During my pre-surgery quarantine, I had the lysergic pleasure of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Along the way, I became enamored with its concept of the Zone: a subcontinent of intelligence overlaid across war-broken Europe, its borders and residents determined not by allegiance to any particular government, but by possession of insider knowledge. The Zone exists outside and within the world simultaneously. If you’re in the Zone, you know what the Zone is. You’ve been inducted to its society and operate accordingly as one of its actors, playing out its dramas. Anyone outside of the Zone cannot know of its existence. The Zone is someone yelling “I lost the game” from the third-story mezzanine of a convention center in the mid-aughts: if you know, you know.
Pop culture loves a secret game because it imbues the world with the unknown. Early last year, when we all thought covid was a matter of staying indoors for a couple of weeks, I listened to the podcast Rabbits, in which an everywoman protagonist is inducted into a game played once per generation that is essentially secret-society capture the flag, played via high-stakes geocaching. The podcast left me cold because it didn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of its own game. “You play with your life” may have been Rabbits’ unspoken premise, but it never elucidated where the danger inherent to playing came from, only telegraphed it through character disappearances that would be introduced for dramatics and then never followed up on. Rabbits fails as a secret game because it can’t imply its gameplay to its own players, leaving them to wander as a series of clueless human MacGuffins. The protagonist passes through the game uncomprehendingly, and we as listeners can only bob along with her like balloons on a string. Meanwhile, Gravity’s Rainbow succeeds because Pynchon understands that even characters who don’t comprehend the entirety of the Zone’s internal workings can still act in service to it. Pynchon’s protagonist is also a bumbling everyman, but his actions determine the state of play in the Zone even if he isn’t fully aware of this. By the end of the novel he can sense the Zone’s design, though he will continue to bumble, missing cues and bypassing fated meetings that are central to the Zone’s endgame.
Rabbits failed because, in the terminology of James Carse, it thinks it’s an infinite game when in reality it’s a finite game. To pull from Carse’s text directly: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities – from sports to politics to wars – in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game – there is only one – includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants.” A game that hides in plain sight, only visible where reality decoheres, would, on the surface, look to be infinite; but if its players are only ever competing for dominance or survival it is by definition finite. Meanwhile, the Zone exists to perpetuate its own culture, which recontextualizes preconceived notions of power, nationhood and kinship. Though the Zone has a concrete goal (which I will not spoil here), its exists as an eternal present where play is not undertaken for duty or survival but is actively manifested as a living drama. The Zone wills itself into existence, with its residents acting as archetypal, almost planetary forces within it. The Zone exists in service of itself, underlying all the finite games of the “real world” such as war, money, life, death.
We live in the era of the ARG: QAnon, covid denial, even Pokemon Go all toy with the idea that there is a reality within and yet distinct from our own, in which hidden competitions play out. The gamification of information is near-perpetual. It’s up to us to determine whom the game serves, and whether our participation in these Zones is compulsory (finite) or chosen (infinite). The borders are never as clear as we think.