Tom COVID’s The Division

This piece was originally published as a bonus issue of the Nothing Here newsletter.

It’s easy to see things through the lens of the pandemic. It’s especially easy when you’re talking about a video game set in America, after the nation collapsed following the release of a weaponised flu virus. So here’s me, talking about the Division, and drawing some parallels to the real world. I just hope it makes sense if you’ve not played the game (and haven’t been paying attention to twitter)…


You’ve been wandering these streets for months now, lugging around your assault rifle and marksman rifle, your high-tech gadgets, and your micro-missile launcher, with only the monotone ISAC for company. The streets are mostly empty. Dogs, racoons, foxes, and deer have staked their claim on the urban environment. They seem startled to see you; surprised by the incursion of humanity on their reclaimed space.

The civilians at the Theatre Settlement need help, so you go and see their leader for the details. They have solar generators, food crops growing on the roof, and guards at each entrance – they’re as self-sufficient as one could expect. It all seems like a waste to you. Things will be back to normal soon – with power coming from far-off coal and nuclear generators, food delivered on diesel-engine trucks from distant states, or ferried overseas from distant lands. So much wasted energy; they should be like the rest. They should hole up, scared, and wait for things to return to the way they were.

They’re having trouble with the Hyenas. The Hyenas have taken over the nearby Grand Washington Hotel, and kidnapped someone important to the Settlement. The official SHD documentation calls them “a loosely organized gang of opportunistic raiders,” but you know the truth. They represent organised crime. They are the gangs who emerge in places and times when the official state fails or has no interest in governing. They become a new state, a more honest one in some ways. They demand money and fealty, and they are not shy about the violence they will enact if you do not fall in line. They are the state at its most revealed, its least obscured. They are at least honest in their violence, completely lacking in political subtlety because they don’t have an army, they are the army.

You don’t know what their plan is for the hotel – a new home base, chemical weapon lab, a prison, a brothel, or something else – but you also don’t care. You sneak in through the service entrance and with your finger on the trigger you solve the situation the way you’ve solved countless others before. You save the hostage, you put down the burgeoning criminal state, and you receive your reward for a job well done.

There’s no recourse for dialogue, only the trigger. To understand the motives of these disparate groups you have to take to the internet after a long day of single-handedly policing the entire city. You scroll through politigram, fall down far-right youtube rabbit holes, rapidly flick through mainstream news channels to cut-up the feeds and piece together the truth behind the propaganda, made easier when the proponents of the pre-virus order say the quiet part loud. The economy is all powerful, but every now and then its wheels of progress must be greased with the blood of the poor, the elderly, the precarious, and the immunocompromised. We must return to business as usual so the economy can grow strong again. A hundred thousand people might die, but what is a life worth, truly, when compared to our GDP?

You thought you were on the streets fighting because the deaths had already happened, but they’re still coming. The virus is still spreading. You’re on the streets fighting because it’s only by flattening these minor insurrections that we can get back to business as usual, let the people out of their homes and back to work.

You wonder if you should actually be aligned with the True Sons. They also know that it’s only through bloodshed that the status quo can return. America was built on bloodshed, and with further bloodshed, a new, mightier society will flourish. They listen to the President and the right-wing pundits, and they know they’re on the right side of the government and the right side of history. You’re not politically aligned one way or the other, you’re a tool for the status quo and nothing more.

You go to ViewPoint Museum to put them down, though you feel conflicted about it. Surely they’re just doing what the President wants? The True Sons are simply doing their part, aren’t they? The militia is closing borders into the city, and I imagine it’s only a matter of days until they start scouring the apartment blocks for refugees to deport, criminals to imprison, and poor people to be punished for the most minor of infractions. The weak have to be sacrificed if we want the new American phoenix to be a stronger beast than the one that died at the hands of this pandemic.

Politically aligned or no, the flat robotic voice of ISAC guides you through the museum, and as the True Sons (and daughters, though they don’t receive top billing) die by the dozens. It feels a little like déjà vu: you lift the rifle to your shoulders, you aim down the sight, and you squeeze the trigger. Again and again. How much blood is needed to drown this fledgling moment in its crib so we can return to the time before – return to normalcy?

You leave the museum, spattered with the blood of supposed patriots, but your work isn’t done – it’s never done. You need to squeeze the trigger like you need to breathe. Thankfully the Outcasts have been acting up again.

On your way to the Potomac Events Center, you take a shortcut through an apartment building, and the corridors are abandoned and oddly quiet. For months you thought the population had been evacuated, or otherwise died –denizens of the body bags you occasionally find piled up on the road or in the backs of trucks. You know the truth now though – they aren’t dead, and they haven’t left. They’re indoors, isolating, streaming true crime documentaries on Netflix and broadcasting their cabin fever on Twitter and TikTok. Delivery drivers are ghosts. Keeping the isolated masses supplied, without ever being seen.

You make your way through the Events Center, fighting off the angry horde of yellow-clad leftists, tossing their Molotov cocktails and charging ahead in suicidal rage. A well-placed shot causes a suicide bomber to explode, killing three of his comrades – more leftist infighting. No wonder they’re constantly losing ground. These radicals want to use the pandemic to forge a new, fairer sort of society, but they don’t realise that market capitalism was already perfect. They’re just angry because they’re losers, because they’ll never be the ones with the private jets, luxury yachts, and fancy cars. Sure, the whole system collapsed within weeks of a pandemic striking, but we never could have seen that coming. And all the money we saved cutting funding from pandemic research and preparation went to important parts of the economy – to bailing out banks so they can pay bonuses to their CEOs.

Your rampage through the Events Center comes to an end, but there are still more uprisings to quash. Any minor upset could keep the status quo from returning. This is delicate, surgical work you’re doing down the barrel of your guns.

The Black Tusk show up in the city – Silicon Valley type technocrats, but with heavy firepower and dog drone weapon platforms. They also want to end the lockdown, but they don’t think we should simply re-open the economy. They see the importance in tagging and tracking every citizen – follow the spread of the virus in real-time, gather data, crunch the numbers. There is no job too big or too small for Big Data – just as long as we don’t let anything silly like privacy concerns get in the way.

You aren’t so different from the Black Tusk. They have their robots, their milspec tech, and all their guns; you have your high-tech gadgets, your own guns, but a better fashion sense. They might be on to something, you think. Maybe ISAC would work even better with access to the locations of every single citizen in the entire country. It would be so much easier to police them all by adding another layer to the surveillance state apparatus. But you can’t trust that information to the government. It should be in private hands, where it can do the most good. Private companies are good. Data is good. So masses of data in the hands of private companies must be good.

But still, ISAC tells you to shoot the Black Tusk soldiers in the face, and you’re compelled to listen. No dialogue, only the trigger. You ask ISAC if he’s planning to take the Black Tusk’s plan for himself, but he doesn’t respond. He never does, no matter how many times you try and speak to him. You’ve taken to referring to your turret, your flying drone, and your seeker mines as your children. It’s lonely out there on the streets, but your children are always there, strapped to your back, ready to help.

The mercenaries rush forward in an attempt to flank you. You take aim, you fire. You collect your rewards. Rinse and repeat. Grinding for the status quo.

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