Bella and Mortimer Goth sit at an oak dining table. Their guests have recently left, after lingering in their bathrooms until four in the morning. ‘Hooba noobie’, Mortimer says, eating a poor-quality pancake. Bella leaves her plate on the floor: ‘Geelfrob!’ She sleeps in her own urine.
This is The Sims, and in the time of Covid-19, thousands of us are back on board. The Sims 3 is the best version, but any ladder-less pool’s a goal during a pandemic.
Remember when a weasel got inside the Large Hadron Collider and was instantly electrocuted? Gosh, we said, it’s lucky that didn’t change space and time as we know it. That was in November 2016. Can you think of anything else that happened in November 2016? Anything that might be more easily attributed to, I don’t know, sliding into an alternate universe?
Remember when David Bowie died? And then every other beloved musician also died? Weren’t we funny when we tweeted that maybe they just getting out while the getting was good?
Remember the end of the Mayan Calendar in 2012? I stayed up all night on the 21st of December that year, waiting for the world to end. Didn’t we breathe a sigh of relief when it was still there in the morning? And yet …
A Sim neighbour arrives at the house. The Goths are asleep, but this doesn’t stop him turning on their stereo and dancing to smooth jazz. It’s dark in the front room. ‘Za woka genava,’ he says to no one.
The other day I was talking to my teenager about living through history. I said to her, when I was a teenager, 9/11 happened. I was alone in my grandparents’ lounge room, watching thousands of people die live on the television. We all knew, then, that we were in an unfolding historical moment, something people would talk about for as many years are left before the ice sheets melt and suffocate us.
Once that happened, there was a delineation. One way or another, we had entered an after, and so by necessity, there was also a before.
In the before, when some of us were teenagers largely naïve to corruption in politics, and the partisan control of media, and the real value of oil, we could afford to waste time. My very easy, mostly-happy life was spent sitting at the family computer, clicking on a virtual person and making them go to the toilet. Hours were invested in meeting new friends and lovers through a communication protocol called Internet Relay Chat. I left passive-aggressive away notices on MSN Messenger (‘Gone to talk to someone who cares about me’), hugged my Dawson’s Creek season 1 videos and listened to Radiohead on my bed in the dark.
Now, there’s this thing happening on Twitter, and probably other social media platforms I’m too interesting to use. During Covid-19, we’re seeking out the comforts from our youth. My feed is full of people watching old TV shows, playing old video games and connecting with old friends. They’re watching re-runs of The Simpsons. They’ve got virtual sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. They’re playing Civilization and Sim City and reading Anne Rice novels.
What are they looking for? Perhaps: a glimpse of when things made sense, when Rupert Murdoch was just the dad of the guy who married the chick from the cover of Cosmo.
Even TV is promoting this slide into the past. Stan chucked up the entire run of The Nanny (Pilot: Fran and Val stick pins in a gown in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens. Fran: ‘Oh honey, are you gorgeous? You look just like a virgin. Here, I brought you some crackers for your morning sickness.’) Sports channels are playing classic matches.
I’ve found myself trying to remember my ICQ number, longing for the sweet uh-oh! of simplicity. I’m playing Minesweeper and watching the Twilight movies. For three weeks running I’ve spent Saturday night in a Netflix party, gawping at the Twilight movies with 50 strangers. I’ve made biscuits from old Women’s Weekly cookbooks. I’ve put on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack and cried. I’ve regressed to the point of wearing Cheezels on my fingers.
In this time of devastating uncertainty—an alternate universe where a reality-TV host is the president of the world, and hugging is illegal—we’re making sense by retreating into familiarity.
A 1992 paper by Alan R. Hirsch describes nostalgia as ‘a longing for a sanitized impression of the past … not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together.’ Are those ‘many different memories’ what we’re drawing on now? Take one ‘Prisoner of Society’, add a viewing party of The Craft and a beer bong, and bring the past to life.
In my car today (on my way home from the most essential task there is—fresh bread) I shuffled through Radiohead, Garbage, Jebediah, Hole. You know the way music is. I was briefly, beautifully in my friend’s backyard in Adelaide, drinking cheap whisky from the bottle and flirting with her dad. In the before.
There’s a comfort in being absorbed in something familiar. It’s why we watch shows we’ve already seen; it’s easy, it uses the amount of brain power we currently have (none). Returning to old favourites is a rope to pull us out of the quicksand of the present.
‘Huree.’ Bella Goth is trying to fix a toilet. Her husband has taken up with the man who lives next door. Bella hasn’t eaten for days, and here is the Grim Reaper, standing at the door. ‘Frabbit,’ she sighs.
But it’s okay. We can just switch it off.