Memory, Coronavirus, and Dark Souls

I have thought for a long time that memory is not about remembering.

If it was about remembering, you would think it would work a little better. I hopefully do not have to describe the trauma that occurs after a sexual assault, to such an extent that victims can sometimes conflate details in the intervening moments afterward. A poignant example was a sexual assault as a woman was watching an interview of a famous psychologist on television.

In recalling the incident to the police, she pictured the perpetrator as the psychologist.

This is why retrospective accounts for longitudinal studies are not accurate. The reason the Harvard Grant study took prospective measurements every two years is because we are terrible at remembering the shocking and traumatic moments in our lives as we live them, because memory is not designed to view these without rose-tinted glasses, as they say.

Memory is designed to keep us alive, full stop.

In some ways, this can lead to post-traumatic growth, which is what typically occurs while playing the video game Dark Souls. The first thing fans of the games will likely tell you about its reputation is that the games are difficult. I would say that is not the case, but I only do so because I had my difficult moments in the game in 2013 in an apartment in Memphis, Tennessee, going through a harrowing break up. After my partner left, I bought a television, found Dark Souls randomly in a Gamestop, and took it home. I set a laptop next to me to help me walk through the game, and I beat it only after months of returning to fight another day.

The game is a post-traumatic growth generator. It is a game that is largely about the enemies you fight. It is a typical dark fantasy series where you swing a sword and carry a shield (if you want) and you do battle with some horrific abominations. The slogan of the game is “Prepare to Die” and so you’ll die over and over and over again, knocking your head against the game as you try multiple times to progress to its next frustration.

But then you’ll beat an enemy and feel a resounding sense of accomplishment, and then the game presents a new area that features new smaller enemies, and your confidence is built back up. “This isn’t so bad,” you say.

And then you fight another boss.

In some ways, Dark Souls has similar pacing to many other adventure games, but what this particular series has done has nearly perfected its systems with relation to story, atmosphere, and the effects of these on the psychology of the player. I’ve been recently reading up on Dark Souls – Beyond the Grave, which is a two volume account of the games from the developers FromSoftware, and it feels like a look behind the curtain. In rich detail, the authors recount the story of Dark Souls in such a condensed fashion that is not the norm of the game. As you play through the levels and fight all the monsters, you encounter the story in a very asynchronous and multi-modal fashion, from descriptions on items you pick up, to the hushed whispers of the characters in the game, and the design of the world around you. By the time you reach the end of the game and are given a decision to make, you may not even be aware of the effects to the game’s universe you are making with your choices.

That choice happens to be quite large, and it comes down to preserving the old world, and therefore the old age, or starting the “Age of Dark,” which diminishes the almost divine power the “Fire” has brought with it.

All this nerdy videogame talk to say this: when I was in the act of playing, at least that first time, the thought of the story had hardly crossed my mind. I simply wanted to beat it. But after more focus, and more times playing through the experience, the wealth of the story slowly settled on my consciousness. And for anyone who has read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained this may sound eerily similar to the “multiple drafts” theory, where the brain constantly takes in and revises old explanations and provides “new” ones, though the accuracy of any of them is far from certain.

I want to take these ideas about memory preserving life, rather than being accurate, and focus on coronavirus for a bit. Many of us began to socially distance ourselves in mid to late March, thinking that this would be a short turnaround and we could all “return” to the real world when it was time for us to do so. The underlying reasoning for this had to do with “flattening the curve” which meant taking our pathetic amount of beds and medical equipment and distributing them with the hope that the case ratio would not overwhelm our facilities.

Yet without testing, without a better sense of the data of who has COVID-19, countries are now playing a very dangerous game. Similar to little children doing guess and check with multiple choice problems, Denmark is placing young children far apart, Lithuania is barring street access to restaurants, and the United States has a varied approach, with my state opting for 25% capacity on businesses and establishments. Already we can see the amount of cases in Texas swing back to a positive incline, which was to be expected, but some states had barely had any reductions before opening back up.

It seems, like Dark Souls, we have to continuously drill into people’s heads what is at stake here. Scientists have barely begun figuring out how COVID-19 affects people, which has been anything from conjunctivitis to strokes. Loss of taste or smell. Coronavirus toe for God’s sake.

While it affects older people more, that isn’t to say that it affects middle age and younger people with less severity, as hospitalizations can be just as dire.

Obesity is a huge factor for more intense instances of the disease, though why that is is unclear. Considering that the United States is one of the most obese in the world, careful attention should be given.

This is why, while businesses have certainly reopened, the patrons have barely shown up. Consumer spending is still way down, and some restaurants have opted to stay closed as a result.

Our country is flitting between different memories. There’s the corporate memory of quarterly earnings, a very short memory indeed. And there’s the individualistic memory of reading The New York Times and fearing for their personal safety. Over the next month, it will be fascinating to see which memory survives.

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