Political Hay

Vermont’s Red Baron

The U.S. Congress's only avowed socialist has his own killer video game now.

By 9.25.06

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I have this sort of reverse addiction to reading directions. No matter how terribly chastened I walk away from the horrendous experience assembling a piece of furniture or programming some gadget, I am powerless to fight the urge to continue shunning manufacturer guidance the next time I'm faced with a similar task. Were it not for my inexplicable belief in myself to somehow get it right this time and my intent to do so, I could accurately be labeled a glutton for punishment.

The pattern continued this weekend when I donned the facade of eight-term Vermont Independent Congressman and self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders' take-no-prisoners digital video game alter ego at the "Bernie Arcade" section of his Senate campaign website without consulting either the game's online instructions or Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. Tempted by the promise of a free sweatshirt to this week's highest scorer (sad, I know), I impetuously dove right into the action.

Piloting a prop plane run on (surprise, surprise) hydrogen power -- whose supporters, incidentally, are also some of its biggest obstacles -- your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to shoot down giant red "R"s with great black wings and flying buckets spewing mud representing, respectively, the Extreme Right-Wing and its nefarious campaigning tactics, with "fact sheets" on parchment resembling that of America's founding documents. Sanders, it seems, is not always anti-war. Occasionally a special fact sheet comes along that allows you to shoot parchment twice as fast and drop a little shock-and-awe action on the minions of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. (Who knows? Maybe it's that same Chomsky book Chavez has burning up the charts.)

Yet despite grasping what I thought to be the basics of the game and careful expropriation of floating green fuel cells, I was invariably eliminated early on. Embarrassed by my failure to land myself a spot on the High Scores page in a shooting game presumably against a bunch of pacifists I finally gave in and read the instructions. I quickly learned that in the world of Vermont's Red Baron the moneybags I'd been steering into were, in fact, "Big Moneyed Special Interests," and not nearly as revered as in most video games (see Super Mario Brothers), never mind your average hip-hop video. Consequently, every time I ran into some cash I believed a great boon and asset, my life force faded and the frown on Sanders' face in the left hand corner of my screen became more pronounced.

Perhaps the Sanders Campaign should be applauded for so accurately portraying its candidate's political leanings. At any rate, once I learned to acknowledge and abide by the disincentives of pursuing wealth in a socialist system, my gaming went much smoother, my scores were higher, and little Bernie kept his smile longer.

Then, suddenly, the words "Cat Attack!" flashed across my screen and tubby kitties big enough to make Morris feel lithe in Robber Baron top-hats began parachuting at me from some unseen base in the sky. As a sissy vegetarian, I can name probably two dozen people off the top of my head I would eat before any animal, which is to say, euthanizing squealing cats by shooting them with Constitutional fact sheets is not typical of my nature. This might be a weakness borne of my love of Tetris to the exclusion on all other video games. I haven't had the training others of my generation have mutilating aliens and ghouls with chainsaws in Doom.

Still, these are extraordinary circumstances and I am forced to defend myself. Bernie, via my computer speakers, offers a running commentary on my performance throughout. When I dart out of the way of a particularly obese cat and take a moneybag right in the kisser, he, stating the obvious, snarks, "You're being bombarded." The next hit I take he acknowledges with a sarcastic, "That's unfortunate," which quickly spirals into a description of my performance as "absolutely abysmal." (Crikey! Where's that liberal positive reinforcement?) Finally he just mutters "disastrous."

Whether this game inspired Sanders' Republican opponent Rich Tarrant's commercial depicting a cartoon Sanders flying a similar plane around the world -- titled "Bouncing Around the World With Bernie...On Your Buck!!" -- or the other way around isn't clear, but when a link to video game is one of the few things the Sanders camp has bothered to send to their update list since Willie Nelson campaigned for him...Well, chances are Sanders isn't sweating the outcome of November's general election.

Not to mention, in this little skirmish it's difficult to not call the match in the Sanders camp favor when you're watching the Tarrant ad and feel your index finger impulsively heading for the space bar to starting shooting Constitutional fact sheets at an Egyptian Sphinx or the Great Wall of China.

My last attempt to win that sweatshirt Sunday afternoon ends with a familiar scene: I run out of hydrogen and finally succumb to the ever-faster hail of moneybags and fat cats. The expression on Bernie's face goes from ecstatic to stern. Nevertheless, when my score appears on screen, Bernie is comforting.

"The good news is -- and there is some good news out there -- that is an unbelievable number," he says of my paltry score of 96. (The best score at the time is 1226.)

Thanks, Bernie. I'm glad to see the torch of Marx's maxim "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," burns brightly somewhere in modern America, even if it's only the Vermont Senate race. Now I "need" my sweatshirt!

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