Late on my first day out of the fallout shelter, I wander into Flatwoods, West Virginia. I can hear weapons fire in the distance, and footsteps, both of which make me wary, but the message that was left for me outside the fallout shelter said to head here to get help, and I sure could use some help. I’ve already died once, and although I’ve found a gun, I am a lousy shot. I crouch low, trying to stay hidden, and crab-walk through the rubble around the main street. The last time I was here, it was to buy one-dollar seconds at the Fiestaware outlet and old-fashioned candies at the faux-Amish bulk foods store on the outskirts of town. Before they built the outlet mall, the only reason people stopped was to gas up on their way to somewhere else; it’s always been that sort of town. Now, the mall is gone, as are most of the gas stations and all of the people. This Flatwoods is populated only by other survivors, malfunctioning robots, and zombie-esque creatures we call “the Scorched.”
• • •
I’m in Bethesda Game Studio’s Fallout 76, a survival game that marks the venerable franchise’s first move into multiplayer, online world-building. The year is 2102, and it’s twenty-five years after a devastating nuclear war. I’ve just been let out of Vault 76, a fallout shelter meant to house the best and the brightest, situated in rural West Virginia. In theory, it’s our job as players to rebuild the world, but we don’t have enough control over the narrative to do that. We can’t form governments or undertake large-scale environmental projects, and nothing we do in the game impacts the overall story arc. Instead of rebuilding, our characters kill the monsters, loot their bodies, build better weapons, then kill the monsters again.
This really isn’t my sort of game; I love computer games, but I usually play the ones called massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) with elves and magic and simple targeting systems so that you don’t actually have to be good at them unless you want to take on the biggest of the bads. It’s the story that draws the player through such games; the best of them are akin to interactive novels full of rich narrative and potential for character development. Fallout 76 is fundamentally a first-person shooter game, and it requires skills and a certain bloodlust that I lack. There isn’t, at least at launch, much of a narrative. Instead, it’s what’s called a sandbox game, meaning that the player can go anywhere and do anything, and there is no narrative thread that must be followed. It’s the kind of game players want to be good at instead of the kind of game they want to immerse themselves in. I will never be good at it. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to hit anything with my shotgun, though in real life I used to be a passable skeet shooter. Slashing at things with my machete seems to work all right, but it’s mostly blind flailing, and if it were possible, I’d probably hack myself to death before I killed my prey.
I’m playing because I love this place. I grew up here and come back often. When my life goes to ground, as it has a few times, I return to West Virginia to get back on my feet. It’s home. The opportunity to go back there—to dip in and out of nostalgia any time I like—is just too lovely to pass up.
In this future Flatwoods, as in reality, the houses look akin to the house I lived in for a while in Morgantown, which the realtor called “a vernacular farmhouse with Victorian pretensions.” Clapboard exteriors with peeling white or pastel paint, concrete steps leading up to sagging porches, pathways to the back doors because in Appalachia, friends and family come in through the back and only the law and the mailman come to the front. I love that the game developers got this detail right.
There is a trailer or two, a diner, a gas station, and an old church repurposed as an infirmary and trading post, where I find the Overseer’s next note to me and directions to head to Morgantown. This is a West Virginia whose aesthetic is frozen in the era of mid-century modern furniture and true rurality, before Walmart and Dollar General rebuilt every kind of American poverty out of extruded plastic. I am wearing a faded blue dress that’s more The Waltons than The Jetsons. Other players clump around in heavy robotic armor or wear discarded amusement park uniforms. The yards are littered with the detritus of life before the war: dirty ashtrays, empty beer bottles, pipe wrenches, and farming tools. Some of the other leavings are heartbreaking. I find teddy bears and abandoned wheelchairs, empty cribs and notes about running out on errands from which the note writers never returned. I pick up abandoned chessboards, burnt magazines, and cans of dog food. There are bodies everywhere. I pick up bones and put them in my rucksack. Everything is scarce, and so nothing useful can be allowed to molder into nothingness. This, too, feels very Appalachian to me.
I pick up as much as I can carry, to scrap later and turn into guns, bullets, and armor that I will wear under my dress. I sell the few valuables to the robot who mans the trading station. He says the Overseer—and I’m not yet certain who, really, that is—has told him to expect more humans and that it’s good to see us. I’m reminded of the Tin Man, standing alone in a patch of woods until Dorothy happens by. The melancholia this inspires in me feels genuine.
I build myself a small camp on a nearby hill, set up a workshop to repair my kit and a kitchen to brew teas and roast wild game. I’m not from the sort of West Virginia family that goes deer hunting, but it’s clear that if I’m going to survive, I’m going to have to hunt for my own food and protect myself from the Scorched, so I spend the first several days stalking mutated steers and two-headed deer called radstags and teaching myself the game’s mechanics: how to shoot, how to travel, how to build. There are possums, but I don’t kill them because I’ve had possum once and don’t want even to pretend to eat it again. I cook up venison steaks and vegetable stews at my camp, and pass the food out to newcomers because I make a lot more than I can carry and the game forces players to eat and stay hydrated. Except for the interactions with other players, it’s the boring part of the game.
I also start to find survivor stories: brief narrated audio clips about the people whose camps and houses I’m plundering. I’ve been worried about this. West Virginia doesn’t usually fare well when it’s portrayed in pop culture, and I’m concerned that tropes about hillbillies will overwrite the joy of exploring the landscape. But these stories aren’t that; they are lovely and varied and poignant. There is the story of the reverend who loses his faith, then finds it again, during the aftermath of the bombs. Of the junkie who steals food from this reverend and sets up camp across the river. Of the programmer for the company that built the vault, who falls in love amidst all the destruction. (Later, I will come to suspect that the young programmer has fallen in love with the junkie, as I begin to see the subtle ways their stories intertwine.) And on and on—a rich and varied tapestry of people, more Spoon River Anthology than The Hills Have Eyes.
There are parts of the game I find stressful instead of engrossing. I hate the need to keep up my guard, to kill things that the game developers insist are no longer human but which seem pretty human to me—what with their talking and shooting and having human-shaped bodies—though I understand the shooting is the reason most of the players are here. While I’m puttering around gathering soot flowers and bloodleaf plants to make healing salves, more serious players are racing around in heavy battle armor, strafing the landscape with machine gun fire, and occasionally setting off their own nuclear bombs.
The first time I venture toward Morgantown, I run into two heavily armored combatants who show up on my screen as Cocktimus Prime and Screaming Semen. They shoot at me once, but after I assure them I’m just passing through and mean them no harm, they put down their guns.
There are two ways to communicate in the game: via a few built-in emotes such as wave or trade, or by speaking into the game world through a microphone. I prefer the latter, which means that when I tell Cocktimus and Screaming, whom I cannot help but imagine are teenage boys, that I mean them no harm, they hear me as I am. I put a little extra “mom voice” into it and say, “But really? Those are the names you’ve chosen for yourselves?” and they fast-travel away.
One might imagine that I’m the interloper here, that middle-aged ladies are rare in these virtual worlds, but that’s not true. According to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry group that tracks trends in video gaming, adult women made up a substantially larger portion of the 2018 gaming population (33 percent) than boys under eighteen (17 percent), and the average woman who played video games that year was thirty-six years old. In fact, the next person I meet is a woman who plays with her husband, and although I don’t know her age, she is clearly more adult than not. She offers me things that would make the game easier: a better gun, some new armor, some grenades. I say thank you but no; I like that it’s slow going.
• • •
Asheron’s Call was one of the first of this sort of game, and the first I played. When it launched in 1999, I was in my mid-thirties, living in a studio apartment in Manhattan and working sixty- to seventy-hour weeks at an advertising agency as an interactive marketing specialist. I’d aged out of going to clubs on weeknights, and most of the people I knew commuted out of the city, and back to families, at the end of the workday. I was dating someone, but only in a dinner-on-Friday-nights kind of way. I was bored and lonely during the week.
It seems silly now, but there was something wondrous about the game on the day it launched. One minute, I was sitting at my desk in a living room roughly the size of a walk-in closet, and the next, I was in a wooded area surrounded by confused mages and warriors, all milling about and asking one another how to do the simplest thing, such as pick up a stick or don a shirt. This sort of game was new enough that most of the people who’d signed in had never been in a multiplayer game environment before, and the sort of posturing that would later become a hallmark of online gaming was entirely absent. We were, to borrow from the language that would develop as shared gaming become more popular, all n00bs.
The story that drove the game was complex, dynamic, and entirely beside the point—except for the way it forced interaction with other players. Early on, I met a crusty old war mage named Lerrick, and we’d sit in the taverns that dotted the landscape and argue about meta-gaming issues. Were we liberators or colonizers in this world? Was it ethical that we were sometimes called on to kill the children of our enemies? We’d hash all this out over pretend tankards of ale while digital battles raged outside. Later, I met a young warrior who gifted me with powerful armor and weapons, and we would venture into monster dens and ancient citadels together. It was courtship, of a sort, and although he told me his name, I don’t know if he lied. I certainly did. I think I told him my name was Cathy, but it might have been Cindy or Kate. I don’t remember now.
The game ran on until 2017, though I’d stopped playing within six months and never played often or well enough to have a high-level character. After a time, the underlying processes of games become too apparent to me. I can see the data modeling behind the quests to kill six rats, fetch ten of some particular herb, travel to a certain place to speak to a specific person. And when that happens, it stops being compelling, the illusion falls away, and it might be years before I pick up a new game out of curiosity about how the medium has evolved.
• • •
The interesting part of Fallout 76 is getting to explore recreations of spaces I know intimately. My hometown isn’t in the game, but the amusement park that hosted every Safety Patrol and Campfire Girl outing of my childhood is. There are exact replicas of an old wooden roller coaster that never looked any safer in real life than it does in the game and the bumper cars that I rode on one of my first dates. A little to the north is the hot dog restaurant that I visit with my family on trips home; to the west, an abandoned mountain top removal site that has played a significant and complicated role in my family’s history. In Morgantown, I can stand in the very classroom where I took a class from Kevin Oderman on the poetry of H.D., and I can sit in the bar where my first husband and I signed our divorce papers over bottles of beer. The tension between the nostalgic setting and the horrors of the post-apocalyptic setting is oddly pleasant. Maybe it’s because the Appalachia of my childhood was always already half-ruined; the empty department stores and torn-up roads don’t seem unusual.
But here, in this simulacrum, the game offers a chance to recreate West Virginia as more u- than dys-topia. That’s what all of these games offer: the illusion of a world in which we, as the players, have the ability to fix what’s wrong. As gamer and games journalist Keith Stuart writes for the Guardian, “Games are about shared experiences, rendered extraordinarily powerful by interaction and ownership.” There are monsters to battle, rights to wrong, survivors to aid, and, so, amid the rubble is also the promise of better days. There may be little that I, as an individual, can do to stop climate change or mass shootings in the real world, but in a game world, I am powerful and can right most of the wrongs. After a few weeks of play, I have armor that makes me nearly invulnerable and weapons strong enough that I can kill waves of mutants in minutes. They’ve quickly become a nuisance rather than a threat, and once I can move freely through the world, I’m able to start imagining better ways for it to be. This is a lesson in privilege, resources, and safety.
I use the tools of Appalachian activism, borrowing from back-to-the-land and arts organizations like Appalshop: people want to create. I build a farmer’s market on the outskirts of Flatwoods, where I host twice-weekly poetry readings, tall-tale-telling contests, and open mic comedy. At first, I imagine nobody will come, but there is a steady stream of people, and then that steady stream turns into a group of regulars. They donate all the game’s best items—the most powerful weapons, the best armor, the rarest ingredients for medicines and drugs—for me to offer as prizes, but in truth, they’re the only ones who come and they don’t need these things, so the items languish in my inventory until they become obsolete as the game developers release more powerful items into the world. After a while, everyone still gathers, but the poetry readings and tall-tale-telling contests have fewer and fewer participants. They’ve come for the camaraderie, but that isn’t enough to hold them, so I begin to plan outings.
I use what I know of West Virginian history to give tours of landmarks in the game. The tours start with the old Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, a place whose long and horrific history I know well. Walking through the virtual hallways, I tell a group of ten about the history of lobotomies, labor exploitation, torture, and profiteering that marked not just this place but the entire asylum movement. They ask respectful questions. They are appropriately horrified and moved. Unlike the actual visitors on the last tour I attended in the real world, they don’t suggest that things were better then or that surely it was never as bad as all that.
Soon, I am spending ten to twelve hours a week researching places whose histories I don’t already know: the Krishna temple and the old prison in Moundsville; the nuclear bunker built for Congress in White Sulfur Springs; and the little town of Helvetia, which still clings to the folk traditions of the German and Swedish immigrants who settled it several generations ago. Not all of these tours go well. If I don’t put in enough time researching a place beforehand, I do little more than regurgitate information anyone could find on Wikipedia. When I lapse into personal stories, the other players listen politely, but—surrounded as we are by the threats of mutants and monsters—the stories have little resonance or meaning.
Eventually, I give up the tours and the farmer’s market. They require too much effort and mimic too closely the work I do to prepare to teach class in real life. The game not only stops being fun, but it stops being interesting to me. For a few months, I stop playing altogether.
• • •
Then, in a way that’s not possible in the real world, I sneak back in as an entirely different person, with a new name and a new account. I avoid making friends, or playing with the friends I have already made, and I stay away from the difficult content that requires teams of players. I don’t care about acquiring high-powered items or beating tough challenges. Instead, I walk along the creek beds and railroad tracks in the parts of the game where there are mostly just trees and mountains. It’s a place I go when I need a short break from the work I am doing but don’t have time to go walk in the Tennessee woods near where I live now. If I log in for two hours in any given week, that’s a lot. I’m more likely to spend fifteen minutes every few days, picking flowers and walking the streets of towns I know for moments of nostalgia.
This isn’t the way the game was meant to be played, but maybe what I’m doing is something other than playing the game. The narrative through line is now entirely opaque to me; I don’t bother to keep up with the content updates that move the story along. I avoid the places where the map shows activity and stay away from other players’ camps. When, by accident, I stumble across other people, I simply log out. This, too, is a special kind of joy: to just disappear when one’s solitude is intruded upon.
Soon enough, the day will come when I uninstall the game—probably when the next game that’s new and interesting enough to attract my attention launches and I need the disk space to run it. I will stay in that new world long enough to see its wonders and then be gone again. These virtual worlds can be fabulous places to tourist, but they are not anywhere that someone should try to build a life.