In the Zone: How Gamers Experience The Real Chernobyl

By Nick Rush-Cooper on May 14th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

I am standing in the middle of Pripyat in what was intended to be the site of the 1986 May Day festivities. Now an expanse of cracked concrete, the iconic rusting ferris wheel stands behind me. No one else is in sight, as I’ve been left here alone to get on with some measurements. Looking down at the Geiger counter in my hand I slowly make my way back and forth across the area, taking readings at regular intervals. This is my last research trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the end of six months spent tagging along with tour groups and later helping as a tour guide.

I should be used to this space now, but I feel uneasy. Occasionally I anxiously look up and scan the thick line of trees and shrubs that border this area and break line of sight with the nearby ruined buildings. I try to rationalise my way out of this fear – I tell myself the worst thing that’s likely to happen is the embarrassment of trying to cobble together an explanation in Russian for what I’m doing if Pripyat’s police guard wanders by.

But there’s more to my unease than this. It’s not that I’m alone, it’s that I’ve been alone here before. Only the last time was whilst playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl.

There too I slowly made my way across this space, spare bolt in hand, watching and listening for hidden dangers. More similar still are the second and third Stalker games in which invisible anomalies require the use of an anomaly detector, which draws all your attention to the corner of the screen where the small device helps determine if what otherwise looks benign might actually pose a threat. I had been subconsciously recalling those moments and half expected something to leap out at me from the trees or, simply by moving to the wrong position, to trigger some invisible threat.

It’s not as unreasonable as it sounds. The real Pripyat is a weird place; uncanny in the proper sense of being unhomely. A recognisable urban space made unfamiliar by the blurring of the boundaries of forest and city. Just as in the game, there are invisible dangers here; the radiation levels can vary by tenfold or more over the space of less than a metre (it’s one of the reasons I’m mapping this place).

People travel to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for all sorts of reasons. Many will have seen photos on the internet, watched post-apocalyptic cinema and movies set in the Zone or played Stalker and Call of Duty 4. But I never found the reasons for why people go to the Zone anywhere near as interesting as what they feel, what they do and how they negotiate its ruined, radioactive landscape when they get there.

You don’t travel to the Zone just to see it. The landscape is not just a visual experience, because a visit, even as part of an organised tour, requires you to work your way around and through ruined buildings with collapsed walls and gaping holes in the floor. With tripping hazards everywhere, it’s not just scenery to be photographed but a physical space to be understood and negotiated.

In picking through its abandoned buildings, other visitors also experienced a recollection of gaming memories in Pripyat. As a tour guide, we would take people to the large municipal swimming pool, next to a school. This was one of the last buildings in the city to be abandoned, as the pool was kept operational to provide much needed relaxation for the liquidators, the men working to halt the fire and build the containment structure for the destroyed reactor. It was well recognised from photographs, but during one visit I heard a remark of astonishment from a visitor. I asked him what he had seen and he told me that it wasn’t that he had seen something in particular, but that he had a sudden sense of having been here before.

This space was familiar, he explained, from playing Call of Duty 4. The swimming pool forms part of the Bloc multiplayer map, where it is recreated with great attention to accuracy. He described how he would have run through the door we just came through and then checked corners such as the diving board and the alternate access through a collapsed wall. He then explained the routes through this space to make best use of cover, or how, with a bit of difficulty, you could make your way onto the higher balcony with railings. Very little in the swimming pool room was different, though he noted that in the game all entrances to the swimming pool come through changing rooms and the map does not include the gym we had just passed through.

For real spaces to be used in games the need for good combat scenarios trumps spatial fidelity. In using Pripyat as a location Infinity Ward re-arranged the locations of buildings and landmarks, though they remain recognisable. After the tour, another visitor told me how they were able to piece together these locations; “that’s where my helicopter picked me up and the pool you run through, and in the first apartment building we went into you’ve got to run all the way up there and fight the guys”.

Leisure travel often has strong links to popular media; this might be explicit connections such as Lord of the Rings tours of New Zealand, or even the Stalker festivals, but it’s more often that film and literature form part of the background understanding people have of a place before they visit.

Games are also part of this pre-existing knowledge that people take with them when they travel and potentially offer something more, something different. If you travel and recognise something you have seen in a film, that’s visual recognition. You’re seeing something you have seen before. With games it’s a recognition of experience, not just a visual memory of a three dimensional space, but the sense of being somewhere you have been before. Even in Call of Duty 4, which uses Pripyat just as much as an aesthetic choice with little meaning as many movies have, its shooting gallery still requires the player to think of Pripyat as a space that requires positioning; identifying firing lines and choke points.

It wasn’t until I was actually in the Zone myself that I realised to what extent the games manage to capture the sense of the Pripyat landscape itself as a malevolent, even antagonistic, presence. Of course, guided tours in a hot, sunny summer bear little resemblance to Stalker’s world. But, as an invisible presence known only through little blinking, chattering devices, I never really got used to radiation during my two-dozen trips to the Zone. Without any visual cues to radiation ‘hot spots’ my yellow hand-held Geiger counter was a constant companion, even if it was not the most reliable of friends, boasting an accuracy of ±20% and taking half a minute or more to determine significant changes over short distances. Walking through areas I had not previously visited, with unknown radiation levels, I would have to move cautiously.

In other words, whether I am taking radiation readings or scanning for anomalies, the thought is the same.

I am standing in the middle of Pripyat.

And in the game.

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39 Comments »

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  1. SillyWizard says:

    Hey, neat. I just started playing Shadow of Chernobyl yesterday for the first time. One of my first assignments was to clear an area for you touristy types to be able to come in and poke around safely.

    You’re welcome!

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    heretic says:

    good read, thanks!

  3. Conehead The Barbarian says:

    I love seeing pictures of Chernobyl and the exclusion zone, and was just wondering if you had some more great pictures from your time working there. I’m sure quite a few other people would be interested in seeing them.

    Also I must not forget to say nice article!

    • unmightysten says:

      For those interested in Chernobyl and Pripyat pics, the Chernobyl subreddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/chernobyl/) whilst not the most active in the world, has lots of first hand exploration accounts and links to pictures.

      And I’ve just posted this article there :)

  4. Tusque D'Ivoire says:

    I feel the same about New York. Sure – my girlfriend has actually been there, but I know the place! I played so much GTAIV, seen so many movies and television that show me around the city, that I feel I could find my way around the actual city immediately. Nice article!

    So who’s this new guy?

    • BobbyDylan says:

      Yeah, when I first went, It was almost like returning to an old friend, despite never physically seeing it before.

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      Tom De Roeck says:

      Cooper is the leader of the Planetside2 RPS outfit, and I assume this is a one off thing. Very nice read, though.

      • Tusque D'Ivoire says:

        wow, so that means he’s graduated from the community?! that’s nice to hear and thanks for the reply!

    • The Random One says:

      New York, or Manhattan Island specifically, is strange to me because it’s a space I know very well but only from games. I know an abstraction, but I know it intimately. I have no idea of how weird it’d be to actually go there, but I suspect that not being a driver I’d be spared from ultimate confusion by a change of scale.

    • Shadow says:

      It was strange for me. Despite having seen Manhattan in a thousand movies, series and games, it’s still very much a new place when you actually travel there. Perhaps there’s a passing feeling of deja vu as you notice recognizable landmarks and details of the city. But the place is fundamentally unknown.

      I mean, media shows isolated portions of the city, captured narrowly in camera shots, landscapes or edited levels, connected at their whim. All the stuff you’ve seen and played creates a sort of jigsaw puzzle which your brain and imagination unconsciously work to glue together into a whole. But when you’re actually there and experience the real whole, it can be… weird. Known and alien at the same time, as the imagined city and real city merge. And then you realize the jigsaw puzzle was missing a lot more pieces than you had thought.

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    unitled says:

    Oh, I went to uni with Nick! Great to see his work. Really interesting stuff here, thank you :)

  6. Dave Tosser says:

    There’s this thread that seems to run through a lot of Soviet and post-Soviet fiction about the environment. I remember A Kill Screen piece from a few years back on how Pathologic is all about the Soviet Union’s messes, and Stalker is obviously commenting on that too. It links back to Roadside Picnic’s titular idea about leaving rubbish behind and it seeming completely alien from the perspective of nature.

    Is this a common theme in Russian and Eastern European fiction?

  7. CookPassBabtridge says:

    The moment I see that ferris wheel and pool, I hear “50,000 people used to live here. Now its a ghost town”.
    Then I change game and think of my nice shiny Tunder, with its lovely metallic handling audio effects.
    The last good COD single player game and the very best open world first person shooter series ever. Not bad for two photos.

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    Sinomatic says:

    Interesting read Cooper. It’s great to hear you expanding on your experience there. I’ve heard you mention it before, but never in such detail.
    I’ve never had the experience of being somewhere I know quite as exotic as the zone, but (rather strangely) of a little-known park. In Gateshead: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=121225704
    That park has a world of childhood memories for me. And now, zombies.

    • Cooper says:

      Bloody hell. I can see Saltwell Park from my study’s window. Thankyou so much for that link.

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    lowprices says:

    I visited Chernobyl last year, and it ruined the Stalker games for me. I love them, but no game set there captures the feeling of just how oppressively empty the place is. Even with the rest of the tour group there the sheer lack of noise was genuinely unsettling. It’s Playstation only, so it might be bad form to mention it here, but the only game that has come close to evoking it is Shadow of the Colossus.

    Incidentally, our tour guide told us that every year a few people break into the Exclusion Zone trying to have their own little “adventures” because of the Stalker games. He didn’t think very highly of them, unsurprisingly.

  10. trooperwally says:

    Really interesting read, thanks.

    I think we should have a whip round to get enough money for Nick to go on holiday in Limnos. It’s the setting for (most of) Arma 3 though they changed the name after the Greek authorities arrested those two devs. I went there last summer and was away whilst Arma 3 was released. It was the most surreal experience to come back from a holiday, switch on the PC and then load up a very faithful digital depiction of where I’d just been. It was all the more surreal for being able to drive an APC down the tracks that I’d been cycling along days before. Even now, if I go to a ‘familiar’ spot in Arma 3 it brings back strong memories of sunshine, dust and goat bells.

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    Diziet Sma says:

    That was a great read thank you.

  12. edwardoka says:

    It’s for articles like this that I come to this site. Thank you!

  13. Squirrelfanatic says:

    Very nice read, thanks Cooper. I’ve been playing Stalker:SoC for the first time lately (I’ve already played through CoP though) and the tone and atmosphere these games emit are truely something special.

    Funny, I remember you posting about your stay in Chernobyl (for you PhD thesis if I remember correctly?) some while ago on the forums. To see a part of those experiences written down and posted on the frontpage of RPS produces a weird déjà-vu experience, awesome!

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    distantlurker says:

    I’m sure this comment will be on page 563 but I really enjoyed this article, thank you so much for sharing!

  15. brulleks says:

    That photo of the geiger counter’s bright, sunny colours against the grey-brown broken down corruption of the landscape is truly brilliant. I’d never have imagined a device like that would be available in such vibrant tones.

  16. Hydrogene says:

    Interesting read, thanks!

    By the way, 6 uSv/h on the counter seems like a low reading that close to the old nuclear plant. It’s *only* 50 mSv/year, which doesn’t seem that dangerous. It’s also close to some of the measurements I made near Fukushima daiichi. What are the min and max readings in Pripyat?

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      There is a mention somewhere that readings near the plant are confusingly lower because they hauled away several feet of topsoil, aware that workers would still have to be present to continue running the plant.

    • Cooper says:

      You’re right, that is very low.

      Unituitively, the readings around the power plant complex are some of the lowest within the central Exclusion Zone.

      After the ‘Sarcophagus’ was built the other three reactors were kept online and generating power. The last one was shut down in 2000, with the others during the 90s.

      As the reactors were still running, the area needed to be safe for workers. So they removed the topsoil in the area, throughly cleaned all surfaces and buildings, laid new roads and so on. If you stand near the new memorial garden, just South of Reactor one, with the statue of Prometheus that used to be in Pripyat, the readings are less than one microsievert more than Kyiv (basically nothing).
      The reasoning for keeping them online was simple
      1) You don’t just ‘switch off’ a nuclear reactor, They require time to decommision, which would still need the place to be made safe for workers.
      2) Where does Ukraine get all that ‘leccy from?

      The highest readings I found within Pripyat were from the ‘amusement park’ area. No one I spoke to was really sure what they were; just that they existed. There’s a large patch of moss visitors get shown. After a lot of wandering about this place, I realised what it was. It’s not the moss. There are patches of ashphalt there which were laid during the ‘liquidation’ works (something to do with laying cables to connect the observation station with remote radiation monitoring sites). I assume that because this ashphalt was mixed in highly radioactive conditions, it remains a concentrated site of isotopes, where in other places rain has helped them permeate into the ground. Readings over these patches of ashphalt can reach over 100 uSv/h. Still not dangerous, but you wouldn’t want to hand around.

      The highest readings by far are in the Red Forest, west of the power plant. It’s the area that recieved the bulk of the fallout and you wouldn’t want to go more than a couple of metres off the road there, into the high grass, without protection. Let alone walking amongst the trees.

      • SuicideKing says:

        Interesting pieces of information, thanks! (for the article as well!)

      • Atrocious says:

        Yeah I’ve seen all kinds of horrors in the red forest. Corpses hanging from the trees and their ghosts haunting me in my confined SEVA suit.

        Nice read!

      • Hydrogene says:

        Thank you for the detailed explanation. I guess cleaning up a place where people still have to work makes sense!

      • DoktorV says:

        I understand there are pockets in the Red Forest where the soil is so radioactive that walking barefoot will produce immediate burns of the feet. Maybe the SEVA suit includes stilts?

  17. DThor says:

    Very nice story, thank you, but I’m never clear on why people go there. If for some actual reason, as in working towards eventual re-habitation, it’s admirable, but given radiation exposure in the field is hardly a science, why risk it? You won’t know for years if you’ve significantly lowered your life span. To me it’s putting trust in engineering and science in a place where it failed, horribly.

    • DoktorV says:

      There are a variety of legitimate reasons, even if you don’t consider simple curiosity to be a good enough reason. The Exclusion Zone is one of the larger accidental nature reserves in the world, so biologists study it. Radiation is still a concern, and studying how the active isotopes move through the area over time with rain and wind is helpful for planning radiation management in general.

      As for non-legitimate reasons, the desperate or slightly insane used to strip buildings in Pripyat of radioactive wire and pipes to sell for scrap, though I understand that’s mostly died out. Other mundane items from Pripyat have black market value as curiosities – radioactive toilet seats, radioactive abandoned photo albums, that sort of thing. Guerilla radio operators occasionally set themselves up on old Soviet antennas there.

  18. TheGreenOne says:

    Nice article.
    But I don’t think that any guided tour will let you feel the atmosphere of those places deeper than an autonomous five day journey on foot from Zone’s border to Priypat and back.
    So, if someone here is really interested in getting a real-world stalker experience – drop me a line: lis2045 at gmail.com

  19. Megakoresh says:

    That was a cool-written article. And an interesting topic. Truly there’s nothing other than videogames that can create a feeling of dejavu in a place where you have never physically been.

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    particlese says:

    Thank you for writing this article! Pripyat is one of those places I really hope to visit some day — my reasons being some blend of scientific pilgrimage, tourism, and photography. I’ve never played a game which took place there, and I still have Tarkovsky’s Stalker sitting on the shelf, patiently waiting for me to be in the right mood.

    I’ve seen plenty of photos and descriptions of the area before, though, so what really got me thinking this time was that I had never before considered the distinction between recognizing a place by sight and having a real familiarity with a place when you’ve never actually been there. I think the closest I can come to that feeling personally is when I visited (and subsequently went to college in) a town at 18 years old which I hadn’t been to since I was about 5. It’s an historic town, so there were all sorts of centuries-old things everywhere which hadn’t changed or moved in the intervening years. My memories of the place were pretty fuzzy, but when I returned, I kept hitting upon that feeling of “WOAH, I remember this thing! And this place! I remember running across this field to these stocks with my sister while you ate dinner over there at that outdoor restaurant with the grape vines everywhere. I actually kind of know most of this place already.” It’s not quite the same, but I imagine there’s a similarly surreal mix of the excitement of first-time discovery and the recognition of somewhere you’ve been before. In a certain rational sense, of course, it’s the opposite: actually recognizing and remembering an experience versus being able to argue that the previous experience wasn’t real. However, *philosophy/dictionary warning* memories are a kind of virtual reality, no? (Edit: A question which does nothing to support my yammering when stretched beyond its intent!)

  21. LordoftheHills says:

    I had that same feeling of familiarity in a physical space I had never actually been to after playing the Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear demo (one level set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC) for hours and hours. I went to that museum with my family sevenish or so years later and could navigate through the rooms without thinking, mentally place where the hostages were, and know what was in rooms before I walked into them. It was incredibly strange and surreal.

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    Big Murray says:

    I’ve wondered often why games don’t take advantage of setting themselves within real-life locations more often to take advantage of this effect. Movies do it all the time, and it works quite well. I presume the reason that they don’t is because it’s a costly thing to recreate locations realistically.

    Still … playing in game locations I recognise from real life would make a lot of games more powerful as experiences.

  23. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Saw The Fall at Manchester Cathedral the other night.
    Louder and a damn sight more invigorating than Resistance: Fall of Man was.
    T’was a little uncanny though.

  24. grom.5 says:

    Nice article

    I had the same kind of feeling, but in a really different place. Shibuya in Tokyo. I played “It’s a wonderful world” on DS which take place in this area and they managed to hit the nail hard. From the big cross road to the shops you go to buy cd, to the different specific statue…
    It was pretty awesome when you walk somewhere, you recognized one element and your mind fill the rest.

    They also nailed the specific atmosphere of this area. It’s different from the loneliness of the Exclusion Zone, but it’s another kind of loneliness inside the crowd who does not care about you.