Playing the Pandemic

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2020.

To say that it’s been a pretty horrible year would certainly be an understatement, nor has my experience been uniquely horrible. In fact, I count myself very lucky to have made it through the year relatively unscathed while living in one of the areas of my state hardest hit by the pandemic (at least initially).

This year has been terrifying, exhausting, and more than a little surreal. Since both my kids and I have medical conditions that could have increased our risk from the virus, I basically haven’t left my house in seven months. Some people I know have gotten sick. Some have died.

There’s a lot to process, and I’m not really sure where to start. I don’t know that anything could have prepared me for this past year, or even how to describe it in retrospect. Since my lived experience is struggling to provide a sufficient frame of reference, I thought I might turn to a virtual analogue to make sense of it instead. In that spirit, here’s my attempt to sum up the experience of living through 2020 in a videogame.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the first games that came to mind was Pandemic II, a popular Flash game from 2008 where you play as a disease with the goal of wiping our humanity. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only person to think of this game when the COVID-19 outbreak hit. Traffic to the game’s website increased 3500% in the beginning of March.

Though certainly not the most accurate of simulations, it’s a good tool for getting people to think critically about disease spread, especially the idea of transmission. The game is actually fairly hard, since it becomes impossible to win if any countries are able to effectively quarantine themselves before the disease arrives. Nothing emphasizes the effectiveness of a total lockdown quite like Madagascar closing its only port.

Of course, the part of Pandemic II that seems most unrealistic in retrospect is how logical your human opponents are. If your disease is airborne, people start wearing masks. If your disease infects the water supply, governments start handing out bottled water. And if Madagascar goes into lockdown, absolutely no one is getting in.

In contrast, a fair amount of the spread in my area (and around the world) has been from people deliberately defying health guidelines, often for incredibly stupid reasons. For a virus, it turns out that real life is, in fact, easy mode.

Another game that came to mind was Deus Ex. In this dystopian future, a global plague called the “Grey Death” is ravaging the world population. However, we see early on that it’s the poor and the underprivileged that are the hardest hit.

Deus Ex also has a very 2020 vibe for other reasons. It’s set amidst civil unrest, police brutality, and billionaires infiltrating democratic institutions in an attempt to delegitimize them. It actually manages to check a surprising number of boxes for horrible 2020 elements.

Since Deus Ex is also an amalgam of every conspiracy theory the developers could possibly cram together into a single narrative, it likewise manages to somewhat capture a very different aspect of the past year’s discourse. Playing Deus Ex not only allows you to step into many of the horrible realities that people lived through in 2020, but also many of the lies that were perpetuated by right-wing figures. It’s got shadowy deep state actors controlling the world. It’s got a lab in China manufacturing the virus alongside its cure. It’s got evil AI controlling the Internet. I guess the idiots storming Area 51 actually happened in 2019, but Deus Ex has wacky Area 51 stuff too.

Surprisingly, the videogame moment that most summed up my frustration and disbelief with the state of affairs in 2020 was not a game about global pandemics or political machinations. Instead, it was Majora’s Mask. This moment, as Twitter user TianiPixel pointed out, occurs when the player walks in on an argument in the mayor’s office.

At this point in the game, the town is on the verge of being crushed by the very conspicuous and angry-looking moon that is heading straight for them. Most of the townsfolks have already fled in terror, and the town guard are asking to evacuate the few remaining citizens. However, the annual town carnival is scheduled to begin, and the head of the committee refuses to leave.

There is a giant rock heading straight for the town. It is visible from literally everywhere. AND IT HAS A GIANT EVIL FACE ON IT!

This is one of those bits of dialogue that even as a kid, I thought was pretty ridiculous. I mean, no one could be that stupid when disaster is literally staring them in the face…right?

Man, 2020 has really made me reevaluate what counts as “unrealistic.”

2021 has already reached the east coast and will be here in another three minutes. I am ready for this accursed year to be over.

Good luck to you all in the year ahead.

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