Future Tense

The Blockbuster Video Game With a Hidden Lesson for Tech Policy

A person in a suit wearing a large backpack stands on the ground in front of a giant mechanical structure.
Sony Interactive Entertainment/Kojima Productions

Last fall, around the same time as a historic amount of funding for expanding broadband access across the country passed into law, a friend introduced me to a video game called Death Stranding. Within the first few minutes, I realized that while the game was maybe not for me as a gamer. It felt a little too immersive, and I didn’t like the huge monsters and assassin types floating around everywhere. But it appealed to me in my professional role advocating for universal access to telecommunications service. Though Death Stranding was released before COVID-19, the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns created an unavoidable parallel between real life and the world of the game that revealed in both cases, the essential nature of networked communications. The game’s designer has explicitly reiterated the importance of connection as one of the game’s main themes. On Wednesday, a director’s cut version of Death Stranding will be released for Windows, right as the government plans how to disburse the massive new infusion of funding for broadband from last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Those twin events make it the perfect moment to reflect on the game and how it demonstrates the importance of getting people connected.

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Without giving too much away, Death Stranding involves you (as portrayed by Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus) delivering packages as a porter across what was the United States of America prior to a curious kind of apocalypse that has made being outside extremely dangerous. One day, after almost dying while delivering a package, you wake up in a bunker being tended to by acclaimed film director Guillermo del Toro. A character named Die-Hardman then takes you to your estranged adoptive mother (the current president of the country) and sister, who ask you to travel from knot to knot, or city to city, with a special device called a Q-pid that will connect the dispersed communities across the land into the “chiral network.”

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In both Death Stranding and the past two years of our own reality, going outside and meeting with other people face to face has been a potentially life-threatening activity, making access to networked communications critical. While vaccines have relieved some of the lockdown measures enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, internet access has remained a crucial tool for people to continue working, attend school, access federal benefits, and reach their doctor, among other essential parts of life, while distanced from others. Death Stranding plays up the importance of getting connected even more. Basic elements like bridges and roads have been ravaged by the apocalypse, leaving people completely isolated from one another until the player connects each community terminal to the chiral network. Once connected, communities can exchange massive amounts of data, including blueprints for important tools and devices that the player can use in his journey. A chiral connection also allows people to make supplies, equipment, even shelters, generators, and bridges.

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The player’s arduous journey through unconnected territory dramatizes the real-life problems people without access to high-speed, quality internet face today. In the extreme terrain of Death Stranding, where you are constantly considering how to set packages on your body to be able to climb a rocky outcropping or ford a river, while also considering how to stay out of the way of toxic rainfall, monsters and militant separatists, these tools and shelters are extremely important to surviving. New areas not yet connected are bereft of these network benefits and therefore much harder to traverse, making it all the more urgent to reach the next terminal and connect it.

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The material benefits of getting connected are also true of quality broadband access in real life. For instance, the buildout of a high-speed network in a small town in North Carolina connected residents to remote working opportunities and better public safety, though the same residents were denied access when telecom lobbyists stepped in to fight against the new, municipally run network. Conversely, a lack of access to networks reinforces existing inequities to resources and opportunities. For instance, Black and Brown communities are less likely to have home internet access even after accounting for income disparities, and the digital divide is especially problematic for those living on Tribal lands, where only 49 percent of residents have fixed home internet service. Lack of access to basic telecommunications including mobile service in Tribal lands like the Navajo Nation made it necessary for contact tracers to drive hours to do dangerous house visits during the pandemic. These populations already suffer from marginalization and systemic racial discrimination in other sectors including credit scoring, housing practices, and network deployment that further exacerbates the impact of unequal access to broadband.

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In real life, of course, getting people connected to networked communications is much different from the player’s journey in Death Stranding. Though you interact with some nonplayable characters in the game and occasionally receive aid from them or players in-network, this doesn’t compare to the level of coordination that has to happen between multiple federal agencies and state and local governments in disbursing the $65 billion made available in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for closing the digital divide.

Additionally, some crucial real-world barriers to affordable high speed internet access simply don’t exist in Death Stranding. For one, the game only has one network provided and operated by the federal government, with no other infrastructure from other entities available, making the task of getting the network up and running truly a single player’s mission and burden. Such a network can prioritize the public interest rather than profits. We see this outside the game with municipally run networks today.

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But those serve only a small number of the Americans. For the rest of us, the U.S. broadband marketplace is dominated by just a couple of huge private companies. They face little competition, wield great power over service conditions, and lobby against municipally or community-run networks. This can leave customers paying more for less, as well as a lack of accurate data on how much these companies charge for service, and where it’s even available. There’s also the huge realistic issue of money: There’s little in Death Stranding about financial obstacles or existing inequities in resources, whereas in real life, individuals and in particular those who are part of communities already marginalized have a harder time getting online. Lack of affordability is a significant barrier to access and adoption of broadband, further compounding existing inequalities.

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Nevertheless, there are some key advantages about our connectivity when compared with the situation in Death Stranding. For one, our “knots” or cities have infrastructure in place to potentially form and operate their own networks, often to great success. These municipal and community-driven networks can be supported by removing state laws that prevent cities and localities from creating their own networks. Additionally, recent legislation now mandates that providers provide broadband nutrition labels that make it easy for consumers to understand service conditions like price and speed. It also helps that there are no stranded souls or huge whales roaming around outside that will destroy you upon contact.

“The rest of America is waiting,” Amelie says after the player reconnects the first terminal to the network, “waiting for you to take the first step and connect them to the chiral network. I know you can reach them. Make us whole again.” Die-Hardman’s own lines about how the player’s actions will “rebuild our country” are the same ones our current, real-life president has used to speak about the role of improved access to affordable, high speed internet in rebuilding America.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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