends are these limeys? Do they want Delta Force showing 'em some manners? Hmm? Do they?


THE PRESIDENT: Fine. Extend that olive branch of wussiness! Extend! Extend!

THE PRESIDENT: In the words of Her Majesty: Wankers! And what's with that "You may want to ask for advice from us in the future" talk? You all said this was a great idea!

SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, a week is a long time in politics...

THE PRESIDENT: No it's not! An hour goes by every second! I bet the British Prime Minister doesn't have to put up with this nonsense over in London, England. Yes, Prime Minister business must be much more entertaining than not being allowed to use nukes whenever you want by meanies.

PRIME MINISTER JIM HACKER: Get Sir Humphrey in here, Bernard. At once!


HACKER: Humphrey, what's this I hear about us turning down a handshake from the Americans?

SIR HUMPHREY: A handshake, Prime Minister? I suppose if you consider a prelude to a request to an offer of an order to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to the new skirmish zone established on the Qumrani border to be a handshake, one could see how such an appellation might apply to what has traditionally been a somewhat different noun in the parlance of international speech and the relationship vis-a-vis ourselves and our allies; allies of course in the deepest possible sense, so long as it remains primarily one of observance rather than action and taking into account factors civil, social, economic and militaristic in any decisions rendered and any arguments avoid entering a de facto—

HACKER: You're saying their handshake had a buzzer in it?

SIR HUMPHREY: If you absolutely must obfuscate something so simple.

THE PRESIDENT: How are the poll numbers after that hallucination? You. With the face.

PRESS SECRETARY: I'm afraid our press took the British snub rather seriously. You're down to 48% in the polls, which I'm almost positive is due to that rather than due to the Soviet Union arming Iran.


PRESS SECRETARY: In a recent survey, 87% of people thought Iran-Contra was the sequel to a popular arcade game. On the plus side, other world news, the Soviet Union had a bad week too. They tried to promote human rights reform in Germany, and that went nowhere. They also tried to supply arms to rebels fighting in Japan, but were turned down. That's a bit embarrassing. So, you know, it's not just you failing at your job—you're just the most humiliated at the moment.

THE PRESIDENT: Get me the CIA. I want every spy we've got in Britain, right now. The one in the black hat and the one in white! James Bond too. I don't care what it costs!

THE PRESIDENT: What kind of spies can't even keep themselves out of our media? Most of our dribbling press morons couldn't find England on a map! Of England!

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Perhaps this is for the best. They'll condemn our actions, we take it on the chin, and we can patch things up in a week or so and focus on the—


ALL: (shocked silence)

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I... I can't believe we just did that.

THE PRESIDENT: What can I say? If you're having guilt problems, I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems, but a Brit ain't one.

ALL: ...

THE PRESIDENT: This hand's not going to high-five itself, people.


THE PRESIDENT: Pffft. If this was the future, your kids would have found that hilarious.

THE PRESIDENT: Huh. I was sure I was going to make it onto the news after that stunt. Guess we really do live in a cynical, uncaring world. Anyhoo. What's next on the to-do list?

CHIEF OF STAFF: After being directly implicated in the assassination of the British Prime Minister over the most trivial slight, you want to do more? You.. you...

THE PRESIDENT: I believe the term is 'Maverick'

PRESS SECRETARY: On the plus side, we did only lose one percent in the polls.

THE PRESIDENT: See? No harm, no foul. Send Great Britain an aid package immediately.

CHIEF OF STAFF: It's the least we can do, really.

PRESS SECRETARY: And we just rose two percent in the polls. Karma is weird.

CHIEF OF STAFF: Sir, you remember when you capriciously assassinated the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for no better reason than to see if you could do it?

THE PRESIDENT: Vaguely. It was five minutes ago. And I did send some aid, right?

CHIEF OF STAFF: Right. Right... Well. They just responded to that aid.

THE PRESIDENT: Did they respond with a gift basket?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: If by a gift basket you mean the SAS on a surgical strike against us, and more specifically you personally, then yes. A gift basket to die for, to be exact.

THE PRESIDENT: To the Crisis Room!

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Sir, I want you to think very carefully before you respond. You have five options here, which will determine our level of protest. At the most basic, we can shake a fist in the air and go "No! Naughty sovereign power! Go home! Shoo! You beastly, beastly beasts!"


NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: We can also go all-out and threaten military action, work with the UN on economic sanctions, or talk nuclear strikes. Though of course, only an imbecile would—

CHIEF OF STAFF: Also realise that was a silly idea.

THE PRESIDENT: Very silly. Obviously. I am smart. What do you suggest?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Perhaps signing this little piece of paper?

THE PRESIDENT: What is it?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Oh, nothing. Just a suicide note. For funsies!

THE PRESIDENT: I've got a better idea. Let's make a military threat.

THE PRESIDENT: What do those words mean?

PRESS SECRETARY: In a word: "No." In ten: "No, hell no, dear god, are you from Mars? NO!"

THE PRESIDENT: Bastards! Nuclear Option! Immediately!

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: You mean the threat of a nuclear strike, right? Please, tell me that's what you mean. I need to hear you say the words!

CHIEF OF STAFF: They're... they're standing down. Oh, thank god.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Mr. President, I cannot stress enough how important it is that we move to improve our worldwide reputation. At this point, we're not just losing the war for hearts and minds against the Soviet Union, but falling somewhere below Satan on the popularity charts.

THE PRESIDENT: I agree. Launch the nukes.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: At the United Kingdom? But, sir—

CHIEF OF STAFF: How... how many nukes?

THE PRESIDENT: ALL THE NUKES. And not at the United Kingdom. That's what our enemies would expect us to do. If we're going to win this war on terror, we have to think outside the box. Then put our enemies into that box, seal the box, and put the box in a warehouse somewhere never to be opened again. Possibly South Dakota. That's where they keep the Ark of the Covenant, right?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: ...then where? Surely you're not going to have us nuke ourselves?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course not, that would be stupid.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Thank god. For a moment-

THE PRESIDENT: NUKE CANADA! Unless anyone has any convincing objections...

THE PRESIDENT: You make excellent arguments, but I think we all know what happens now.

THE PRESIDENT: 21,700 deaths from 5,000 nukes?

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: We did warn your predecessor not to buy them at Wal-Mart.

THE PRESIDENT: The Berlin Wal-Mart, presumably. Satire!

PRESS SECRETARY: Did nobody else see the K on the end there?

THE PRESIDENT: Sssh. Don't ruin a good quip with Facts.

THE PRESIDENT: Haha, seriously?

THE PRESIDENT: Wait, the fallout from those 5,000 nuclear explosion screwed up my broadband connection? Oh god, what have I done? What have I done? I didn't know! I was just about to download the Planetside 2 beta and I didn't knooooooooow!

CHIEF OF STAFF: Sir, on behalf of everyone here, and the poor victims in the nuclear wasteland you have just inflicted upon the world: we resign. All of us. Effective immediately.

THE PRESIDENT: You're all leaving? But... but why? We were having so much fun!

CHIEF OF STAFF: Indeed. "Fun". The part where everyone I loved was turned into charcoal image on the nearest wall was hilarious. If you squinted, it almost looked like my child was making rabbit ears instead of holding her arms up in a futile attempt at shielding herself. On the plus side, with the entire world united against us, I suppose we can declare the Cold War officially over. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

THE PRESIDENT: I suppose I am the greatest person who ever lived. But to quit now? I don't have anything to give you as a goodbye present!

CHIEF OF STAFF: Don't worry. We clubbed together and got you something.

THE PRESIDENT: Is it cake? I like cak—