A Reminder of Place


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.


My wife and I already do this with books. When we're in New Orleans she talks about places Lestat has visited and the street Louis lived on. When we're in Chicago I talk about the dinosaur on display that Dresden rode and where the docks are that they got into a fight with the Denarians. I imagine as soon as I play more games that have real world setting I'll start doing the same. If I ever make it up to DC I can just imagine standing on the capital steps and telling my wife about the big firefight I had there with the Super Mutants. Frankly, I enjoy the blurring of reality with my fiction of choice.

Someday we’ll simply take the next step, and the jungles of Stranglethorn will be located right outside your bedroom window.

As long as Nessingwary doesn't come with them.

The movement of the game space into the real is one of the reasons I find ARGs so compelling. One of the most memorable moments of the Year Zero ARG was reading an email from a desperate, nearly broken mother begging to see her child, only to realize she literally "lived" just down the road from me. It brings a whole new presence to the game to bring it into the real world.

Why oh why didn't I take the BLUE pill?
I must twit you about this.

My senior year of college I was in the wind ensemble, and we were touring in New York City. Of course, we went to see the Statue of Liberty, and we caught a ferry at Battery Park. I had the worst nagging sensation of my life that I'd been there. It was driving me crazy because I knew for a fact that I had never been to NYC. Then I realized that Battery Park is a major location in the first Deus Ex. It was a very surreal moment, and I've never experienced anything quite like it since.

Who cares about that? What happened to the Alliance group you were stalking?

Similar to Lex Cayman's story, I was Pier at 41, looking out at Alcatraz and I commented that they made it look just like Tony Hawk 4. Bill Harris printed this on Gone Gold as part of Signs You Game Too Much (or something like that). It got picked up and printed in the 2005 Gamer's Almanac.

I once looked at my watch to check my light meter after playing Thief 3.

Re: Kahama's comment.

Oh dear, if you bring books/movies/tabletop RPGs into things then you're just doomed. I lived in the Pacific Northwest for a while and occasionally I'd make trips up to Seattle *just* to walk around and mentally figure out where stuff from Shadowrun would be.

"Okay if the Space Needle is there, then the Aztechnology pyramid has to be there and the Renraku arcology has to be *there* ..."

And I cannot begin to list all the times i have mentally imposed A H.U.D. in my whindshield while driving in LA traffic most Recently in a Ryder truck

Robert Douthitt wrote:

And I cannot begin to list all the times i have mentally imposed A H.U.D. in my whindshield while driving in LA traffic

What was the metric? Yards an hour? Or Meters/hour?

I believe I do the same thing. Sometimes when I walk into public places I will mentally choreograph an elaborate fight scene with the strangers there. Sometimes I will imagine the countryside around my town like it was Hyrule Field. I remember even back when I was a little kid on long car rides I would imagine myself as an extreme snowboarding being towed along by the car and using the snow filled ditches as half pipes. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination.

A few years back, I happened to find myself in Sydney for the day (long story, don't ask). I wandered around the touristy places, and the timbre of the deja-vu was weird as all get-out. Why? Because, despite never having visited the city, I'd driven around it for hours in Metropolis Street Racer and/or Project Gotham. I was recognising road junctions that had their racing lines burned into my brains over thousands of Kudos-seeking repetitions.

On the same mad trip, I also had the delight of a day in Tokyo. Suffice to say that the deja-vu was even stronger. Shinjuku bus station IS Jet Set Radio.

I coined a new phrase to describe that weird feeling of visiting real places that you've experienced through games: deja-jouer

After my first experience with Tony Hawk I saw grind spots and trick lines EVERYWHERE.

You should read "Halting State" by charles stross. It's a novel set in the future where everyone has overlaid reality glasses thingys, and where the plot is about the police investigating a massive theft... inside an MMO.

On another note, I'm sure that if I ever stand on the steps of the capitol building, I'll remember the time I took out four talon company mercs with a single stealthily lobbed nuka cola grenade.

A number of years ago, the Metropolitan Museum in NYC ignited a sense of deja-jouer. Walking into the main entrance I instinctively considered the best places for cover should terrorists be shooting from this doorway or that balcony, thank you Rogue Spear.