One of the games I scooped up in the Steam Summer Sale was “Plague,. Inc.” I played a version of this on Newgrounds many years ago, and I only found out that there was a tabletop version of it a few months ago when it I found it played on Wil Wheaton’s “Tabletop.” The mechanic of the game is the creation of a disease and management of its evolution, symptoms, and resistances as it spreads and infects the human population of Earth. The goal is to infect and kill everyone in the world, while avoiding being cured and eradicated. At the start of the game, you can name your disease. Because games are meant to be fun, I choose something immature and amusing: I called the disease “Buttcheese.” I don’t know what it meant, but I knew that I didn’t want to know.
Over the course of about 3 years, Buttcheese infected and killed every human on Earth. One problem was that it went almost 2 years before getting noticed, by which point it was spreading within every country. The fun part about a game like this is that when presented with bare facts and data, you are free to craft your own story to connect the data. As I watched humanity succumb to Buttcheese, I wondered: How did it all come to this? How did so many tens of millions get infected without any report, without any notice?
I created a story to explain it. You see, whatever Buttcheese is, it’s embarrassing and unpleasant. It’s taboo and shameful, and no one wants to talk about it. Even if you have it, and everyone around you has it, you just don’t talk about it. You just live with it, and don’t think about it or talk about it. Especially, you wouldn’t admit it to a doctor. People don’t like to feel awkward, uncomfortable, or ashamed. So, in order to avoid shame, millions of people remained silent about the subject of their ailment. Buttcheese went unnoticed for years. Then it killed everyone.
What did more to destroy humanity: The pulmonary edema that evolved as a symptom of the disease, or the shameful stigma that prevented any kind of honest discussion about the disease before it was life-threatening?
The feeling of shame goes deep in humans. We think of those without a capacity for feeling it as severely ill and dangerous (“sociopaths”). Shame is a key component of developing and enforcing social norms that hold communities together. Inasmuch as Lessig is right to posit “norms” as a type of law, shame is a sort of internal officer of the law.
In the 21st century, many of us are interested in breaking free of shame. We want to feel free from the oppression of societal norms that we think are unfair. Maybe there was some kernel of this in the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s and 70s, though it was articulated a little differently. Brene Brown has done some great research on the relationship between vulnerability and shame. One of her findings was that although shame often caused disconnection from others, vulnerability was necessary to forging meaningful connections with others.
Although shame can feel isolating and oppressive, I think it can be a signal to take action. That the pretend inhabits of my Buttcheese-infested world felt shame is understandable. But their shame led them to be silent and blind about their condition, and they were ultimately destroyed. What if their shame inspired them to take action to cure what ailed them? When we feel shame in our own lives, we usually have a choice as to our reaction: we can withdraw and disconnect, or we can work to identify and resolve the cause. Feeling bad is a sign something is wrong: pain tells us of physical threats, and impels us to remove ourselves from danger. Maybe shame isn’t really so bad if we use it as a tool to seek a cure for our ailments rather than use it as an excuse to not talk about them.