The first thing you notice when you reach the Black Rock Desert is the brilliant white expanse of playa stretching as far as the eye can see. This region is all that remains of a long-evaporated pleistocene lakebed. The terrain is desolate — an arid sea of cracked earth coated with an incredibly fine, highly alkaline dust. There are no plants, no animals, and no insects.
Massive dust storms rip through the area with no warning, bringing winds as high as 70 mph and decimating anything not anchored down with rebar. Temperatures are extreme — during the day, the dry heat can spike well over 110 degrees, and can plummet to nearly freezing at night.
It’s the perfect place to celebrate Burning Man.
Last week, this seeming hell-on-earth was a vacation destination for me and the 55,000+ other people who congregated to form Black Rock City — a make-shift city that becomes Nevada’s ninth largest urban center for the one week it exists every year. It’s an impromptu civilization with few rules, minimal police presence, and essentially no currency. There’s an emphasis on freedom and self-expression, but in this harshest of environments, basic survival needs are an ever-present reality.
It was the apocalypse. Minus the zombies.
I’m not talking about the level of danger, of course. (Though there is that — people die at the event every year.) I did draw some interesting, practical lessons about desert survival from the trip, but there was something else more inspirational: Amidst all of the rows of tents and shacks and RVs and big, organized camps, amongst all of the people eager to trade or share their own unique talents and goods, I saw the echoes of something we’ve talked about here at the Lab. Not the immediate, destructive moment of the apocalypse. Not the intensely chaotic period that would follow. The aftermath. The attempt to come together and be a society again.
One of the most striking things about Burning Man is that the culture of this post-apocalyptic city isn’t just a copy of our society. Fundamentally, a lot of things change.
First, time loses meaning. It can be hard to imagine a day that isn’t ruled by the clock in our wired and go-go-go modern world, but out there it’s very different. Unless you happened to bring a watch or a clock with you, you quickly have no concrete idea of the time. It’s even easy to lose track of what day it is. In fact, most people at Burning Man choose to completely disconnect and intentionally stop keeping track of time.
Day and night become irrelevant because there’s always something to do. You end up sleeping when you don’t have the energy to go on, and you wake up when your body decides it’s rested enough. This is incredibly freeing during the event, but it makes acclimating back into the real world really difficult. (Emily, who also attended, still seems a little spacey if you ask me. ;))
Second, your sense of direction and spatial awareness changes dramatically. Away from the usual landmarks of home (and the crutch of GPS or online maps), getting lost becomes an everyday event. While all of the streets in the massive semi-circular city are named or numbered, it can be really hard to figure out where you are. As the week goes on, street signs are stolen or swapped by pranksters, the huge fixtures like the Man are burned, and new art installations pop up every day.
Aside from the group of DPW volunteers that head out to the desert early to set up the core of the city, there’s no Department of Transportation maintaining order and clarity. Throw in a dust storm or the nighttime darkness of a city with a limited electrical power grid, and navigation becomes a real challenge. Even with all the fires and illuminated art installations, you’d better have a headlamp or flashlight if you want to get around.
Third, you completely re-evaluate what does and doesn’t have value. At Burning Man, real-world currency is largely useless… much like it would be after a societal collapse. Would you want to trade the food you need to survive for some green paper? I sure wouldn’t. There’s a lot of fun bartering that goes on at Burning Man, but — unlike a real apocalyptic situation — there’s also a tremendous amount of people that share what they have with no expectation of reciprocation. Home brewers set up make-shift bars to share their beer and absinthe. People spend the mornings cooking up pounds bacon for passer-bys. Carts are set up to kick out sno-cones in the peak of the afternoon heat. Professional masseuses bring their massage chairs out to work on sore bodies.
Little things that would be easy to take for granted now assume an immense, life-saving value in a place like that. A duct tape patch I used to seal a hole in my air mattress saved me from a week of sleeping on the ground. I learned that vinegar is the best way to combat the damage done to your skin by the extremely alkaline playa dust that covers everything. A chance to bathe is a godsend. Imagine the trade value — in a land with no running water — of a camp with a functioning shower. (Also worth considering in a world without indoor plumbing: a certain highly popular device handed out every year by the crew over at Pee Funnel Camp.)
Finally, without the same safeguards we have in everyday society, you really get to see the ways you can and can’t trust other people. Don’t get me wrong. Burning Man is a wonderful, fun, and (mostly) safe environment. It’s an arts festival. There were no roving bands of gun-toting marauders slaughtering innocents and setting camps on fire. There were no starving masses of refugees desperate for food we could scarcely spare. But even so, the generous spirit of sharing you see with most burners isn’t embraced by everyone. Throughout the week, I heard accounts of tents and camps in the outer parts of the city getting raided by thieves when their owners were out at night. Most people lock their bikes to keep them from getting stolen. Ultimately, it all comes down to human nature. The same behaviors and emotions that people carry with them every day exist on the playa, whether they manifest as love, hate, generosity, greed, hope, despair, or something else.
So often, when you play a game set in a dramatic situation, a lot of the characters in the world don’t seem to recognize the situation. You’re trying to save the world from certain doom. They’re looking to charge you as much as they can for the next weapon upgrade. In Class3, we’re trying to do something different. We want everything, from the look-and-feel of the world, to the behaviors and motivations of the NPCs, to reflect the situation you’re in. Last week I had a unique chance to get a first-hand look at the psychology of a society without rules. It was a best case scenario, but I still had an eye-opening look at how it affected me and the people around me, both for good and ill.
Now all we have to do is add the zombies.
P.S. As I mentioned, some of the actual survival lessons were pretty interesting. Right before we set out, I’d checked my list, making sure that I had everything that people recommended for the week-long excursion, but as I was loading our camp’s truck for the trek, my first thought was “Are two coolers and a few boxes of food really going to be enough to feed more than a dozen people for an entire week?” It seemed like a stretch from what I was used to back in Seattle, but the answer, I discovered, was absolutely. By the end of the burn, we still had half of our dry goods left and a third of our cooler items left. Part of this was due to our eating habits changing in the desert — on the playa, you wind up eating when you’re hungry instead of adhering to regular meals. I found that I was generally too busy (or hot) to want to do much more than snack.
When we actually did cook, it became apparent that dried foods like pasta, rice, and beans really go a long way — they’re filling, they can be stored for months without spoiling, they don’t need to stay cold, and they generally don’t take a lot of prep to make. If an outbreak happened tomorrow, make sure you stockpile this stuff — it’ll be worth more than gold.