Back in early spring, when the pandemic was turning into pandemonium, I was in the grocery store, close to where I live in Washington Heights, getting some potatoes. Little did I know those potatoes would become my last source of food for months. Just kidding. I also had toilet paper to eat, which lasted me another few months.

Story continuing — I was in the store and heading down the escalator overlooking a large portion of the inside including the produce, and most of the check out lines. As I was going down the escalator, I saw a sea of masked people. It was dreary and dismal outside, and inside the store there was a feeling of confusion mixed with aggressive angst.

During this descent down the escalator I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the zombie video games I used to play. The ones in particular where the world is coming to an end, and you’re supposed to run to the store and fight off herds of the infected trying to retrieve the medicine or last sources of food.

At this time, I didn’t have a machine gun or health packets, or teammates to help, but I did have some potatoes, and I was wearing my new armor (mask).

I did also however, have a weird sort of panicked calm going on inside me.

I thought, this will all be over soon?

I thought, wow people are really scared, right? Should I be?

I thought, this feels and looks like a movie.

I thought, man I have to get home soon, so I can make these mashed potatoes.

So I did just that, I waited in a very long line, paid for my potatoes, and left, and the walk home felt just as surreal as the potato purchase did.

Walking up Broadway, seeing person after person with a mask on their face had me feeling like I had been dropped inside a video game, about to fight off the hoards of zombies. Just me. And my potatoes. Versus all of Manhattan.

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Image by Gamewatcher.com

However, it wasn’t as exciting or simple as Left 4 Dead, and it certainly wasn’t fun. It was honestly kind of scary. And very confusing. And if thought about for too long very frustrating and disheartening.

Everyone on the news seemed to be fighting, and everyone in the grocery store seemed to be collecting massive, ridiculous amounts of toilet paper and hand sanitizer and eggs or something. Hopefully paper first, sanitize second eggs distant third.

However, on this walk home, potatoes in hand, I realized that everyone else was just as confused as I was. I couldn’t see anybody’s facial expressions (because masks) but I could see peoples’ eyes, and their overall body language. Although most people were hidden behind their recent T.P. purchases, most people looked like what someone dropped inside a video game would look like.

Some were confused and worried, searching for ammo, running around trying to find health. Others were most definitely assured and confident, walking around like they understood everything, not needing to level up any further.

Some others (and most I’d venture to say) were just normal characters in the game. They were ready for what was next. They had been alive and playing for many years now, and they were experienced in this game. Even if everyone in New York had to wear a new piece of armor, and even if everyone in New York didn’t know which way to go next, most still wore the armor, and they all still kept progressing, because they knew the next level was still there. The next level of comfort. And more information, and more knowledge about what the hell was going on.

It doesn’t serve anyone playing the game to quit. Unless they know that the game is not for them, that they are for sure losing in every possible sense, and that they cannot recover. If they know for sure that they will never reach the end, beat the boss, rescue the princess, or get the gold then maybe they should stop playing the game. However, if there is even a small hope that they can keep playing and advancing, then they should and must keep playing.

When things in New York (and in the country) seemed at their worst, when people had to probably use their hands to wipe their butts, and when there was almost no true conclusion on what to do next or how to actually truly help people during all of the pandemonium, people still played, and people still tried to get to the next level. And now, 8 or 9 months into this video game, I think we are almost at the next level. And it’s a well earned level.

Power up within reach, with new levels come new challenges, i.e. how do we disperse the power up, what players get the power up first, and for how long do we continue to play the game the way we have been playing it since March (masks, closings, restrictions). But even though we are about to be at the next level, I won’t forget how it felt to be in the game, and to be a character in the world of the virus.

How it felt to be without controls or a map.

How it felt to be sick, and watch fellow teammates get sick.

How it felt to watch teammates leave the game to join another.

How it felt to strengthen some bonds with fellow players, and how it felt to lose very close players — possibly for the rest of the game.

How it felt to just be in the/a game. To feel like you are living through something that has never happened before, and to organically see and feel how your own character adjusted perhaps even without the player’s consent.

How it felt to be in this city, New York City, an absolutely amazing place, which really made for one hell of a video game setting. I don’t want to play the sequel. This game was/is very hard. And it sucks a lot most days. Hopefully we will never have to play ever again.

I am however excited to know that I was on the team of the strivers. The team of the what’s next, and the team of constantly asking, how do we level up. The team that said, let’s pool our resources, keep calm, wash our hands, pick the controller back up, and continue moving forward. Because beyond the next level, there are many more to come. With many new friends and allies to meet, and many more challenging times. But soon, when we are looking back, I look forward to being able to say, we did it. And we did it as a team.

Besides what the game creators said, and the cheat codes that were tried, and the lack of supplies/assistance throughout the game, we all managed to somehow, as a collective group of gamers, come together.

It was not without characters lost, or jobs lost, or generally awful, sad, tough times, but I truly believe that we did come together, much more than the general narrative/game review would like to give us credit for.

So I am only left to ask myself and my fellow players, what sort of character is making it out of these tough times? Is it a protesting, hardened, tattooed, militant character of sorts? Is it an accepting, passive, flowing wizard/sage type? Is it a whole new character all together?

Whatever your personal character evolution throughout the game, and throughout this time, and whatever path you are taking to get to the higher levels, just remember that we as a collective did come together to play the game. Some of us didn’t play the way others wanted, however, we still all played.

And most played to the best of their abilities.

So the only thing left now is how you choose to play, and that you keep playing, and keep moving forward, and keep remembering that we have already been and currently are trying our best, and we have all beaten our personal bests, because we are alive and have not turned the game off, and we have not hit reset, and we have not cheated our way through.

We’re close to the final boss, and the gold is in sight. There will of course be more trials and challenges before we win, but it won’t serve any of us to take/give in to the path of pessimism, but rather, we must keep trying to improve, and take the path of optimism even if it sometimes borders on ignorance and innocence. It is harder to play the game this way, and it requires a lot of self-reflection and self-improvement, but I truly believe that it will serve us all to keep playing, keep growing, keep learning, keep hoping, keep going - together, and keep remaining confidently positive and collected because tough times don’t last, tough people do, and together, we will get through the pandemonium a much stronger, wiser team.

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.”

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