Death Stranding in the time of social distancing

It comes as no surprise that fans of Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s latest digital opus, have noticed some real-life parallels between the game and the current global response to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. The title puts gamers in control of Sam Porter Bridges (portrayed by Norman Reedus) who is tasked with reconnecting a society fractured by a global event that has forced people into living in bunkers and in complete isolation from each other as they struggle to survive with their limited means and resources. Talk about being on the nose!

Most of these parallels have been on the ironic, humorous, and creative side. Some gamers have noted how the entire premise of a delivery worker rebuilding a society on their own sounds foolish on its face, and seemed a lot less true-to-life last year when the game released. The reality today is that many people are relying on these types of workers, be they with the US Postal Service, UPS, DoorDash, UberEats, or an independent courier service, to survive now that the US and other countries have adopted protocols and laws, such as social distancing, that effectively quarantine people in their own homes in order to slow/stop the spread of the Coronavirus. Furthermore, some companies are adapting to these changes offering new options like “contactless delivery.”

Then there’s the story of the cosplayer who built a BB-like pod from the game to carry his infant son, complete with a working air filter and device that reads the oxygen-level inside the pod.

Meanwhile, a user on Reddit noted how an interactive map that tracks the number of COVID-19 cases in the USA also resembles an in-game map of the game’s many “voidouts,” the term given to the in-game massive explosions of supernatural origin:

But there’s even more we can learn from Kojima, Death Stranding, and life in the age of social distancing if we look further beneath the surface.

Social Distancing & Social Stranding

In an interview with Matthew Gault for Time magazine in November 2019, Kojima said that “we’re in an era of individualism” where “everyone is fractured. Even on the internet. It’s all connected, all around the world, but everyone is fighting each other.”

With Death Stranding, Kojima sought for a way to connect players in ways that were indirect and positive while maintaining a sense of social interaction. His solution was to create a game where social interactions can have only positive interactions and outcomes.

In the game, players rebuild and reconnect the world around them by linking NPCs to what’s called the “chiral network,” the in-game internet/WiFi-like communication system used by Bridges, the company Sam works for. As the network expands, so too does Sam’s and the player’s connection with the in-game world and with the world of other real-life players around them (or on the same server, I’m still not entirely sure how it works!).

Suddenly, structures built by other players in their respective “worlds” become visible for others to use. Terrain separated by a raging river, for example, becomes easily traversable thanks to the construction of a bridge by another player. Using one of these structures results in a “like” for the person who built it.

The basic idea behind this is that the more one connects to a larger world, the more one can make a positive impact in that world and see also lasting, positive impacts on their world left by others. This way, players can remain connected to one another despite never coming into direct contact with one another.

“People should know that being connected online is not a bad thing, it just needs some tweaks,” said Kojima in an interview with Gene Park. “I just want them to think about how we could use this technology to be better and think about it.”

Real life under the pandemic has also reflected this in some ways. Universities and employers, for example, are turning to videoconferencing apps such as Zoom to remain connected with their students and employees for educational and work purposes. University students who would normally pack a lecture hall are now packing into a digital space where they can individually see their professor lecture without seeing their classmates. An audience window is their only clue as to who is also online with them. Meanwhile, workers who would normally congregate all day at an office now only connect for a few short hours via videoconference while working solo from home. People who were normally in direct contact with many others thus remain in touch without being directly, physically connected.

These changes have also affected how people play in real-life, and mechanisms of online play are being used to maintain social connections during this time.

From Sapiens To Ludens

“From Sapiens to Ludens” is a phrase plastered across the online homepage of Kojima’s company, Kojima Productions. Ludens refers to Homo Ludens, aka “man who plays,” and is an idea that is at the heart of his company’s mission. The company statement includes a phrase explaining that “playing is not simply a pastime. It’s the primordial basis of imagination and creation.”

There are a number of references to Homo Ludens within Death Stranding itself. The most direct is found in a letter from the character Heartman titled “Bridges Needs Homo Ludens.” In it, he writes: “Homo ludens – they who play. Be it deliberate or unintentional, Homo ludens unite people – creating culture, shaping the very world around them – not through violence, not through laws or proscriptions, but rather through metaphorical acts of play.”

Cultural theorist Johan Huizinga coined the phrase Homo Ludens in 1938 when he published Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. In it, Huizinga writes about the necessity of play for humans and its central role within human cultures.

“In play there is something ‘at play’ which transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action,” writes Huizinga. “All play means something.”

This is evident when we look at Kojima’s ideas and aspirations with Death Stranding but is also evident now during the pandemic as live sports have been postponed and electronic gaming has stepped in to fill that void.

The importance of sports as a social activity was made evident after sports leagues around the world began to shut down, beginning with China’s Super League. Many soccer leagues and the NBA would follow suit (the latter in dramatic fashion) and millions of baseball fans worldwide are lamenting the loss of what should have been the opening day of the MLB season this weekend.

“It might seem at first sight that certain phenomena in modern social life have more than compensated for the loss of play-forms,” writes Huizinga. “Sport and athletics, as social functions, have steadily increased in scope and conquered ever fresh fields both nationally and internationally. Contests in skill, strength and perseverance have, as we have shown, always occupied an important place in every culture either in connection with ritual or simply for fun and festivity.”

As live sporting events became a thing of the recent past due to the pandemic, many involved with these sports turned to the digital space to continue the practice of competition. Spain’s La Liga, for example, turned to EA’s FIFA 20 to host an official tournament last weekend where a player from 18 of the league’s affiliated clubs competed with the rest to raise money to fight against the Coronavirus. Mexico’s Liga MX is currently planning on launching an e-league of sorts to finish the rest of the Clausura 2020 season digitally until it can safely restart.

This play occurs in the real world and in the digital world. As we saw with the FIFA tournaments, the two worlds sometimes converge and the Homo Ludens of the physical and digital realms meet to bring a bit of order within a chaotic world. Credit to Kojima for giving us a tool with Death Stranding to try to make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense.