Behave to Level Up

Spanish Newspaper describing the De-escalation

The world is in the grip of the Coronavirus. I am once again in Spain and another situation arose regarding levels. The Spanish government has presented 4 levels of Quarantine. Levelling up means a local decrease in lockdown severity. So here we go again with some reflections on game design and levelled structures. How to level up in times of Corona. The answer? Behave!

I have been fortunate enough to thus far escape the most severe consequences of the virus in myself and my environment. My general vitriol here is of course in no way meant to ridicule the real serious experiences from others. I am solely an extremely ill-tempered and misanthropic individual locked down inside a house, whose hatred for humanity is not helped by this quarantine relaxation, as will become clear throughout this blog.

To understand what levelling up in Quarantine means, we have to know the gameplay of Quarantine. That’s right! Just like this whole Corona thing is a rehash of the Spanish Flu of the 1920s (hopefully not with the same historical repercussions, although the Depression is already in place), this approach to levelling up is once again a game theory exploration.

Parallels abound

Quarantine in the Magic Circle

To fully understand the meaning of what it means when getting out of quarantine is done by levelling up, we need to understand what it means if quarantine is a game. As many people have noticed, quarantine is different from everyday life. Not to me though…I spent my days inside not wanting to see most other people anyway.

But since it is so separate, it echoes the foundational understanding of play offered by my boy Huizinga in his Homo Ludens – that of the magic circle.

Huizinga states that:

“The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (2008, p. 10).

So yes, quarantine is a situation that is different from everyday life and will need a bit of adjustment. Given this definition of a magic circle brings with it some key considerations for quarantine:

  1. It is temporary. This shit will pass, but not until the damn game is over. So keep up.
  2. Rules are different than normal. This doesn’t mean you can go full Purge on everything, but some alterations have to be made. Still, be aware that this is not a normal situation.

    It’s important these rules are clear. Germany has kept their rules clear and honest. The US not so much, causing a lot of breaking of the magic quarantine circle.
  3. Performance of an act apart
    This is the whole crux of the thing. Quarantine is each person’s own magic circle. We perform an act apart from everyone else. And these acts are different from always. This is partly scary, but partly gives us unlimited degrees of power. Seeming that we’re in a situation of play in our own urban little sphere, some theories of Urban play apply here. As we are playing in a magic circle, but this magic circle blends with our daily life, these special clauses to play theory apply. Applying these theories will mean the following. Take the identification by Michiel de Lange (2015):
  • “[G]ames may be used to engage people in the actual planning and design process itself through simulation, feedback and using outcomes in actual design” (p. 430).
    Now that everyone is working at home, there is a chance of a new order rising. No way that after quarantine all those bloody meetings that CLEARLY could have been emails are going to force you to go to work. As this quarantine forces employers to envision different forms of working, employees might as well argue for the same.
  • “[G]ames allow people to act on [and experiment with] a wide range of specific urban issues through role-playing, building trust, forging collaborations and tapping into crowd creativity [in a safe, simulated, environment]” (p. 430).
    Given the chance for trying something different why not learn a skill. Or not, I mean, who’s going to judge you. It’s not like you need to do anything of the sort.

    The message is a’ight, but I just want to be able to organise balloons that neatly.

  • “[G]ames are used to stimulate playful encounters and interactions with other people and places by stimulating serendipity and fun” (p. 432).
    In Spain the idea is to clap at 20.00 for health workers every day. I’ve never had this much contact with our neighbours. He’s nice. Used to work in a beer factory. Always wears blue.
  • [G]ames are used to foster a “sense of place”, a feeling of belonging and care for the city through emotionally powerful play experiences” (p. 432).
    Your home is now the most exciting place on earth. Try and find new ways to look at what you had. Who knows when it’ll be all you have again. I recently discovered that everything in this house is breaking down. So I have my work cut out for me.

Given that we are in a magic circle where play is happening, now it’s a matter of playing along. But that appears to be difficult for some. Huizinga identifies different types of players, each with a different relation to the rules. It is in this different relation that the different people in Quarantine come forth. Most of us are players, following the rules to the best of our ability. But there’s also:

The Cheater

The cheater “pretends to be playing the game and, on the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle (Huizinga 2008, 11).”
Take the existing rules, and see how far you can bend them. For instance, the sport rules or the going out rules. I’ve lived in this house for 5 months now and I have never seen this many sporters. SUDDENLY EVERYONE HAS A BIKE OR IS TRYING TO RIDE ONE. Don’t kid yourself Murcia…just because you can pedal does not mean your infrastructure is up to par. Another nice excuse is people run circles around a Churro stand, saying they are sporting. Good job.

Or go out for a walk with your toy dog.

There is also a rule that a kid can go out accompanied by one parent. Parents suddenly manage to divide their kids so that everyone can go out, and temporary adoption rules suddenly were set in place so that mommy can go out with her friends…

This is the Gran Via in Murcia during lockdown…


Huizinga defines the Spoilsport as someone who “shatters the play-world itself” (2008, 11). By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut himself with others (ibidem).” In other words: this is one of those assholes who disregards the rules, says that what you’re doing is not real and in general just ruins all you’ve been playing with. They just don’t listen to anything said within the game.

These are the assholes that think Quarantine is not for them. UUUUU I CAN’T STAY INSIDE FOR THAT LONG. I’LL GO CRAZY. It’s too late for that, Karen. Quarantine really shows the inner nature of people. Those willing to make sacrifices for others, and those that are hell bent on ruining EVERYTHING for EVERYONE just so they can go outside. I’ve even heard pieces of shit that HAVE TO GO to the baker every day because the bread is sooooo good. Everyone is eating leftovers and stuff, but noooo, señora has to eat that gourmet shit.
Basically this whole quarantine comes down to the realisation that ‘just because you want something does not mean you are going to get it’. From a pure ‘American Dream’ perspective, this would just mean you are not trying hard enough. But look at where that mentality got the Americans. So just grow up and realise life is unfair and full of sacrifices.

Maybe its a bit too obvious that I have very little respect for this group


“It sometimes happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new community with rules of its own” is what Huizinga says about this category (2008, 12). So those people not listening to the rules and completely separating them from the rest, while sitting in their own bubble of rules, playing their own game, not needing anyone else to tell them what to do. In this category are some groups, mostly organisations, that see this situation and try to bend it to their rules. There are several forms this can happen:

  • Ranking up prices of Personal Protection Equipment and other essential means.
    It’s gratifying to see that these asshats often get told off by people or arrested. But also a lot get away with it.
  • Organisations that use this to get more money.
    I was set to be presenting at a conference in July, but that became a bit more difficult. So the organisation assured us that there is an option to digitise the conference. “Lógicamente, esas herramientas virtuales exigirán costes suplementarios imprevistos que intentaremos cubrir con los ingresos de matrícula y patrocinios.” (Logically, those virtual tools bring with them unseen supplementary costs that we will try to cover with the subscriptions costs for the conference)
    I’m sorry, how does not having to have a physical location for an already overpriced conference suddenly cost more? I don’t see any logic in this. Are you telling me that the biggest scientific organisation for communication studies in Spain does not have any computers or internet?
  • Football
    Oh boy. Not only was it a football match that sparked off the massive wave of infections in Spain, Football also seems to be the most important thing this damn quarantine. Half of the news is about how some asshat team has started training again. Yesterday there was a whole item about one football player who was on lockdown in France. As if that was some horror situation. Something that is done outside does not fit in a lockdown, but apparently football thinks differently. The sheer arrogance. Money…I guess. A disturbing amount of money. Thankfully, each football segment shows the sponsors in the top left corner…and the middle left….and bottom left… and…

So yea, we are in quarantine. We might even say we are playing a survival game. And seeing this whole situation as a game brings with it some much needed clarity but also some ground for misunderstanding. If seeing the whole Corona outbreak as a survival game, then following some key theories on game design that outline build-up elements (Nacke 2010), the main build-up of the game would be:

  • Number of players: Single player or Couch Co-Op
  • Primary Objective: Survive! All actions should work towards this. All actions should not work towards getting out of Quarantine. That is a side quest you have to get strong enough for. The problem with this game however is that we do not have multiple lives or means to gain new lives. SO GIT GUD!
  • Gameplay: Stealth
    When you have to go out, the point is to evade the enemies. This game has two enemies:

    • The CoronaVirus – This is the main one you have to avoid. It is however poorly designed and has a horrible artificial difficulty. It’s invisble, can attack you by just touching things or standing near the wrong people. Makes player characters an enemy. This is just way too much power for a single enemy. Hence the need for stealth.
    • The cops – Properly designed opponents.
      The goal is to evade them too if you have to go outside. If they catch you without a good reason, there is a fine. Because they are designed so well, if some unskilled player is caught and fined it can be greatly satisfying. Approach these opponents with your best weapon: Common sense that comes from following the rules…and maybe a letter of conduct, just to be sure.
      Ok…not so much a real opponent, but definitely a risk.
  • Gameplay: As the Spanish Health boss said after a reporter said that some provinces had ‘Failed to go to the next level’. “This is not a competition, we are in this together.” So co-op.
    Seriously though, this health boss, Fernando Simon, is a boss. He started in the  Center for Research in Tropical Diseases in Manhiça District, in Mozambique, then was in charge of countering Ebola in Spain, and now is the boss of the Corona Crisis team. He always wears a sweater and jeans, has killer eyebrows, sounds like he’s always out of breath (which in times of Corona is a thing), Had Corona, Got Better, and still has the wheezy voice just to spite the goddamn virus. Hero

    This is the man

    Fernando Simon protecting the Experts who made the phases from the journalists

  • Features: The game allows for power ups that improve your defense. Chief among these are masks, gloves, and hand alcohol. These are however rare, so it’s better to avoid even having to use them and just stay the fuck inside.
    Washing Hands has temporarily been boosted into Broken Strengths
    There was a moment where we thought toilet paper was the best item in the game. Turned out that was wrong but it did cause some problems for the servers.

    And alcohol…do not forget the alcohol

    Game Modes: Hard mode vs Easy Mode
    Extroverts definitely have a more difficult time this quarantine than introverts.You know who else has serious issues and is definitely playing on hard mode? Fit People. Apparently to keep their gains going they can’t wait to go outside. Your shitty desire to be healthy is going to get us all killed. Stay home, get fat like the rest of us.

So now we know the rules of the game and how to play. Then now comes the whole point of this blogpost. How do we level up in the Spanish plan para la transición hacia una nueva normalidad. The levelled plan of the Spanish government is on the surface a well designed game structure. The focus is kept on the main gameplay of surviving while secondary quests such as economic gain are secondary. They can even adapt their well designed opponents, the police, a bit so that they can now pose a more detailed threat. That’s good design. But because understanding good design seems to be difficult for a significant portion of the population, let’s look at bit closer at the levels.
(I must admit that what happens in the levels changes sort of every day, so this may already be outdated. In general the higher the level the more stuff is open and more people can be there).

  1. Fase 0 o fase de preparación de la transición.
    Where we are now. Full lockdown. Only leave your home for work, groceries, dog walking, OR BUYING FUCKING SMOKES BECAUSE OH NO WE CAN’T DO WITHOUT SMOKES.
  2. Fase 1 inicial
    Opening small businesses like Churro stands that work outside. Only those restaurants with terraces can open their terraces with only 30% capacities. Still strict security rules regarding distance, PPEs and contact. Sport is starting up again…
    There are also some new allowances for old folk but geriatric homes remain on lockdown.
  3. Fase 2 Intermedia
    Opening internal locals with 30% occupation. Schools open again with this idea, cinemas, etc.
  4. FAse 3 Avanzado
    50% capacity of everything. Travelling is allowed outside of provinces as long as you have masks in public transport.

Here the comparison with levelling up as a game becomes more difficult to maintain. Mainly because levelling up is not a matter of skill increase but a cooperative effort of everyone improving their skill. And improving your skill in quarantine means Common Sense and rule following. The more you manage to survive, the higher your level. And how do you survive? Sure you can try to brave the outside world and deal with the opponents, replete with their artificial difficulty. Or you can try the strongest move in the game: STAY THE FUCK AT HOME. Do so or you run the risk of overpriced DLC called ‘The Second Wave’.

That’s the main gist of all this levelling up. In order to really increase you skill, do what you’ve always wanted to do in a game: Nothing. No grinding. No Dying. Just levelling up by staying at home. However, in accordance with the principle of flow, which is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time, there has to be a balance between challenge and skill (Csikszentmihályi 1990). So just staying at home is not enough challenge and it doesn’t take skill. So it may be a bit too much to use this as a gameplay strategy.
Although apparently staying at home is a real challenge for some asswipes, so JUST STAY THE FUCK AT HOME)

(Some further game reflections on the levels however introduce several other considerations.

Imagine you start playing a game, a tiny little idiot of level 1. Would you go to the Final Game Region where the required level is level 50? The same holds for Quarantine Spain. If you are still on level 1, and you travel to level 4, you are in for a world of hurt. What kind of hurt we are talking about here? The crushing realisation that your selfish act has caused the infection and maybe death of several other people. Well done you newbie. You ruined the game for everyone.

The other way around however also holds. A level 50 character has nothing to gain from going to level 1 areas, only to illustrate that he is a dick, which ultimately does not bode well for his survival skill.)

So arguing from a complete game design perspective, there is no easier game. There is hope.

However, in line with game design, there is the realisation that players are either idiots, or brilliant; they never do exactly what you want. These level remain up to how they are played, and that is anything but a guided project. There are plenty of idiotic gank squads breaking the rules and grouping together to give the players a tough time. Not only because they might be breeding ground for the virus, but mostly because Gank Squads deserve to be nerfed and my ultimate desire to smash some heads in with the ban hammer will be a bigger threat than the virus.


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