Imagine opening up TikTok and immediately seeing Joe Biden playing Minecraft with Donald Trump. They bicker about whether or not it is acceptable to grief Obama’s house, their aged voices spewing forth profanity and gamer slang on a Discord call.
If you’ve seen something like this recently, then congratulations – you have stumbled across “AI Presidents Gaming.” This trend has ripped through social media like wildfire in the last month and it’s alternately vulgar and sophisticated, but above all, bizarre.
The list of cultural factors that had to line up for this trend to even begin in the first place is shockingly long. That’s part of why I’m so fascinated by it. So if you’re wondering why the hell this has taken over your For You Page, then strap in…
What is the “AI Presidents Gaming” trend?
In the middle of February 2023, the brand new meme format of “AI Presidents Gaming” emerged on TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter. The memes typically consist of footage from popular video games such as Halo, Call of Duty, Fortnite, or Minecraft.
Warning: Offensive language throughout
Quickly you realize that you’re listening into a Discord call between past and present politicians such as Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush. They trash-talk each other on the phone, one-upping each other with vulgar roasts. To borrow a phrase from the popular online gaming blog, Polygon, the presidents behave like “Discord goblins.”
You can actually hear the presidents talking to one another because of the magic of AI. It’s easy and cheap to go over to Eleven Labs, train the AI on a bunch of presidential voice records, and then ask it to crank out brand new dialogue.
Meme creators record or find footage, write a script, and then have AI create the voice clips. Then the voice clips are layered on top of the footage. When one of the presidents is talking, you’ll see an image of them with a gaming headset hastily photoshopped on their heads.
Though this meme trend is very young, it’s already being used in other contexts too. Some creators are making short videos where presidents hang out at the pool or play board games. Others are having presidents rank games and books on tier lists, arguing the whole time.
Warning: Offensive language throughout
It’s hilarious and inventive, and one of the most unique uses of AI I’ve personally seen so far.
But my interests are pretty out there. So that makes me wonder: how did this meme trend get so popular so fast?
5 Reasons Why AI Presidents Gaming Took Over TikTok
At this point, I’ve watched more AI Presidents Gaming videos than would be considered respectable in polite society. In the course of what I’ll euphemistically call research, I’ve determined there are five basic reasons why this trend has gotten so big so quickly.
1. Video gaming is an absolutely massive industry with an enormous cultural impact.
Because of the relative youth of video gaming as a medium, people still tend to underestimate just how formidable games are as a cultural force. So when gaming memes start to go mainstream, it seems like a glitch in the matrix.
But the premise that “gaming is not mainstream” is deeply flawed. The simple fact is that the global video game market pulled in nearly $221 billion in revenue in 2022. This is over five times greater than global movie box office revenues. Furthermore, games are expected to see a compound annual growth rate of 12.9% between now and 2030, which would put global revenues in striking distance of $600 billion.
It is impossible for an industry of that size to not have a massive impact on culture. Combine this with the fact that video games frequently cross over into other media such as film (Sonic, Uncharted, Detective Pikachu) and television (The Last of Us, Arcane, Halo), I find it deeply weird just how many people continue to underestimate the cultural impact of video games.
2. Online video game streaming has been around for over a decade.
Want to feel old? Consider this fact: the popular online video game streaming platform, Twitch, was started in June 2011. It grew like crazy in February 2014 when “Twitch Plays Pokemon” – where viewers played Pokemon Red by typing in commands into the chat – went viral. At any given moment during that stream, you could expect to see at least 50,000 people watching along with you. About 2% of internet traffic went to Twitch during that time.
Fast forward to 2021, and Twitch had an average of 2.58 million concurrent viewers in 2022. YouTube Gaming Live is doing well too, pulling in 1.17 billion hours of stream viewing time. There are over 40 million gaming channels and 100 billion hours of gaming content.
Video game streaming is so big that it can single-handedly support bizarre industries like “gaming supplements.” It’s also critical to the field of eSports, in which professional video gamers put in 8-12 hour training days to play their game of choice, much like an athlete in a more physical sport would. They have teams and sponsorships, make loads of money, and even get injured – just like more traditional athletes would.
The point is, video game streaming has a very recognizable culture with committed fans. So when AI Presidents Gaming memes were first created, all the hyper-specific gamer references resonated with streamers and their fans, causing the videos to very quickly trend among people dialed into that niche. Then, once the total number of viewers reached a critical mass, the videos started to pop up in the feeds of more casual gamers and even people whose primary interest was in politics, not gaming.
Take away streaming culture and this simply could not have happened.
3. Generative AI tools are cheap and widely accessible, creating new possibilities for entertainment.
Just a few short days ago, I wrote a post about how we are already starting to use generative AI in marketing. Tools like ChatGPT and Midjourney are making it possible to create high-quality content very quickly. Rather than having to think about every single word we type, we can have the computer make first drafts and then we go through and paraphrase, fact-check, and humanize the text. In total, it’s about 20% faster but feels much simpler than writing from scratch.
But what we’re seeing with AI Presidents Gaming goes beyond a 20% improvement upon what was previously doable. The ability to synthesize speech in someone else’s voice creates entirely new possibilities for entertainment. And it’s super cheap to do this as well.
The idea of making fake conversations with real voices is not totally new. Case in point, see the below nonexistent interview between Joe Rogan and Steve Jobs.
But the AI Presidents Gaming trend takes it to a new level, creating an easy-to-replicate meme format. Make a video and you’re highly likely to get noticed on platforms like TikTok and YouTube. Take a meme format that’s easy to make with widely available technology and that is a proven winner on niche parts of social media, and – boom – you have a runaway trend.
(As an aside: this trend of deepfaking celebrity and politician voices is fun right now, but eventually it has to get regulated, for all the obvious reasons. Enjoy the memes while they last.)
4. AI Presidents Gaming videos perform many of the same functions as political cartoons.
Way back in the late 1700s or early 1800s, political cartoons started to rise in prominence. Much like internet memes of today, political cartoons started as a “street-level phenomenon” before ultimately finding purchase in the mass media of the day – newspapers and magazines.
They started as a way to quickly and visually address political issues of the day, often with scathing humor. Keep this in mind next time you see memes that look like they came straight off the Twitter feed of the Democratic or Republican National Conventions.
AI Presidents Gaming is a continuation of this same basic concept with new media provided to us by the internet and generative AI. In my own observations, you will often see presidents portrayed in different ways, depending on the political views of the meme creator.
Sometimes Trump is depicted as a raging jerk and other times like a mischievous friend. Biden’s depiction ranges from being so unaware that he’s playing the wrong game to being just sort of folksy and old. Obama is generally depicted as a peacemaker just trying to hold things together, with how effective he is at this task varying based on the political views of the person creating the meme.
Beyond general characterization, some truly sharp indictments of the presidents and their policies gets worked into the memes. Trump often complains about the election being stolen. Obama shows a fascination with drone strikes. Biden catches a lot of heat for playing games and not doing his job. And Bush, well, he has a reputation for “rushing spawn” which is an allusion to his role in the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
5. The US political climate is so nasty that people are looking for a narrative that explains it away as something harmless.
Truth be told, this is not an assertion I can back up with clear data, but it might be the most important point of all. If you’ve been even semi-aware of US politics over the last decade, you know how utterly toxic it can all seem. Political polarization has increased such that Republicans and Democrats can hardly agree on what constitutes facts and truth, let alone what kind of policies should be passed for the benefit of Americans.
We Americans are deeply unsatisfied with our politics. The last time a president had an approval rating over 60% was during the short-lived honeymoon period after Barack Obama’s initial election. As many as 71% of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.”
As if that weren’t damning enough on its own, consider that 90% of voters were concerned about the “uncivil and rude behavior of politicians.” This poll was taken in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the January 6 insurrection, and any of the other horrible unrest that has happened between then and now.
In short – Americans are absolutely sick of how cruel politicians are to one another. They’re sick of how much they’re fighting with one another and how little they can stand to work together.
So imagine if, secretly all along, the US Presidents – symbols incarnate of our political life – were actually friends behind closed doors. What if the incivility was just us misinterpreting their bro culture where insults are actually a sign of love? What if these guys, despite being super rich and being in Congress for 50 years, were actually just playing Rainbow Six Siege after a long day of work?
Sounds like wish fulfillment to me.
When memes take over social media this quickly and this thoroughly, they’re worth talking about. It’s true that AI Presidents Gaming became popular really quickly because of how popular video gaming is and how funny the format is. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
AI Presidents Gaming is the latest trend in a long line of political commentary wrapped up in scathing humor. It’s the heir to the throne originally made for political cartoons as far back as the late eighteenth century.
In our hour of national discontent, we Americans have reached for new technology to air our grievances and settle our nerves. And in the process, we’ve created homunculi of Biden, Trump, Obama, and Bush that have strong opinions about anime and who can kick your ass in Counterstrike.
The AI Presidents Gaming trend is probably going to run its course soon. But even if it disappears as quickly as it came, it still offers a surprisingly deep look into our political psyche. Or maybe it’s just funny to see Trump grief Obama’s Minecraft house while Biden is lost in a cave.