A spinal injury has deprived Natalie Dunning of her beloved ability to freely explore outdoors. Finding some solace in the virtual landscapes of Red Dead Redemption 2 has surprised her, and suggests a stronger relationship between gaming and adventure than we might suppose.
I grew up with the mindset that ‘fitness’ was not for people like me. Somehow it seemed shallow or vain to actively maintain your body. To my younger self, less familiar with the vulnerability and ever changing nature of the body, I viewed exercise as some sort of ‘interfering. So the closest I came to a gym was watching Rocky.
However, while I've never been particularly athletic, I've always loved being outdoors. My grandparents instilled an appreciation for nature in me from a young age. I was soon able to identify plants by their Latin names, name birds and spot mushrooms on walks. As a child, I would also go fishing with my dad. Learning how to fish ugly pike in muddy canals at first, and later progressing onto rainbow trout in idyllic rivers.
A day of wading through rivers and walking through forests probably burned more calories than a jog. But walking outdoors didn’t count as fitness to me. Walking was a fact of life and also a source of independence. It allowed me to explore my surroundings, unrestricted by bus schedules or traffic lights. I’m lucky enough to live between a large city and an easily accessible countryside. So exploration promises vastly different discoveries only six miles apart. If I turn left, I might see stags fighting on a hilltop or a badger emerge from a 200-year-old tree. If I turn right, I might discover the best falafel in town for only £2.50, or a loquat tree fruiting outside a neighbour’s house.
In the late 2000s, health became another thing to ‘hack’. When my friends’ Strava stats replaced regrettable drunk photos in my Facebook feed, I scoffed. But when my phone started telling me how many steps I had taken on a trip to the shops I couldn’t help but feel a sense of achievement. I had never thought about my walking as a process until then, only an outcome. I walked until I felt satisfied. I walked until I knew a place. I walked until I got to my destination.
But my iPhone changed this. I began thinking in step counts. Walking to the best falafel shop in town became 14,385 steps. My walk to work was a way of getting an easy 10,000 in. I was once more excited about a 26,000 step count than the mountain view that my walk had led me to. My friends were working hard to produce impressive weekly lines on Strava maps, but I was gaming the system.
At my first corporate job I worked for a fitness-obsessed millionaire who thought setting the office temperature to Mark Zuckerberg’s recommended 15°C (59°F) would turn the suburban office into a Silicon Valley outpost. Instead of an HR department, he armed staff with Fitbits and walked around the small office advising everyone to eat more salt. Hacking health or optimising the body seemed to be at the forefront of his mind.
'I walked until I felt satisfied. I walked until I knew a place. I walked until I got to my destination ... But my iPhone changed this. I began thinking in step counts.'
Being paid less than the living wage while having my health made ‘agile’ was infuriating. I saw that my boss’ obsession with converting qualitative into quantitative was linked to his love of the Fitbit. As a businessman, he saw a bottom line in everything, including health. I realised my step counting was part of this problem. I was trying to optimise my time, and body, at the expense of my experiences.
Sadly, this realisation came shortly before I injured my knee, then the following year injured my spine. As a result, I’ve spent most of the last few years first on crutches, then recovering from spinal surgery and now suffering from chronic nerve pain - which is most likely permanent. Needless to say, my step count is pretty low these days.
So when the U.K. went into lockdown I was already used to being stuck at home. I live in Manchester, an area that has been under the most extreme lockdown measures in the country for over 300 days. It’s been interesting watching my loved ones acclimatise to the change in pace. Some have developed baking addictions, others have started jogging. I continued my routine of ice packs, physio and short laps around the local park.
A couple of months into the pandemic, I was struggling with increasing nerve pain and looking for something to distract me. So, my boyfriend suggested I try playing Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2). I hadn’t had a console since I was a teenager, during the rise of Call of Duty; a game and culture which I felt wasn’t for me. But from the moment RDR2 loaded I was gripped. That weekend I spent almost 20 hours gaming, something which is now a regular occurrence.
If you aren’t familiar with it, RDR2 is an incredibly detailed open-world game set in the final years of the American ‘Old West’. In addition to the game storyline, you can wander through the map. As it’s set in 1899, there are large areas of uninhabited, unspoiled land to explore. The landscape is populated by over 200 species of animals, 40 types of interactive plants, unpredictable weather and terrain ranging from snowy mountains to arid deserts. The sound design is elaborate and the graphics are near photo-realistic. When I’m not wearing my glasses, it’s as good as a nature documentary. Think Attenborough but with guns.
The map contains five fictional American states. ‘Roanoke Ridge’ is remarkably similar to the areas of the countryside surrounding me in real life. Oak trees and ferns line paths, rainbow trout ‘live’ in the rivers and, of course, it often rains. Although the Derbyshire and Cheshire countryside doesn’t have many gangs of murderous hillbillies, despite what most Londoners might believe.
'The landscape is populated by over 200 species of animals, 40 types of interactive plants, unpredictable weather and terrain ranging from snowy mountains to arid deserts. The sound design is elaborate and the graphics are near photo-realistic. When I’m not wearing my glasses, it’s as good as a nature documentary. Think Attenborough but with guns.'
My favourite location is an empty outpost called ‘The Loft’: a wooden cabin with a viewing tower where you can see for miles. Downstairs there’s a small stove and a bed, with a campfire area outside. I’ll often spend the night there so I can see the golden morning light stream through the window, then climb the viewing tower to observe the day's progress. The hyper-realistic graphics and sound give these moments a tangible quality. I often feel like I can almost smell the pine cabin walls as they are warmed by the sunlight.
There’s an online, multiplayer version of the game but I prefer to play alone. It’s difficult to have a quiet Sunday morning hike when a 14 year old from Michigan keeps shooting your horse. However, there’s still a sense of community to be found. Despite the head shots, RDR2 fans are generally quite endearing. I sometimes check Reddit for help unlocking features. More often than I’d like to admit I end up scrolling for half an hour, reading in-jokes, appreciation posts for the landscape or theories on easter eggs within the game. In a thread speculating on the story behind The Loft, one user, or poet, commented: ‘Exploration is about what you don't find as much as it is what you do find.’
As the pandemic has worn on, and my mobility has decreased, I’ve become increasingly invested in the game. A year ago I remember feeling furiously jealous of my newly furloughed friends posting stories from the top of Snowdonia or wild swimming in Yorkshire. I couldn’t make the most of the lockdown like this; I could barely walk to Sainsbury’s! But now I just turn on the Xbox and go on a fishing trip, or spend hours collecting wild herbs, flowers and mushrooms. I’ve even found that my knowledge of real-life plants and birds is useful in the game. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve become a virtual bird watcher, using the game’s intricate sound design to my advantage by identifying bird calls. This all makes me sound too tame for the wild west, but don’t worry, I do sometimes venture into town and blow a few heads off with a shotgun.
'My favourite location is an empty outpost called ‘The Loft’: a wooden cabin with a viewing tower where you can see for miles. Downstairs there’s a small stove and a bed, with a campfire area outside. I’ll often spend the night there so I can see the golden morning light stream through the window, then climb the viewing tower to observe the day's progress.'
'This all makes me sound too tame for the wild west, but don’t worry, I do sometimes venture into town and blow a few heads off with a shotgun.'
The virtual nature of this exploration means it is dependent on my stillness. It also renders step-counters redundant. When I’m exploring a cave behind a waterfall or discovering a new lake, I’m usually lying on the sofa with an ice pack under my back. I often wonder if my lack of physical engagement heightens my sensory perception. Is the tangible quality of the game just my brain filling in the blanks? Or has the absence of step counting or thoughts of pain, which would usually accompany a walk, given me more space to appreciate it?
I’d like to say that virtual exploration has left me with a new appreciation for walking and being outdoors, but really it’s like scratching an itch on a phantom limb. While I hope I can find a way to recover from chronic pain, I’m reluctant to get my hopes up. The longer nerve damage and nerve pain persist after spinal surgery, the less likely it is to heal. For now I just try to remember: ‘Exploration is about what you don't find as much as it is what you do find.’