The Front Page of Digital Hill
Jesse Schell, in The Art of Game Design, says '"the designed experiences that are created through our games have a change of feeling as real and as meaningful (and sometimes more so) than our everyday experiences'" (Schell, 23). I think of memories and machines and the meaning of the emotional weight of a valley town as a replication of these virtual spaces. Pixels of remembered scenes. Rurality and virtuality. How the stories of the valley are constructed in the pastoral Lethe. Just like how the hills almost disappear into the horizon. Just like how digital connection is made up of hundreds of millions of networked codes. A designed experience. A valley engineered by farmers, preachers, familial lines. Lines of code through corn and pews. The places between, through, and over.
I'm from the minor gesture of homegrown produce left on doorsteps, from fallen dogwood trees blocking 4-wheeling trails, from sticky-hot summers spent by trash fires and fireworks too close for comfort, from gritty VHS tapes of opening Christmas presents & half a mind to keep those memories locked away behind the stained glass of an abandoned Catholic church.
Immersion is in textbooks, in testing labs. There's no mention of the valley, no image of engulfing the verdant spaces between the hillsides. They don't think of the way that the Ohio sky opens up like a gaping mouth. When mentioning '"immersion,'" they mean the state of being deeply engaged or involved. They call it telepresence: '"the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than the immediate physical environment.'" The way the valley sinks low into the Earth, trees stretching like consoling arms on either side is an act of mediation. All I can remember are the spaces within.
There's half-sleep found in sunbeams and a filtered record. I play DAMN. way too loud on a hammock and find a locust in my hair and vow to never go outside again. My grandmother calls me over from the other room once I'm back inside and asks me to help with printing bloodwork results from my grandfather's trip to the VA hospital. She hasn't quite figured out she doesn't have to type '"please'" at the end of her google searches, so I sit at the desktop with a raised foam mouse pad and the blue glow of the dusty screen to navigate through the printer instructions. I write down a step-by-step guide for her to read when she needs to print out something. She still calls airplanes '"wacky'" when she sees them fly overhead in the field out back. I figure she'll just call me when she needs help.
The first computer game I remember was called Bugs In Boxes. It taught kids to count through disturbing flash rendered half-demon bugs with bulging eyes and neon shells. The sound of a distorted robot voice synthesizes '"eight'" over a grainy image of a green coked-out spider and his centipede friend who has a playable rainbow piano taped to his back. My brother and I go outside after our '"computer time'" is up and build a worm fortress in the backyard. We build a two-story bug hotel out of sticks and mud and plywood. It has a fully functioning drawbridge.
I try to google the computer game to spark my childhood memory but the first thing that pops up is a Google summary of More Bugs in Boxes (the second installment) that someone has replaced with the introduction to Law and Order SVU. I can't remember anything but that image of burned-out bugs dancing across a clunky Dell desktop screen. That, and my brother and I housing worms in our backyard. Fear and mud are the only things that seem to stick.
My professor tells us we might have some weird dreams the night after we try virtual reality for the first time. We play Robo Recall during class, a game where you have lasers for hands in order to defend the city from swarms of android invaders. It's a first-person shooter - a game made for the virtual world and a weaponized lens of reality. We spend the class taking turns mowing down robots and laughing at each other stumbling into walls and looking down at our virtual bodies.
I don't dream of having any cool machinery fixed to my appendages. That night, I wake up sleeping face-down in mud and grass. I'm crawling through the divet between the hill and the creek bed, sloshing through the bogging earth of my backyard forest. I can only make out the image of my palms sinking into the dirt and the turned-over 4 wheeler against a rotted oak tree. Fourteen years spent exploring that place in the valley and it's trapped in my nightmare. I can't quite move far enough to get closer. There's always a dream in the stuckness. I had hoped for cool images of goddamn laser realities and instead I'm looking down at my human hands stuck into wet ground, watching veins and bones shift underneath mud-stained skin as I claw forward through the forest and I feel less real there than I ever did in an Oculus VR helmet.
Consider a topic you know absolutely nothing about. Consider being afraid of that thing. Consider fear. Consider you join a Reddit community
dedicated to the exact fear of that very thing. Consider you live alone and for some goddamn reason, submerged animatronics are now a reoccurring blinding image, all soggy metal and broken porcelain and dead-eyed in dark murky Disney ride water. Disneyworld has a reputation for leaving rides abandoned once they don't pull in money anymore. They leave the robotic hull of characters to rot - sometimes in water, sometimes in the backlot of a Hollywood studio. Luckily, the subreddit r/submechanophobia collects images of these horrors for memory.
The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea serpent
is the worst. It gets abandoned in the underwater grotto for 10 years after the mouse shuts it down, leaving the blocked-off scene to soak for ages in a dimly-lit cavern filled with chlorine. The once goofy-eyed animatronic decays in the devil bathtub. The bright paint gets faded, and the wires and mechanisms within the hull are overtaken by microbiomes and just your luck, a Disney Imagineer sneaks into the park's River Styx and takes photos of the submerged animatronic for you. Consider you now have submechanophobia. Consider scrolling through photographs of cartoon robots dead in the water. Consider machine atrophy, blessed by the natural world. Consider your grandmother's desktop decaying away in the basement.
My brother can take apart an entire '70 Chevy Nova and put it together again. I've never been able to contextualize the messy pixels of experience further than I can understand the undercarriage of a motor or how a stick shift gets stuck against the torn leather of a bench seat. He sends me a picture of a vintage Mustang he bought with his graduation party money at a junkyard. He tells me he's going to fix it up and take it to race at the drag strip. He says it's a passion project. He says he's learning more in his welding courses so he can put more nitrous in it, that my grandfather showed him the perfect way to bypass the turbo limit. Everything he's been taught is from valley folk. He doesn't mind the in-between.
I'm spending my time drawing lines between rurality and reality, functions of gridlike viridian valleys and the webspace as a configuration of words and experienced worlds. A news article reads, '"A Chip Revolution Will Bring Better VR Sooner Than You Think,'" referencing a computer microprocessor that can load up to 10 million objects at the speed of a microsecond. When thinking of '"microprocessor,'" they don't mean the Midwest fall. They don't think of faded green leaves morphing into warm-colored back-country, painting the forest like a benign wildfire. The technological process is not seen as a natural occurrence. They say things like manufactured, automation, connectivity, applied, telecommunicate, electronic, integration. They do not say, seasons, autumn, thicket, transition, earth, can you believe how quickly summer passed by?
I guess we're supposed to be impressed by the speed, the way at which fabrication has become an instantaneous action. It's harder now to see the change over time. The leaves can't quite turn auburn overnight. I can't quite figure out home.
is an MFA student at Miami University studying creative nonfiction and the internet-age space of storytelling. Her work interacts with the overlap between virtuality and rurality, immersion and the natural world, and virtual reality and the weird things you find in your grandmother's basement. In addition to her website, she can be reached visually at @maddykrob