It was day five of the first citywide lockdown. All things considered, my community was doing well. Morale was high, as I had just brought home enough food to get us through the week. I felt confident that, as long as no really big zombies got through the fence, we would be in good shape for a while.
There was something undeniably macabre about playing a zombie apocalypse game during a mysterious, worldwide viral pandemic, but with my work temporarily shuttered and university classes moved to Zoom, I finally had time to catch up on some old save files.
In my real world, back in the meat-space, there was ruefully little community. I had occasionally heard cynical notions, describing this problem as a normal, inherent aspect of life in the big city, but I had never confronted it as a younger, more dedicated gamer. At times online multiplayer spaces made up significant portions of my social life, with friends only a click away. Nowadays I prefer single-player simulation games or literally anything with a crafting system. Appreciably, these games have caulked the vacant moments between tasks of responsible adulting. But for the first time in a long time, I began to miss my online communities.
It was in this state of mind that I attempted a return to competitive shooters. A genre I held in the highest, rose-pink echelons of nostalgia. Surely if ever there was a warm and loving community of grownups, looking to escape from the uncertainty of 2020, it would be in this classic team-building genre. The experience, despite the matchmaker’s earnest attempts to generate me a new group of best friends, was sordid and degrading.
Games are supposed to be fun, they said. A reprieve from the punishing reality of Covid-19, economic devastation, abuse of power, vitriolic political scapegoating, and the endless procession of increasingly dire climate emergencies, they said. Surely some amount of trash-talk is germane to a healthy competition, but this level of toxicity felt somehow different in both quality and flavor. It was as if the trolls had finally gone feral. No longer trolling for the puckish love of attention, but instead both retching and craving some kind of raw, radioactive hatred. Zombies of a different kind, reciting discriminatory verbiage and nonsense with the same wit and self-awareness of the living dead.
My rekindled interest in an online community de-kindled itself entirely and I returned to the privilege of isolation. Back to my zombie game, where the non-player-community acknowledged my return with programmed, familiar greetings. I reflected on the simplicity of that in-game world. Food is good, zombies are bad. Shelter is good, zombies are bad. Zombies are bad, zombies are bad. The actual real life events of 2020 were staggeringly more complex. I was still in dire need of perspective, something often gained by interacting with many new and different people. In a world where one could go weeks without seeing an unmasked human face, however, online interactions were becoming more prevalent and important.
I lurked on a socialist discussion board and a conspiracy theory forum, listened to conservative radio and liberal podcasts, browsed centrist subreddits and read data-science abstracts in the hopes that a diversity of opinions would bring more clarity. Instead, it brought a newly obscured complexity. Each community seemed to exist in its own world, defining reality with its own distinct agents of good and bad. The problem appeared to my juvenile mind as two boxers about to square off. Both fit and equipped with advanced virtual reality headsets and righteous, uncomplicated quests to defeat the monstrous apparitions in their field of view. They were not fighting over the rules of the match but were rather playing entirely different games. And just beyond the digital illusions were fellow human beings, communities, and individuals, trading blows and scoring points in their respective games. I felt for the players on both sides. Empathy led to apathy, and I watched in paralysis as citizens brave or trusting enough to put on the headset continued to play the game.
Time marched on and I returned to lonely, essential work. Online grievances continued to spread as fast as the coronavirus, chaperoned by tireless doublespeak, naive hyperbole, and banal attempts to sell merch. The pandemic had husked people of their daily lives and communities, and by the third lockdown I found myself considering the boxing match again. There was so much fellowship to be had in that imaginary stadium. Shared convictions, goals, and a collective story with heroes and villains. Exhausted, I reached for the metaphorical headset. As this year had vividly displayed, the things that bring people together can also tear them apart. I took a deep breath and slipped it over my eyes, as the hordes broke through the fence from both sides.