My heel scrapes across a rock, disturbing the crystalline silence. I freeze. It’s full daylight out, but beneath the arched boughs of some urban foliage there is a deep shade, almost darkness. I involuntarily hold my breath, waiting to see if anyone heard me. No one did. There’s no one around to hear. Letting out the breath, I slowly move deeper into the bushes. I’m stalking prey that isn’t there, lost in a world inside my head. I’m seven, and successfully ‘hunting’ the wild creatures that stalk the wooded lot behind my grandparent’s house. Dangerous urban predators with the wiles to stay alive in a small stand trees still thriving in the middle of a Chicago suburb.
Two decades later, and I return to that wooded glade. I’m a rogue with a pair of enchanted daggers moving through the steamy underbrush in Stranglethorn Vale. I’m working with a group of Horde players in this PvP-heavy World of Warcraft zone to drive off rampaging Alliance player-killers, coordinating a strike to allow the lower-levels the ‘luxury’ of leveling unmolested. The Alliance group has paused to cheer over another effortless kill, and we’re closing in. I’m stealthed, silently hoping that the high level characters won’t notice me as I inch closer … closer …
Azeroth’s southernmost point and suburban Chicago may seem a long way away from each other, but in my mind they’re now forever linked. For me that suburban copse will forever be one with the dangerous and misty jungles of the Eastern Kingdoms. One place seamlessly overlaid on the other, watercolor paints blending on a canvas. I’ve found this happens frequently when I walk a lot of virtual worlds, the dangers of existing in two places at once inherent in every memory. Like forever associating a song with a temperamental high school breakup or a scent with homey family gatherings, I’ve found that places can overlap in my mind. Most of the time these memories tend to be pretty dull. I was standing in the exhibition hall at Gen Con the first time I caught a glimpse of Wrath of the Lich King's Howling Fjord, for example.
In other cases, though, the juxtaposition of the tone of a locale and state of mind can open up portals between not only places in time but also between the real world and a virtual reality. By linking places off- and online in this way, I’ve found that my experiences in both are more vivid. The digital realms are made weightier by their physical reflections, while offline experiences in mirrored areas seem more vivid and colorful. I walk down streets half-expected to see an orc shouldering his way through the crowd.
Reading that back, that sounds a bit daffy and possibly maladjusted, but that’s the way I think now. Gaming - immersive gaming - as my hobby of choice has colored my perception of reality the same way it would for any hard-core enthusiast. My father-in-law gets misty-eyed talking about ballparks he’s been to, and I had a friend in college that would mark her journeys along interstate highways by knitting her way through new projects. For me, the images behind my eyes are made of pixels instead of fastballs and strung-out yarn.
Games like Fallout 3 take that immersion and push it beyond the breaking point. When fantasy intrudes on the physicality of real spaces (as witnessed in the DC Metro ads), it can be jarring. DC’s metro authority got a lot of complaints about those ads, and on some level that’s understandable. Mentally picturing an office building as an ash-scarred wreck is only a sometimes-thought for most commuters (usually Mondays). What I find most interesting about that game’s grasp at our realm is how annoyed people were that they got parts of DC ‘wrong’. Moving a street or shortening a block for the sake of gameplay doesn’t enter into it, apparently – people are protective of their spaces and want to see them treated well. Even if they *are* destroyed in a post-nuclear wasteland.
Of course, I'm just ahead of the curve. If we believe the silicon valley futurists, everyone will be looking at the world through pixel-colored glasses someday. An augmented reality which blends what now burns on PC monitors with physical spaces. Moving from the memory of childhood games to overlaid fantasy environments seems like a tenuously small step from where I sit. As a species, we’re already deeply mired in the version of reality we imprint on the inside of our mind. We interact every day with mental analogues of people, places, and concepts without really coming into contact with the real article.
Someday we’ll simply take the next step, and the jungles of Stranglethorn will be located right outside your bedroom window.