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In the Zone: How Gamers Experience The Real Chernobyl

Scanning For Anomalies

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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