Online Gaming vs. The American Health Systemby Max Barashenkov / Illustration by Nolan Dennis / 15.09.2011
Somebody is emailing me bullets, a shower of woodchips and that uncomfortable whistling above the head. I hit the dirt, crawl and try spot the bastard as my guys are dropping like flies around me. There he is, the fucking Bush Wookie, smug in his ghillie suit, sniping from on top of a bridge. The brain kicks into overdrive, reflexes sharpen, instincts take over – flank left, from rock to rock, watch another one of your fools run straight ahead and eat lead, up the ladder and put a knife in the sniper’s neck. Gotta watch your back, you damn noob. Pick up his rifle, safe behind the enemy lines now, and start picking them off as they spawn…
In a smoked-out basement, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a young man sits. He is quite alone, ten thousand miles away from home, with his mother wasting away from cancer next door. Words, that once brought joy, don’t come to him, the isolation and detachment is complete. Facebook, that angel of globalization, is empty, sickening almost – lives of friends’ unfold in real time, while his hangs in limbo. Contact with the outside California world is impossible. Taking care of a dying parent on your own sets out a nightmarish schedule – personal life, ambition and leisure, they all disappear into bi-hourly pill administration, daily reading sessions, futile speech exercises, hour-long phone calls to government health agencies, bed changes every eight hours, sponge baths and simple, one-way conversations with the person that gave you life but now can barely move or speak. The young man, he is here to do his duty, no complaints, no regrets, but, by fuck, he needs a crutch. In an hour, he is off to the Medi-Cal offices, to break his head open against the wall of bureaucracy, but for the next thirty minutes he will dwell in the only thing that relieves the stress and provides a simulacrum of human interaction. Lighting a cigarette, he loads another game of Homefront…
“Those cocks’ckers are dug in good,” the voice comes in over the headpiece, judging by the drawl, it’s Celtic, a construction worker from the Mid-West. Playing online everyday, you start noticing the regulars, not the silent and cuntish Call Of Duty types, but those with some notion of teamwork. I tell him to stop being a wanker and use those grenades and, in turn, he laughs at my pronunciation of the word ‘wanker’. We trade friendly insults as we storm the enemy position, admittedly a retarded effort that dissolves into a vicious knife-fight and clips being emptied into bodies at point-blank range. “No, man, I can’t go back there now, I just bought a twenty-pack of Oxys two hours ago,” he says, and it takes me a little while to figure out that he must be speaking on the phone with his microphone still on. “You owe me a twenty, so get ya pills you’self.” Celtic deals in prescription pain meds, highly popular amongst the construction grunts, people too poor to afford any kind of medical coverage. I look at my own little pharmacy, a row of pill bottles just to the left of the screen, swallow hard and C4 a Humvee. “Why the fuck did you move here?” He asks me. “This place will kill you without a thought.”
In a bleak, one-storey building on South Bascom Avenue hides one of Dante’s circles of Hell, the offices of Medi-Cal. The California state-run healthcare system, meant to provide some form of coverage for those in the lower income bracket, is a finely tuned mechanism for putting people in their graves. The young man, whose mother requires urgent Radio Knife brain surgery at Stanford University, has given up on trying to reach anyone via the automated answering system – a perverted carnival of being passed from one dumb beast to another, from one phantom supervisor to another and then being told that he is calling the wrong place and offered a new number, identical to the one being dialed all along. The young man now haunts the offices daily, praying that his worn-out visage will spur on some kind of action. Here, he is not alone. Mexicans with trailing children, crooked and bent Poles, ineloquent Ukrainians, beaten and scared Iraqis and, most of all, disappointed Yanks, they all queue at the gates of healthcare, hoping to carve out a sliver of salvation either for themselves or their loved ones. Their stories are worryingly similar to that of the young man, stories of lives discarded under the treads of a machine, stories of broken teeth, hate and disillusionment. There is enough anger in the Medi-Cal antechamber to start a small revolution, to tear the dick off the heartless Uncle Sam. A dying woman, a one-time professor at a local college, tells the young man that one can tell a lot about a society from the way that it takes care of its sick and old. Clutching his forms and shuffling forward, he has no words for her, because he, by then, is more concerned about her cutting into the queue in front of him than her frail wisdom. His application, backed and hurried by numerous doctors treating his mother, was lodged on the 1st of April with the assurances from the Medi-Cal staff that it will be approved within two to three days, yet now it is the end of April and all he has managed to beat out of them is that the case is ‘pending’.
The maths and bureaucratic reasoning of the beasts is transparent – if the application is approved on time, the state will have to pay for the Radio Knife, the following operations on the breast cancer, the radiation therapy for both the brain and breast and months of rehabilitation; drag it out even for a few weeks and the patient is beyond help, someone gets a bonus cheque for saving the state money. Thinking Michael Moore’s Sicko captures the entire horror of dealing with the American healthcare system is like presuming online gaming conveys the realities of war. In the end, the young man will have to resort to appealing to various Senators and Congressmen to push the case through, but by then it will, naturally, be too late. For now, he stands there and thinks of all the patterns he would carve on the indifferent Medi-Cal faces with a bowie knife.
FUBS is telling me about his two years of messy divorce procedures as he sits in the support gunner seat of my tank, spraying the surroundings with .50cal bullets. We spawn rape the enemy with abandon, laying bare our troubled souls, strangers that have never met and never will, bonding to a firework of flying corpses. This is therapy at 30 frames per second. This is a support group of a dozen howling barrels. It’s easier to tell these faceless comrades about all the shit that’s stuck on you, to hear their version of the tale, than to divulge the same to friends. For far too long I have regarded online gaming as sport for lesser men, for children and for the not-so-far. Those that I speak to are not caricature, retarded geeks, but men, much older than I am, who find their release here. There’s the above mentioned FUBS; there’s OhTheDinosaur, a science teacher from somewhere up in Wales, a jaded, spiteful man with a severe distaste for economics; there’s TjTakashi, a thirty-something graphic designer from Tokyo who wakes two hours earlier everyday for the sole purpose of killing Yanks online; there’s DoomedCobra, a middle-aged architect who buried his daughter not a month ago. There are many more and, soon enough, I understand that this community is not to be taken lightly despite the ridicule that’s cast on it. Take just the numbers. Homefront sold over a million copies in its first week and, at fifty dollars a pop, it’s no chunk of change. Pre-orders for Battlefield 3, the hailed Call-of-Duty-killer, have clocked in at a record one and a half million. That’s seventy five million made before the game is even released! What kind of Hollywood blockbuster can command that? Youtube teems with commentators, professional deathmatch cats and conquest ninjas, who all make real money, a real living (something most are proud to announce on their channels) off the simple process of uploading their gameplays and generating an n-amount of ‘likes’. While film reviewers, music critics and art connoisseurs toil for pennies, computer geeks take the system as their bitch and cash in. I share my thoughts on this with FUBS, smearing pixilated brains on our tracks. “Haha, yeah, you should quit your bullshit scribbling business and I should quit my security job, shack up on a farm somewhere in Iowa and make some real cash, no hassles, no work-hours, easy money, live the American dream, man.” He drips sarcasm over the mic as our tank finally get’s hit by three RPGs at once and implodes.
Going to the same hospital four to five days a week for six months, one gets to know the people. Not just the nurses, receptionists and doctors, they know the young man by his name, but other patients, most of whom waste away as time goes by. The healthy looking men he saw in January are wheelchair-bound by March and vomiting blood in the pharmacy waiting area by May. Their conditions were not fatal, but their social standing doomed them all. Valley Medical Hospital, much like the demonic Medi-Cal, is aimed at helping the poor and the uninsured, but here the frustration at the bureaucratic US way rings out on both sides – from both the dying and the doctors. The young man knows that the grim expressions on the faces of all the neurosurgeons and oncologists he sees are genuine and heartfelt, he knows that if they had their way, his mother would have lived. Embedded in their world, one gets to see just how much the cards are stacked against the poor in the world’s number one superpower. For a country that runs almost exclusively on immigrant labour, the United States has devised a perfect culling mechanism – if you cannot attain a certain level job before you get really sick, your life is forfeit. Make room for fresh, untainted hands. A pick up by an ambulance will cost you around $1500, a month’s supply of pain meds will set you back a further $500. Consider the fact that an unskilled immigrant from Mexico is lucky enough to earn $2000 a month. The day the young man got the bill for the first and only surgery performed on his mother, a partial removal of one of the tumors plaguing her brain, he drank and he drank heavy. It was a 70 page wad of A4 pages, with numbers running down the side and, at the end, the sickly figure – $200 000. He held it in his hand and laughed a laugh that wasn’t one. That day he cursed the whole of the United States and vowed never to return.
When he flew home in June, his mother’s ashes on a mantelpiece of the grandparent’s house in Florida, he had no need for the online crutch, no real reason to talk to any of those people anymore. Yet, as he went out in the City Under the Mountain and he partied and he drank, he found that he had no real reason to talk to any of these people either. The gaming fiends, they were with him in hell, the drinking buddies weren’t.
*Illustration © Nolan Dennis.