I have always had an aversion to the once-popular game, Worst Case Scenario because it “challenges players to use their survival instincts and skills to outlast their opponents” and to video games that pit players against each other in a battle to survive all sorts of threatening situations. I dislike games like this partly because they encourage catastrophic thinking, but mostly because they feed a mindset that life is a war, fought by individuals competing to survive.
For Christmas this year, I bought my daughter a gaming system and a gift card for a game. I debated long about spending this much money for something utterly unnecessary (I was stunned by the expense), but I’m glad I coughed up the cash because her options for entertainment are now severely limited. We began living together after her school shut down, and the television is in the living room, so I’m grateful she doesn’t play Halo, or Call of Duty. But the fantasy quest game she chose is still a survival game. Sometimes I watch for a bit while she plays. I’m not part of gaming culture. Apparently, it’s common for players to have an audience for their efforts. I don’t understand the appeal of watching players play, but I guess it’s not much different than spectator sports (which I don’t enjoy much either). This experience of living during the pandemic feels a bit like I’ve been dragged out of my audience role and forced to play a survival game without access to the hand controller. And I can’t walk away.
We interact with each other almost exclusively on screens now, and that contributes to the game-like experience. We watch “players” in towns and cities, and on the national governmental levels strategize how best to survive this worst-case world scenario. We study the nature of the virus, what it does to the body, how it’s transmitted, how to save the people who become infected, how to save ourselves. We’re presented with up-to-the-minute data on the number of illnesses, the number of deaths, the “hot spots” of danger. We’re updated constantly about supplies and materials, about available resources, about what we should be doing next. And there’s the competition for survival resources. There are scrambles to secure everything from hand-sanitizer and toilet paper, to flour and rice. Now we hear that governors are in competition with one another and the feds to secure tests, PPE, and ventilators to help the people in their jurisdictions survive. There’s a terrible urgency to it all, a race to win, that’s viscerally similar to what one experiences when playing a video game.
I’m not saying that the crisis we’re living is a game—just that it sometimes feels like one. I know I’m not alone in this because many people have said they continually ask themselves, “Is this really happening?” Many of us who aren’t immersed in the immediate experience of illness and death occasionally struggle against one of the common responses human beings have to trauma—depersonalization and derealization. This form of dissociation is one of the ways we protect ourselves from psychological collapse.
When a person experiences depersonalization, they exist for a time in a liminal place where they feel separate from themselves, as if someone else is experiencing what is happening in the moment. When a person experiences derealization, they also exist for a time in a liminal place where what is happening in this reality feels like a dream or fantasy. Their minds struggle to discern which is which but they may still feel they’re themselves. These states can occur together. During the televised horror of 9/11, many people talked about various experiences of feeling this way. I remember leaning against a colleague’s doorway, holding my very pregnant belly, and watching live coverage. Before I watched the second plane hit, I’d experienced some derealization—part of me was convinced it was all some terrible hoax akin to Orson Welle’s 1938 “The War of the Worlds,” and everything and everyone around me felt unreal. If I were to be extremely open-minded, I’d entertain the idea that our president and his supporters who convinced a lot of people that Covid-19 was a democratic hoax were experiencing some form of derealization rather than enacting deeply disturbing psychopathic or sociopathic behavior.
As scary, violent, and intense as they are, survival games are fun for many because they are games; after you die, you go eat ice cream, or take a nap, or call your brother. When you play repeatedly, you get better at not dying. Whether consciously or not, many of us are drawn to immersing ourselves in worst-case scenarios in order to quell our fears about death, to feel in control of our lives. Some play survivor games; others read books or watch movies or television shows about horror, murder, disaster, war, the apocalypse. I consume good murder mysteries with as much relish as I do potato chips. Just yesterday, my son who loves reading fantasy said, “I don’t get why people say reading fantasy is escapism; terrible things happen in those worlds!” I was stunned when I saw social media posts about how many were watching films like Contagion, and to see that one website offers “The 79 Best Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine.” So many of our pastimes, at some level, leave us feeling relieved to be alive, even if our real lives are not fabulously wonderful.
Now we’re living in a real-life survival situation. The experience isn’t new to many people around the world; from droughts and famines to war to poverty and disease, daily life as a survival experience is familiar. It’s new for a lot of us, however, and we’re just beginning to sort out how we’ll manage and its implications for the future.
One of the ways we manage any challenging situation is by talking about it with others, and even in our own minds. The words we use to describe our experiences carry massive import. Language shapes our conceptions of reality, and our conceptions guide our actions. I find it deeply disturbing that the current dominant language about the pandemic is war language.
From early on, at least in our country, leaders have spoken of the “war” we’re facing against this invisible “enemy,”or “foe,” and that Covid-19 is a “monster.” We hear about workers on the “front lines,” and there’s talk of what “weapons” we have to “fight” it. It’s an understandable metaphor, but I fear the language shapes our conceptions in detrimental ways.
War is a situation in which groups of people fight against one another to win. Within the groups there may be cooperation, but there’s none between them—only a competition until the end when a treaty is signed, or the loser surrenders to avoid annihilation. Most wars are fought over access to resources—whether those resources are obvious tangibles such as water or land, or less tangibles such as power or racial dominance. Declaring that the pandemic is a war in which we humans are fighting against the viral foe serves up a lot of violent imagery that may stir a lot of people to productive action, but it misses an important point, in my opinion. The virus is not human. It doesn’t behave like a human; it doesn’t have human motivation; and it cannot communicate with humans.
Most wars could be avoided with the right combinations of understanding past histories and present cultures, cooperation, and accommodation. We resolve wars through negotiations with other human beings. Eventually, some perspective may be gained on why things got so out of hand that war erupted, and sometimes this understanding can guide us toward making changes to prevent future wars. Usually, though, that understanding doesn’t come until long afterward, and it’s often ignored.
Though many will disagree with me, war is not a natural occurrence. Covid-19 is. I think the war metaphor currently shaping our conception of the pandemic directs our attention exclusively toward the urgently needed action to save people from illness and death, and away from the larger situation from which it arose.
A pandemic like Covid-19 was predicted long before it occurred, but not too many people paid attention, even after the crises of MERS and SARS and Ebola. I suppose it’s not surprising. There are still people, for example, who deny or downplay global warming, despite dire warnings from scientists about its potential effects, and clear examples of the increasing natural disasters occurring. We humans just can’t seem to wrap our heads around the fact that everything on this planet is connected, and that what we do and don’t do accumulates until crises occur. We leap into action to address the individual crises when they arise, but we can’t seem to collaborate enough with one another before they happen to apply the effort and sacrifice required to prevent them. Geez, we’re having a tough time even getting people to stay away from each other in this crisis when it’s obvious that’s the way to save lives, so perhaps I’m wishing for too much.
We are engaged in a conflict with Covid-19, but talking about it as an enemy, a monster, blinds us to much that we might learn from it. In a propagandistic way, that language deludes us into thinking that we’re the innocent attacked. Perhaps if we shifted our language to foster the conception of Covid-19 as a natural disaster, one of many increasing disasters, we might begin to see things differently. We might begin to see that Covid-19 is one of the ways our profoundly abused natural world is talking back to us. We might entertain the possibility that we humans have created, through our communal actions and inactions, the circumstances that fostered this disaster, and many others. We might begin to see the bigger picture and work together to make changes that will heal not only those currently suffering from Covid-19 but all of us throughout the world now and in the future.