At the time of writing, news that the Coronavirus has arrived in the UK has made the headlines. It has spread to every region in China, infecting 8,000 and taking over 150 lives, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is considering declaring an international public health emergency.
Open a newspaper, browse to a current affairs website or turn on the television and you can’t escape a report about the latest crisis we should all be afraid of. If the Coronavirus doesn’t get us, there’s the threat of a third world war amid escalating tensions between countries or a huge environmental disaster caused by our refusal to change our lifestyles. We’re balancing on a knife-edge while waiting to see which way we’re going to fall, and neither side looks particularly inviting.
We exist in a growing environment of fear where it’s becoming ever more difficult to envisage a positive outcome. This is having a hugely detrimental effect on both our physical and mental wellbeing. We join groups to fight for environmental, social or political causes because we want to feel as though we’re doing something proactive; but it’s often a way of masking our helplessness, or seeking safety and support in numbers. What we really want is a distraction from it all.
It’s therefore strange that such distractions are readily provided by video games and a lot of the content produced brings us back to the end of life as we know it. For example, in Death Stranding Sam Porter Bridges makes one final attempt to reconnect the world after a great catastrophe pulls it apart. In Frostpunk, we witness the building of the last city on a frozen world and securing of the means for society to carry on. And in Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy tries to uncover her past in a land overrun by dangerous machines.
So why do we find it so enjoyable to play titles set in the smoking ashes of civilisation? Between the real and digital worlds, you would have thought gamers could be tired of seeing the planet fall to pieces repeatedly. But it’s these situations that provide us the chance of overcoming the odds and feeling the accompanying sense of achievement: we all want to be the hero who endures in a world where almost all others have failed, and reunites the remaining survivors to steer them on a course for a brighter future.
Perhaps then it’s not the end that fascinates us so much as what happens after it, and whether we can find a way to make it through the apocalypse. Video game protagonists are always determined to push on regardless of how bleak the situation is or how small the chances of winning are. Sam Porter Bridges does manage to connect America, the citizens of your town in Frostpunk do find a way to survive, and even Horizon Zero Dawn shows us what was ultimately a successful attempt to save society.
Games have become so realistic in both their characters and graphics over the years that it’s hardly surprising we’re searching them for answers. Maybe somewhere deep down inside, experiencing their vision of the end of the world makes us feel as though we’re slightly more prepared; and the obstacles thrown at us during the course of the gameplay give us the opportunity to do something rather than just feel helpless. Stories where the protagonist is triumphant might make it easier to see a chance of a positive outcome in the real world.
There’s certainly hope. A 2012 study reported that instead of pulling us apart, the stress of disaster situations may lead to greater social behaviour and there have been numerous reports of cooperation during times of adversity. This was backed up by a 2017 experiment involving MMORPG ArcheAge; when players were told everything they accomplished would be wiped out in 11 weeks, they banded together to work as a team rather than focus on their individual interests.
So maybe video games do have the answers sometimes. Perhaps they can provide that glimmer of light we’re all searching for in these times of uncertainty and fear. If playing makes you feel even a little more hopeful that the future is going to be ok, then play on.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.