During the decline Thanksgiving Day hours, I sat in front of a computer screen with a full stomach and a long list of work projects spread out on my computer desk.
The gap between what I was accomplishing and what I expected could be explained by three tabs open in my web browser. One showed the Twitter feed of @ Wario64, an account that publishes new versions and offers of video games. The other two were parked on Walmart.com and Target.com. All were dedicated to my participation in a new sport that emerged during the second half of November 2020: the race to “secure the bag”, and buy the elusive Sony PlayStation 5.
The strengths of secure-the-bag can be found everywhere on social media. Here’s how the game plays out: someone gets a hint (how, I don’t know) that a cache of PS5 consoles will drop on a particular retailer’s website, at some point; Then what must be tens of thousands of buyers flock to this site ahead of time, fingers ready on their browser’s refresh buttons and their eyes riveted on “ADD TO CART”. But trying to buy the console is only half the fun: the rest comes from the conversation and catharsis that are part of the sport, players’ anecdotes about their (very) rare successes, and frequent near misses. Some say they went all the way to the point of entering their payment information – only to get nothing. Surprisingly, this sport is not based on schadenfreude but on empathy. In a year marked by severed social ties, with creeping depression and financial anxiety, we root each other.
In many ways, secure-the-bag looks like another holiday shopping craze. Like the mad sprint to get a Tickle me elmo doll in 1996, or the riots Cabbage Patch Kids in 1983, he transformed the consumer’s passion into a spectacle, then vice versa. But the race to land a PS5 – and the rush you feel watching it unfold – is also different. It’s the 2020 version of the same fad, uploaded and banned from social gatherings. Previous iterations of the shopping craze have produced pictures of people bullying, or even fight, inside toy stores. In the quest to secure the PlayStation 5, crowding occurs virtually – and instead of breathing each other’s air and fighting in space, we are compassionate.
Consumer demand itself looks different in this context. Lockdowns linked to Covid-19 have increased the desire for certain things that can occupy our energy or attention when in-person interactions have been limited, such as Bicyclespersonal training equipment, and video games. The shopping experience has also adapted to our isolation. Instead of lines stretched across several blocks, we have shoppers huddled in front of their computers with their browsers open, clicking frantically and refreshing endlessly. Buy games from to become a kind of game. A sin Call of Duty or Dark souls, victory depends on how quickly your trigger finger (that of the refresh button) and your persistence in the face of many failures.
The unfolding drama introduces a new variety of villains. In the craze for older analog consumers, we’d be up against our peers: the most aggressive super fans or the most aggressive parents. In the 2020 render, all human buyers feel united in resisting a robot threat – a secret army of bot scalping algorithms that were designed to buy units every millisecond of every day, in all places where the PlayStation 5 might at some point be available. (Then the units are sold at significantly inflated prices.) In that sense, we’re all on the same team, sharing notes inside the clubhouse. A scarcity of toys used to turn people on on top of each other; in 2020, it brings us together. How can we outperform a machine?
The Us vs. Robots Spirit provides respite from a real world full of growing ethnic conflict and political polarization. This year has brought a lot of footage of people lining up, but not for dolls or game consoles. In 2020 we saw crowds of people forming in pursuit of food, to get a Covid-19 test, or even in an effort to preserve democracy. Meanwhile, robot scalpers, or something like them, were responsible for shortages of rubbing alcohol and Lysol during the first months of the pandemic. In this context, as if to ‘secure the bag’, they have helped to maintain a cycle of insufficiency: by exacerbating shortages, they have made people more willing to buy needed or wanted products at inflated prices, which has still incited to scalping.
The quest to secure the PS5 bag may be a fitting, if peculiar, bookend in these tumultuous times. We’re all grabbing (or clicking) for some sort of victory, no matter how small, after a year that has left us so defeated.