Before lockdown started, I had another job with a company that made what became the world’s most sought-after product: hand sanitizer. Working there before everything shut down was like watching a car crash in slow motion. Every day, my coworkers would whisper about the spread of the virus, retelling news stories about so many new cases popping up here and there, the locations inching ever closer to Ohio until it finally hit us. Since I had only recently begun that job, I was sent home on March 16 with a laptop and not much else. I didn’t know my job that well, and outside of answering a few emails tracking orders for frantic clients, I didn’t have anything to do. So I played video games.
Stuck at home with shit else to do at a job that I had not yet fully grasped, Persona 5 Royal became the game that defined those first weeks of lockdown. I played it like it was my job since most of my working hours I couldn’t really work anyway. I played so much that I got sick of it. I put the game down just shy of the final boss fight in the Royal portion of the game and didn’t go back until much later.
Persona 5 Royal wasn’t my only pandemic-defining game. Bloodborne, Animal Crossing, Hades, Picross, Paper Mario: The Origami King, Final Fantasy XIV, and XV all were the games that “got me through.” My new job with Kotaku also presented me with a wealth of opportunities to try games that I normally wouldn’t. But I’m not sure how much gaming “got me through it.” Because at the end of the day, after I put down the games, I’d scroll through Twitter, catching up on the latest death tolls and pandemic news, the open pit in my stomach steadily growing. It got hard to get out of bed, hard to do my job that I loved, and harder still to simply play a game. I felt sad and guilty for carrying on at my job as though everything was normal, then I felt guilty for feeling guilty because I had the enviable position of being gainfully employed. Even talking about this feels weird because personally, I’m good. I have a good job, a good partner, and everyone in my family has blessedly remained safe and healthy. As my elders would ask, “What you got to be sad for?”
But I am so sad in a way that I worry will take a long time for me to recover from. I was on Kotaku’s podcast last week with James Vaughan, developer of infectious disease simulator Plague Inc. One thing he said, which stuck with me like a serrated blade through the chest, was that the most unrealistic thing about his game is how everyone comes together to combat the disease. Between anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, local governments refusing to shut down, and corporations failing to protect or fairly pay essential workers, I’m not sure how I can return from the knowledge that Americans do not seem to give a shit about their vulnerable neighbors. Some of us would rather see our fellow humans die horrible deaths than simply wear a mask and stay home.
With the increased vaccine rollout, we’re at a turning point now. I remember reading a tweet about how one of the vaccines is 94% effective against asymptomatic transmission, and it was the first time I felt like maybe there really can be a “when this is over” future.
I wish I could say gaming brought me peace the way it did for so many others. It definitely filled the quiet hours and took my mind off the horror unfolding in hospitals and families around the country. But video games during the pandemic were, at best, a distraction. And now, a year later, I realize distraction could never be peace.