Day five. Considering the situation, my community is doing well. Morale is high and I just brought home enough food to get us through the week. As long as no really big zombies get through the fence, we should be in good shape for a while.
Okay I admit, there is 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 have time to catch up on some old save files.
Back in my real world, in the meatspace, there is ruefully little community. I have occasionally heard cynical notions describing this problem as a normal, inherent aspect of life in the big city. Growing up as a gamer, however, I had never really been forced to confront it. At times, online multiplayer spaces made up significant portions of my social life, with friends only a few clicks away. Nowadays, I prefer single-player simulation games and literally anything with a crafting system. Games that caulk the vacant moments of exhaustion between the general 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 grown-ups, looking to escape 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, abuses of power, vitriolic political scapegoating, and the endless procession of increasingly dire climate emergencies, they said. Naturally, 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 up and craving some kind of raw, radioactive hatred. Zombies of a different kind, reciting discriminatory verbiage and nonsense with the 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 in the zombie game, the non-player-community acknowledged my return with their 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 real world events of 2020 were staggeringly more complex. I was still in dire need of perspective, something often gained by interacting with new and different people. But in a world where one could go weeks without seeing an unmasked human face, online interactions would have to suffice. Cautiously, I returned to the internet.
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 hope that a diversity of opinions would bring more clarity. Instead, it brought only a more obscure complexity. Each community seemed to exist in its own universe, defining reality with its own agents of good and bad. The problem appeared to my juvenile mind as two boxers about to square off—except both have been fit and equipped with advanced virtual reality headsets and a righteous, uncomplicated quest to defeat the monstrous apparitions in their field of view. There is no way to effectively discuss the rules of a match when both contenders are playing entirely different games! And just beyond these illusory adversaries, fellow humans, communities, and individuals receive the blows. I felt for the players on both sides. But empathy led to apathy, and I watched in paralysis as citizens brave or trusting enough to put on the metaphorical 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 next lockdown I found myself considering the boxing match in a new way. There was so much fellowship to be had in that imaginary stadium. Shared convictions, goals, and a collective story with heroes and villains. The things that tear people apart can also bring them together. Exhausted, I took a deep breath and picked up the metaphorical headset. I slipped it over my eyes just as the hordes broke through the fence from both sides.