Every year it seems our planet spins closer to catastrophe. Superstorms ravage our coastlines, and clean water becomes scarcer. The rich build walls to keep out the poor, while the poor grow ever more desperate. And please don’t talk to me about nuclear war.
Admit it: you’ve wondered how you’d do. What if there were a massive storm, or an earthquake? What if the power went out and the water stopped running? What if the bridges across the river fell, the interstate collapsed, and the infrastructure we always assumed would support us simply couldn’t? When the militia moves in and the people who always said they were in charge no longer are, how would you survive?
In a recent interview with Vox, political journalist and Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi reflected on how bad things might get, prompted by the unprecedented instability in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. He said we’re a ways away from anything awful happening (reassuring!) then painted a striking picture of how that awful thing might manifest (way less reassuring!). “I was in Russia when the ruble devalued in the early ’90s,” he said, “and people who’d been saving cash their whole lives in their mattresses woke up one morning and it was all worthless — and it all happened in what felt like overnight. After that, there were catastrophic changes in society happening every 10 seconds.
“We’re nowhere near this kind of disorder,” he added. But as he’d previously noted, “until something terrible happens, it’s just a fucking game for a lot of people.”
The planning is all part of that game. We carefully talk through what we might do were our nation’s social fabric to unravel. But how prepared should we be? We’ve got a plan; should we run a drill? Should I see how long it takes to get from my apartment to my girlfriend’s house with a full backpack? Should I chart a path that keeps me off the main streets? Should I go take a survival class or learn self-defense? The more you play, the less it feels like a game.
Lately I’ve been obsessively playing Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the most talked-about video games of the year. The setup is simple: One hundred people parachute into an enclosed area. They must scrounge for weapons and fight to the death within an ever-constricting battleground. The person who survives is the winner.
The story of my very first Battlegrounds kill will be familiar to anyone who’s played the game. I parachuted to earth and sprinted for the nearest house, desperate to find a weapon. After a minute of fruitless scavenging, another player came bursting through the front door I’d closed behind me. He stopped cold, obviously as surprised to see me as I was him. Neither of us was visibly armed. I ran up and punched him. He ran into another room and threw a flashbang grenade. It detonated directly at our feet, leaving us both blind and stumbling. I gradually regained my vision and trailed him back into the foyer, where I beat him to death.
I’ve gotten better since then. I was recently about 10 minutes into a game, having lost my teammate almost immediately and subsequently killed a team of two other players in a frantic up-close firefight. I was making my way along a dirt road when I heard engines approaching from behind me. I hit the deck and watched a violent scene unfold.
A car careened by, trailed closely by a motorcycle. Distracted by the woodpecker thunks of gunfire, I almost missed the motorcycle spinning out of control and sliding sideways through the grass. Its lifeless rider tumbled to a stop just behind.
The car circled around, and its occupants hopped out to inspect their kill. They hadn’t spotted me, which meant I had the advantage. I pushed up against a tree and took cover. When the moment was right, I opened fire, immediately taking down one of the two people from the car. The other one ran for a nearby house, hoping to get to cover. I nicked him as he fled, but wasn’t able to finish him off. Shit.
Then I hesitated, and that hesitation was what got me killed. I could have pushed in and attempted to finish the job, but there was an equal chance that I’d be walking into an ambush. Moving toward the car meant crossing the road and giving away my position. What to do? I started heading in the other direction, then paused and turned back, still uncertain. By then I’d given my opponent the time he needed to get a bead on me, and he opened fire. I ran for cover, but it was too late. Game over.
Afterward, I chewed over what I could have done differently. If I’d circled closer to the car, I could have pushed in and outflanked my remaining opponent. I winged him as he ran for cover, which put him at a disadvantage. I could’ve gotten him while he was attempting to bandage his wounds. It was useful information for next time, so I filed it away.
Battlegrounds is a straightforward game, and only a “survival sim” in the strictest sense of the phrase. It simulates one thing—hunting down other humans and killing them—at the expense of more mundane pursuits like keeping warm, seeking shelter, and preparing food. It also lacks the social dynamics and ambiguous alliances of a DayZ or a Rust, games during which it is at least possible to form temporary partnerships with other players. When I see another player in Battlegrounds, I immediately plan how I’m going to kill them. There’s no talking, no diplomacy, and no betrayal. The thrill of the game exists in its unpredictability, and in the abrupt gear-shifts between hurried scavenging and harried combat. One minute, you’re sweeping the upstairs of a house for better equipment; the next, you’re in a fight for your life.
The more I play Battlegrounds, the better I get at killing people. Part of that is because I’m mastering its video-gamey peculiarities. I know where to go and where not to go. I know where to look for guns, and how quickly I should give up and move on. I understand the rules of the game, and have gotten better at exploiting them to win. But I’m also just getting better at killing people in a more general sense. I know when to move and when to stay still. I’m learning how to coordinate attacks with a teammate, and how to keep a cool head under fire. I’m starting to outthink my adversaries.
Will games like Battlegrounds prepare people like me to better survive The Fall? If I were to creep into a stranger’s house to look for food and water, would I think to hide my tracks by closing the door behind me? If a car were to pull up out front, would I more quickly know what that might mean? Maybe. It helps that in Battlegrounds, I already know that everyone I see is against me. That black and white simplicity falls woefully short of the chaotic murk of reality, as does the fact that there are no real consequences for failure aside from a brief loading screen before my next game.
Part of Battlegrounds’ appeal is that it lets players indulge a fantasy that hopefully will never come to pass. It’s the same thing that drives people to consume other, less interactive us-against-them fiction. The Road and The Walking Dead—not to mention more direct analogues like The Hunger Games and Battle Royale—provoke us to ask ourselves, “how would I do?” Games like Battlegrounds encourage us to more actively find out.
“Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.” It’s an understandable mantra to adopt, depending on how you define preparedness and how far from rationality you’re willing to let your risk-assessment wander. Maybe you buy a few extra bottles of water and nestle them around your house; maybe you fill a couple plastic containers with non-perishable food; maybe you construct a secure fallout shelter. Maybe you flee the city, build a compound, and start running combat exercises with a team of recruits.
For those of us at the less extreme end of the spectrum, video games can provide a consequence-free space to explore a series of worst case scenarios. We’re having a great time, but we’re also rehearsing for the end of the world.