My life as an NPC

For the last six weeks, my life has become very local.

I work from home. I relax at home. I follow along with virtual dance classes using a kitchen chair as a barre. I schedule virtual hangouts with friends and carry my computer around so I can sit on the patio while it’s light out and in my basement after dark. And if I need anything from outside of my home, I calculate the relevant risks and rewards of getting it myself or asking someone to bear that risk for me.

I live in a neighborhood of narrow rowhomes and tiny shops, so my provisions are eclectic but good. I get a box of fresh local produce delivered to my front door every other week; I’ve never seen the delivery man’s face, but we wave at each other from a block away as I take in the box. There is a boutique butcher where I will pick up a whole chicken tomorrow, and a tasting room that will pass me bottles of locally distilled whiskey and vodka through their picture window if I order ahead online. There is a small grocery nearby that sells good bread and dairy and a limited selection of canned goods; I drop by every two weeks and stop by my neighbor’s street afterward so we can talk to each other from six feet apart. I’ve had a hard time getting dry goods–rice, lentils, beans, flour–so I grab some of whatever the small grocery’s got, which is different every time. I am almost out of kitty litter.

I spent all Saturday trying to psych myself up to go the big grocery store up the avenue, but quailed. I don’t have a car or a bike, so it’s not just a question of masking up and bagging my own groceries with gloved hands. It’s a long walk, and I’d need to navigate narrow sidewalks the whole way. I’d need to carry fifty pounds of kitty litter home. So as the afternoon waned I put on my homemade protective gear and rolled a pet stroller two blocks to the nearest drug store.

The drug store has been a disaster zone for six weeks. Some shelves are almost completely bare; others have sternly worded signs discouraging hoarding behavior. There are no more Swiffer cloths or ant traps–I guess I’m not the only one experiencing a springtime invasion–and there was only one box of kitty litter left. I loaded it onto my pet stroller, dismayed, and looked around for other heavy goods to justify having brought a cart. I was reminded of playing Fallout 4: if my quest takes me into a dilapidated hardware store or if I pass by a bombed-out cafe, I always stop and scan the shelves for magazines in good condition; I grab as many broken light bulbs and paint cans as I can carry, figuring I’ll use them for building later.

Once home, I started brainstorming ways to stock up on kitty litter. Perhaps I could pay a friend with a car to brave one of the megastores on the outskirts of my neighborhood. Perhaps I could sign up for a pet supply delivery service.

That’s when I realized that, whatever this game is, I am not the playable character. Here I am–mostly at home, but occasionally moving around within narrowly a circumscribed area–hoping that some combination of money or courage will entice an adventurer to bring me the items on my list. It’s a fetch quest.

As a player, I’ve always found fetch quests funny. Excuse me, madam, your farm was overrun by bandits and you’re worried about retrieving your daughter’s silver locket? You need to make this omelet with deathclaw eggs why, again? But I like to multitask, and it satisfies my gamerbrain to resolve multiple quests with one thorough dungeon crawl.

Now that I am a minor character, it’s not so funny. No one wants to go out on a fetch-and-carry for kitty litter. I hate the idea of sending heroes on errands at great personal risk and minimal financial reward. I hate that anyone has to be a hero at all.

And I have to remind myself, too, that the pandemic hasn’t created new divisions between the heroes and the hapless townsfolk–those stratifications have always been there. Let me rephrase this. Our social structure requires nearly all of us to be both producers and consumers: we have to work, and we also have to buy, and we have to work in order to buy, and we have to buy in order to work. But there have always been some workers who have to bear a greater burden, largely invisible to us. We’ve all ordered online to save ourselves the time and trouble; we’ve all handed out fetch quests to reluctant adventurers in suboptimal conditions at massive retailers, and it’s always been life or death for the warehouse workers who sustain injuries fulfilling our Amazon orders.

But now our own lives are at risk, too, and the invisible burdens are now plain as day.  I am writing it down because I don’t want to forget.


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