Achievement Unlocked: Zombie Apocalypse
This story worked so much better as a metaphor. I’m not absolutely certain that the term “Cell Phone Zombies” is widely adopted, but I know I’m not the first to put it out there. It certainly wouldn’t be an innovation on the part of this story. I haven’t done the labour of googling it, partly because my phone is in the other room, which illustrates the problem for you.
Yeah, I dearly preferred to think of that now-famous and now deeply over-mentioned idea that we are stuck in our mobile devices, the screens themselves attracting 80% of our consciousness as we walk around, peering down, and hope to avoid pedestrians, pets and fire trucks through the fringes of our peripheral vision. And it’s funny, right, to think about zombies, the living dead, the monstrous creatures, somewhat appropriated from certain concepts of voudun and brought into our movie theatres Yeah, I didn’t like it when the phenomenon was ugly enough, real enough, that we made a derogatory term for it, but I really, preferred the days when my cell phone zombies were simply allegorical.
I won’t tell you the name of the application. It wasn’t anything particularly interesting. It was a game, and not some sort of earth-changingly unique game. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite. It was a time-twiddler similar to the ones we have been playing years. I’d mention them but their names are probably copywritten. Games with names like Angry Ornithopters and Candy Destroy. Again, I’m not particularly worried about those programs, just the lawyers which come included with them.
This game was just an iteration of one of the above. Through fairly intensive AB testing, at a cost of perhaps a few hundred bucks; some existing web advertising budget; a reasonable analysis of trends; and a look at which landing pages got the most traffic and which versions seemed to get people playing longer, it hit some sort of qualitative tipping point, and bam! It was everywhere.
One particularly *(but not extraordinarily) clever and resourceful coder, using tools readily available to just about anyone (we should note that she was using tools which are, in fact, regularly pushed upon us whenever we open up Facebook)–well, she made this electronic toy, and it was a big hit. Good for her! She found some version of an online button-masher which had some sort of twist to make it vaguely new, and some cute, rather cleverly done graphics… and a whole variety of pleasing sounds and soothing visual aesthetics and exciting rewards to unlock which set off music in short bursts and happy sounds and…
…you know. Pavlov stuff, all done with a bouncy modern beat. This researcher was not particularly a primatologist, but she easily had access to the same database of movie and film and recording that the rest of us do. She didn’t even need some sort of sinister machine to figure out what people would really like this stuff, any more than Julia Child truly needed to look up a particular aspect of French cuisine to recognize that most things taste delicious when soaked in seven pounds of melted butter.
We pause for a moment to recognize that while adding endless sugar to a cake won’t make a good cake—(it will probably make something that is too sweet for most), we have so many cake modifiers easily available at your local hobby shop that a little trial and error can find you stuff that’ll hook you hard, things whose names I would never have known were I not interested in this sort of deal. Fondant and frosting and flavouring and chocolate chips that fribjolate right in your mouth—and then novelty items constructed of goodness-knows-what synthetic food-like resources. Combined together in the hands of even a reasonably talented chef, with a goal of making your tastebuds short-circuit your sense of hunger, you get things like that wedding cake that was hijacked the other week, by a perfectly ordinary person who had a bite and decided to just take the whole thing home, rather than sharing it with the other 200 guests. And that’s just food, which has some serious physical limitations—there’s a point at which no stomach can distend further.
Now go back and re-imagine, because it doesn’t take that much imagination, what this is like in a game. It’s already happened. We’ve just normalized it. You don’t need some sort of complex backstory about why this particular mobile online toy was more engaging than anything before it. Some new and ever- increasingly addictive game comes out all the time; and we welcome these things. Why shouldn’t we spend our leisure hours in pursuit of that dopamine rush and that sense of accomplishment? I’m not making fun of anything. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable endeavor. It sounds like a good time to me. In many ways, it is a real advancement in the technology of hedonic enjoyment, and while one could give some stuffy talk about the positivity of going outside and reading a book made out of paper, we don’t have any solid evidence that reading under a tree is more healthy than sitting about, harming no-one, stimulating various bits of your brain structure.
There’s that easy nightmare scenario where we get hooked into a game so much that we don’t eat and sleep but that isn’t what happened in the end. Those who played the game absolutely ate and slept and went about their daily lives. But they sure thought about the game a whole lot. Again, this was a normal human phenomenon. Chess players think about chess; guitar players think about guitar solos; I think about … well never you mind what I think about … but the mind enjoys an obsession once in a while and this one really stuck, really hooked itself in the head.
The first player of this game to die did ask to be buried with her cell phone, but even she thought it was purely a humourous request.
What is Life? I don’t mean that in the philosophical sense, or even in the George Harrison sense. I mean it more in the Frankenstein sense. What is that vital spark which keeps us going? We can recognise Life as that which possesses Life functions, and we can recognise death as a cessation of Life functions. But when does every spark of consciousness and every bit of energy leave a body? When is a body no longer capable of movement, even if galvanised by unexpected forces? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein talks about the work of the person from whom we get that term, Galvani, who ran electrical impulses through the corpses of animals to make their muscles twitch. (What an ending, right? People in coffins, twitching limbs still moving as long as there was battery life in their phones? But a bit melodramatic, I have say.)
Nah, nobody returned to life from death, but there was that odd time when some of the players of games stopped leaving their homes for a while. They did eat, they did sleep but they played the game. They played the game a lot.
When we think about this sort of nightmare scenario, we imagine people so addicted to a game, so hooked that they die from it, because they no longer take good care of themselves. I don’t think that’s what happened here. I think they simply began playing and then more and more of their brains, more and more of their muscle memory more and more of their sense of self began to revolve around those games. I don’t think they’re dead. I think they still live after a fashion. Their bodies adapted to deeply intermittent fasting and yes, they do eat humans but to be fair, a human being, while it carries the prospect of disease, contains most of the nutrients necessary to keep going if you would like to spend as little time as possible doing anything other than the game. They are not unaware, as they haunt the alleys and the parks and, once in a while, the shopping malls. They’re conscious enough to keep charging their phones, and as long as they’ve got credit cards and aren’t legally deceased, they’ll have cell service. They are not always entirely distinguishable from other humans. They may be a little pale, they may have a little muscle atrophy, they may not be particularly kempt although really, if you can think about the game, for a couple of minutes while you’re away from the screen, and busy bathing, there’s no real reason for you to go about like some sort of 18th century pirate with no access to good grooming.
Why did we not discover this phenomenon? Well, because the phenomenon is simply an iteration on many games that came before, and does very little that other games did not do. It’s just that eventually, this game becomes more important than anything else. And one can pause and say, well, how about that? We work these long hours, often at jobs we hate, we have a society of over specialisation. Involvement in the news and in politics has not only become uncivil and in fact openly aggressive as if we were all at war with each other but draining, psychologically taxing and certainly unpleasant. Why not focus your time on a game? Sure, if you focus on the game to the point where you leave conventional morality, you might kill; you might eat; you might no longer care about everyone else. But that’s not tremendously far from what we already do.
And that dead person? The first one? It is true that I don’t think something like this game could bring you back from death but I do think that a very good strategy would be to fake your own death. Lets you play lots of games, right? And Maybe there are too … maybe there are a few too many flashing lights, and a little too little in the way of trickery; your brain’s stimulated, can’t escape. But the next game, the sequel, well that was made with a sense of humour. That was a zombie game, and it was a horror concept where you hid being a zombie, didn’t tell anyone. That game itself was a metaphor for how people feel about are zombies, . They thought it would make good social commentary. What they did not realise was that they were providing training.
That is the game which taught them to pretend they were dead to get left alone to make people move away from them on elevators, to really make them curious about the taste of blood as part of the joke. The game said you could talk about how much human flesh you had consumed and how many others you had turned into zombies. And if you don’t really care about your life savings, it is not so difficult to go into a phone store and buy a doyen phones and install the game, hand it to friends or passers-by, gain a bunch of points. It became a kind of fashionable hot topic, started carrying zombie clothing, that TV show about zombies began to give subtle hints that one or more of the cast were actually players of this game.
And it didn’t really end in a zombie Apocolypse. It’s just that the zombie game made us feel Apocolyptic. That’s when they came out with that game which simulated demon summoning and that game which simulated nuclear war and that game which simulated how to become a politician and get into power and try increasingly ridiculous bills and laws, to get points to see if they passed. And none of these were the nightmare dystopian future because eventually, people realised that our games were making us act in a manner that was antisocial. Easy solution! We created games of post-Apocolyptic nomadic tribes, each one with its own colours, its own logo, its own big scoreboard, its own cache of stolen weapons. Now when you wake up in the morning or the evening or whenever you wake up, if you wake up, check your phone, you see what you are today, you get your weapons ready. You have meaning, you have purpose, you are ready for this. Zombie apocalypse? Never. The great zombie liberation and more than that, the great apocallyptic epic saga of your life. It awaits you. It is seductive, enthralling, meaningful. Today you will do things that really matter towards the survival of yourself, your tribe. You may fight the way they say only our primitive ancestors did to get food and resources. You wil no longer be cushioned by the doughy arms of comfort and the sad remnants of civilisation. You are free. You have wifi and life stretches before you an endless series of points to be scored, achievements to be unlocked, hands to be bloodied, and something truly meaningful to do.