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Maybe we don’t need a game with Donald Trump as a piñata after all

It’s hard to feel bad for a man who goes through life unaffected by corporate bankruptcy, hubris, and a basic sense of decency. And, true to form, I don’t really feel bad for Donald Trump, even though there’s a new game out where you beat a Trump-shaped piñata to smithereens. But there’s a big difference between not feeling bad for The Donald on a personal level, and thinking that the game is a good idea, which it is not.

The game in question is Trumpiñata, by Los Angeles-based developers Archie Prakash and Alejandro Quan-Madrid and it does exactly what the name implies. There’s a piñata of Trump; you whack it with a stick; candy comes out; Trump falls to pieces. That’s about all there is to this story. There is no particular visual flair here; the Trump piñata is rendered as a series of boxes. As such, what you’re left with is just a game about whacking low-poly Donald Trump with a stick.

Trumpiñata is a missed opportunity.

On a purely visual level, the game’s low-poly aesthetic strips its concept of much of its potential cultural resonance. The incongruence of Donald Trump rendered in traditional piñata style is a great visual gag. Not coincidentally, this is why Trumpiñatas have become a fixture in Los Angeles’ piñata district. But pulling off that joke requires the artist to recognize that the piñata is more than a thing you beat with candy on its inside. Trumpiñata doesn’t go there. Instead, it is the visual equivalent to eating Chipotle as a protest against Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric; the intention isn’t horrible, but the execution is watered down.

Without a visual gag, all the humour in Trumpiñata has to come from its mechanics, and that boils down to hitting Donald Trump with a stick. Maybe this is wish fulfillment, but it’s hardly a joke. To the extent that it is funny, it is funny because the viewer doesn’t like Donald Trump. Which, fair. There’s plenty not to like. But an appeal to a shared worldviews is not a joke. 

In any other context, the “beat a person up”-game is a transparently poor idea. For instance, a game wherein the player punched a certain female game critic in the face, would be greeted with deserved opprobrium by most people—except, of course, for those that agreed with its conclusion. (If you don’t know what names have been redacted from this situation, you lead a charmed life.) This is not a completely parallel situation: Donald Trump benefits from a variety of additional privileges in life, both on gender and class lines. But, on a purely mechanical level, both games are fundamentally the same.

Trumpiñata is the real limit of punch-up/punch-down 

How, then, are we to make sense of their differences? The prevailing internet answer compels one to ask whether the work in question is punching up or punching down. This is a good reminder that not all targets are created equal, but it’s not a particularly good moral calculus beyond that. Once you have concluded that you’re punching up—and who can be sure you got that right—are there simply no further considerations?  The “beat a person up”-game gives this metaphorical conundrum a physical form. It is a reminder of what you are truly endorsing, and the results aren’t always pretty. Trumpiñata is the real limit of punch-up/punch-down, a violently unfunny meme passing as political discourse.

This is arguably Donald Trump’s biggest skill: His mere presence brings the level of discourse of all that engage with him down to his level. I’m not suggesting that Ted Cruz is Aristotle, but watch Jeb(!) Bush desperately try to prove that he isn’t ‘low energy’ and try to tell me that there isn’t a Trump effect. This race to the bottom provides a certain amount of cover for would-be satirists. All of a sudden, any joke involving Trump is transgressive and relevant, no matter how bad it is. To wit:

But what’s happening here isn’t really discourse. It’s the cheapening of dialogue by way of the generalized excuse that everything is now fair game. It is less of an attack on Trump than it is an act of opportunistic collusion. Artistically and mechanically, videogames can offer a great deal to public discourse, which is why Trumpiñata feels like such a waste. It isn’t satire. There isn’t even a joke here. It’s just lazy.