It’s late last week and I have an old machete in hand, and I’m in hunting boots scaling a 25-foot wall cobbled together from rusty cattle panels. At the top, I’m chopping away the wild grapevines throttling a little receiver that looks at the cellular data tower three miles to the south. It’s hot, even in October, and the sweat on my palms threatens to loosen my grip and send me to a back-breaking mishap on the air conditioner below. (I’m over thirty miles from the nearest hospital.) I’m yanking the chaff away, cursing the shadowy clouds to the southeast that signal an approaching storm from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, which might knock out my precious signal altogether for a few hours. I’m hurrying, praying I won’t miss my deadline. And why am I doing this? I’m just trying to get better latency for my review playthrough of the new Guild Wars 2 expansion.
I wish I could say days like this are rare, but that’d be like me telling you that it isn’t really that hot down here. I’m a rural gamer; a member of that literally marginalized tribe that most of the video game industry surely knows exists but can’t afford to take the time or resources to cater to. My situation’s not as extreme as some people have it, but considering that I make my living as a pundit in that same industry, it’s a bit like being a day trader in Antarctica.
I can swing open my “office” door and see longhorn cattle and horses grazing in the pastures of the neighboring 1,500-acre ranch. On most clear nights I can see the Milky Way almost as clearly as you might see it in a Mass Effect game. Less loftily, I can walk outside and relieve myself at will. I’ve lived like this for a little over a year now, and it’s made me all too aware of how much technology has changed life out here on the edge and how far we still have to go.
“Here,” by the way, is our family ranch outside of Goliad, Texas, where my wife and I moved back to from Chicago in June of last year. The area bleeds with movie-quality history going back centuries, but for all that it still only boasts around eight people per square mile. A handful of miles south, the O'Connor Ranch sprawls across 500,000 acres of lonely coastal prairie—that’s a little over half the size of the state of Rhode Island—and numerous other large ranches carpet the miles of huisache, mesquite and live oak brush to the north. Victoria, an oil-driven town of 65,000 people that’s probably best known for partially rearing “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, is only a county away, but the little empires in between leave Goliad feeling far more remote than it technically is.
There’s only one cable service in the town of Goliad itself, and the only Internet in our area comes from satellite or cellular sources. We’re lucky; were we just a couple of miles to the northwest, we’d be in a dead zone that would make my job impossible.
It almost is. In Chicago, I’d get miffed when my Comcast cable connection didn’t allow me to download a 30GB behemoth like Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag within an hour. I’d probably dance naked in the rotunda of the Texas capitol for those speeds today. And hell, when you tell me about Google Fiber and its speeds of one gigabyte per second, you might as well be telling me that the Norse gods are real and that Thor spends his days competing in Street Fighter tournaments. On normal days, what we have is good enough for me to play online multiplayer games but bad enough to make streaming my gameplay live on Twitch out of the question. The download speeds could try the patience of the rocks outside.
Playing a big new game at launch thus sometimes devolves into an ordeal, considering the need for patches and downloads to even play anything these days. Consider the Xbox One launch of The Elder Scrolls Online, when I needed to write a day-one review-in-progress for IGN. I’d plugged in a download code hours ahead of time, but at midnight I noticed that the bar for the whopping 55Gb download had barely moved and that there was no way I’d meet my morning deadline.
I panicked, realizing I’d need a physical copy to get a huge chunk of those gigabytes out of the way. I jumped in the car at 1:00 a.m. and drove forty miles to the Victoria Walmart Supercenter, where I hunted down what seemed like one of the only three employees in the store at that hour and somehow convinced him (in Spanish) to find the boxes containing the newly released game in the back room and sell me a copy. He did, and he only had to open four other boxes to find it. And so I sped forty miles back home while dodging deer and armadillos, popped the disk in—my heart crying a bit at killing the download progress I’d already made—and waited for it to install off the physical copy.
Success? Kind of; I was slapped with the need for a 15Gb day-one patch once I crossed the installation finish line. More waiting. More gnashing of teeth. I ended up toting my entire Xbox One setup directly to the Internet provider’s office as the sun was coming up, and they graciously let me “hook up directly to the tower” and download the rest of the patch there. Sprawled on the office floor, exhausted but relieved, I got in enough play time to write. And here you thought waiting in line at GameStop was bad. At least there are benefits to living in a place where everyone knows each other.
But the frustrations of download speeds are nothing compared to the tyranny of data caps in rural areas. In an age when streaming HD videos on Netflix demands almost 5Gb of data per hour, they’re insulting. Their very existence discourages most contemporary gaming out here. I was once one of those wanks who rolled his eyes when people in forums complained about 5Gb day-one patches, but those concerns take on a whole new meaning when you consider that Dish Network makes a big deal about its monthly 15Gb “anytime data” plan for 70 bucks a month around here. Verizon has a beautifully powerful LTE network here and an associated service that’s specifically aimed at home Internet, but its top plan demands $120 a month for a mere 30Gb of data.
Other choices are painfully slim. If you use the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s new definition of broadband as any connection with a download speed of at least 25 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps, we’re laughably out of the club. We have a little sad speakeasy of our own, though; according to the FCC, we’re among the 17 percent of Americans (or 55 million people) who don’t have access to services that deliver that definition of broadband. Narrow that to rural users only, and 53 percent of us lack it. It’s a different digital world out here. We’re blessed enough in our little pocket of south Texas to have a hyper-local wireless provider (GoCo Wireless) who doesn’t impose data caps, but millions of others aren’t so lucky.
One side effect of these limitations is the creation of a culture that rarely picks up on the big gaming currents and memes of the day, which usually rules out multiplayer matches with the locals. You can find just about every hunting, fishing, gun, and horse magazine on the market in the stores for a hundred miles around, but the few surviving gaming magazines? Forget about it. My gaming life thus takes place almost entirely online. Just last Friday I spoke to a teenage cashier at the local Exxon station who didn’t know what a PS4 was until I referred to it as a “PlayStation 4.” (His colleague, however, noticed a shirt of mine as being a reference to The Legend of Zelda, so that’s something.)
Or here’s a better example: I’m walking into one of the other local gas stations (these being my main venues for socialization around here) and the young woman behind the counter notices I’m wearing a shirt depicting an arrow graphically penetrating a knee. It’s like something you’d find in an anatomical textbook. “Oh, are you a bowhunter?” she asks. It’s a fair question—we get as many hunters passing through as oilfield workers and cowboys. “Gotta say, a person would have to be really stupid for an accident like that to happen.”
“It’s a Skyrim reference,” I say. “You know, the whole arrow-to-the-knee thing?” I give her a sheepish smile. She says she’s never heard of it.
Moments like these sometimes infuse me with the desire to proselytize my digital faith on the local youth, but I always stop short. Why should I bother? They don’t need points in Sneak to figure out how to be good archers; they can go piff off arrows at the round bale in their uncle’s corral and learn the skill for real. It’s not a tragedy that they’ve never played Red Dead Redemption; a good many of the locals have probably roped more horses than protagonist John Marston ever did (and shot more guns, for that matter). I sometimes feel sad that many of them have never played a truly artful game like 2012’s Journey or last year’s The Banner Saga, but it’s a quiet and admittedly self-indulgent regret, not unlike feeling sorry for lifelong Nebraskans who’ve never seen the ocean.
And what about me? Only a person in dire straits would put themselves in this position, right? Hardly; I’m here quite willingly. I loved my old Chicago-area neighborhood, but around two years ago I looked up from my screen and out the window while playing Skyrim and had a bit of a Walden moment. I saw jumbles of snow, cars, and miles of concrete and brick stretching into the flat distance. Fittingly, I realized “I did not wish to live what was not life” (for at least part of the time, anyway). Instead of limiting myself to gawping at untamed wilds constrained by the limitations of framerates and pixels, I wanted to see them frequently in real life as I did when I worked as a horseback cowboy as a teen. As a rancher’s kid, I knew I could, and now I do. Two major games press outlets in San Francisco courted me for full-time editorial jobs at the time, but I walked away from them for the chance to walk in woods of my own.
I don’t regret it. Life is rough here sometimes, and not just because of our increasingly outdated Internet and the distances needed to go anywhere (and freelance pay rates and schedules, for that matter). A striped bark scorpion once stung me on my big toe while I was writing a major review that was due two hours later, and we sometimes have to rush out at night to shoo away ring-tailed cats who get a little too interested in our flock of free-range chickens. Usually, though, a new wonder awaits us every day. We see red-tailed hawks around here as often as we once saw pigeons in Chicago, and the Milky Way? By Odin’s beard, folks, it never gets old.
And that’s the flip side of all my whining, isn’t it? Even a decade ago, I couldn’t have had a job like mine out here in the sticks. It’s not ideal, but it’s not impossible. To do what I do, I likely would have had to content myself with spending years in a crummy, overpriced Oakland apartment and visiting an office daily, dreaming of vacation days when I’d get to tromp across the landscapes the games I play depict. Now, though, I can send off my work remotely, grab my walking stick, and within seconds strike out into the thorny brush in search of a new adventure.
If that means I’ll occasionally have to deal with future rushed midnight drives to Walmart, it’s more than worth it.
Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who hails from, well, you probably already know that by now, right? He grew up as a Texas cowboy but went on to study history at the University of Chicago and hobnob in the art world for a few years. And now he’s back where it all began. You can chat him up on Twitter at @leifjohnson.
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