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Nature, Play, and Spirituality in the Pacific Northwest

A massive mountain stands before you, its miles-high peak slashing at the clouded skies. All around you stand enormous trees and tall volcanic boulders, their jagged surfaces covered with moss. A mist hangs in the air. Taking in your surroundings you set off into the mist, towards the mountain, your mind racing with equal parts excitement and curiosity at what new adventures await you within the trees.

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While it’s easy to imagine the above scene as part of a massive open-world game such as Skyrim, for the people of the Pacific Northwestor Cascadia, as many call itsuch moments are commonplace, and it’s not just because of their surroundings.

Cascadia, named after the mountain range that spans the entire region from North to South, is made up by the US states of Oregon and Washington, and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Cascadia is one of the least religious parts of North America, with over a third of the population being religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half of the populations of Portland and Seattle are religiously unaffiliated. But instead of an atheist havenof which only a small percentage of the population identify asthis non-religiously affiliated population, known as “Nones,” are emblematic of the region’s lifestyle. Instead of religion, Nones turn to nature for their sense of belonging and spiritual fulfillment. This has colloquially become known as “nature religion.” Despite the name, “nature religion” does not involve invoking ancient pagan gods nor saturnalian orgies in the dead of night. In a piece for The Oregonian, Oregon’s biggest newspaper, Melissa Binder describes nature religion as “engagement with the great outdoors that stirs the soul of the hiker and leaves the rock climber speechless.” However, in many ways, “nature religion” could just as easily be called the Religion of Play.

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For those unfamiliar with the theory of play, it considers play an evolutionary trait that helps mammals, humans included, learn and understand their world and even pick a mate. Psychologists throughout history, including Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, to modern day videogame critics and designers like Jane McGonigal, have studied play as a means of evolutionary development, molding the theory as they do. While such a definition of play likely conjures visions of young children running around outside, this theory applies to virtually all forms of playing, at any age, and covers everything from tabletop games to field sports. The positive effects of play are easy to measure; those who engage in sports are physically healthier, and those who take part in imaginative play (think live-action role-playing games or videogames) are often more goal-oriented, and display a stronger sense of learned optimism, which is the ability to deal with fears and cultivate positivity in stressful situations.

Many of the activities popular in the Pacific Northwestbackpacking, mountaineering, kayaking, skiingare forms of play. Furthermore, many of these activities have been further gamified: hiking takes on a treasure-hunting quality with geocaching; mountain climbers seek to add their name to the summit registers atop the peaks of Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier and others, like a real-world leaderboard. In fact, there is an entire club of mountaineers, the Mazamas, that requires summiting a mountain to gain membership, a challenge comparable to joining an elite, real-world MMO guild. Play, then, could rightfully be described as the very sacrament of this Cascadian “nature religion,” if not the religion itself. Cascadians, when expressing their love and appreciation for the amenities their landscape affords them, are in many ways expressing their love of play. However, not only is play an everyday aspect of life for Cascadians, this relationship to play extends to the region’s economy as well.

Play is the very sacrament of Cascadian “nature religion”

All across the verdant landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the videogame industry has a palpable presence. Major studios like Bungie, 343 Studios; smaller teams like Klei or Fullbright; even major console manufacturers like Microsoft or Nintendo of America call the region home. Similarly, monolithic tech leaders like Google and Apple have a presence, with Seattle and Portland becoming burgeoning tech hubs. Meanwhile, Vancouver B.C. has held a reputation as the “Canadian Hollywood” for some time now thanks to its lucrative film industry. Next to lumber and agriculture, Cascadia’s most valuable exports are tech, videogames, and other forms of media. Considering the importance play holds in the very cultural fabric of the Pacific Northwest, it seems fitting that many of the biggest and perhaps most forward-thinking videogames were conceived in cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

Media set in the Pacific Northwest tends to feature a certain milieu, one that rides the line between supernatural sci-fi and magical realism. Such tropes were made popular thanks to TV shows like Twin Peaks, Gravity Falls, and a handful of X-Files episodes, and thus tend to feature a ‘90s aesthetic. The reality of life in Cascadia features fewer alien abductions and pan-dimensional portals than these series would have you believe. But the supernatural tropes are an effective metaphor for the way Cascadians experience their natural surroundings. This is true for videogames set within the region as well.

Alan Wake, a 2010 action-horror game from Finnish studio Remedy Games, takes place in the fictional town of Bright Falls, Washington. From the music and the atmosphere, to the way the game is sectioned off into in-game “episodes,” Alan Wake embraces the same aesthetic that Twin Peaks ascribed to the Pacific Northwest over two decades ago. However, its form of play is authentically Cascadian. Much like how avid hikers and geocachers scour alpine landscapes in search of hidden caches or idyllic vantage points, Alan Wake tasks players with exploring and paying close attention to their surroundings. At night, the denizens of Bright Falls are stalked by shadow creatures. To defeat these photophobic monsters, the player must take advantage of everything from spotlights and lamps, to flares and flashbangs, exposing the environment to light, and making hidden items and pathways visible. While this serves a utilitarian purpose by hindering enemies, it also parallels the joy of experiencing and exploring nature. Through activities like the aforementioned hiking, mountaineering, etc., participants shed a light, so to speak, on their surroundings; learning them, discovering previously unseen nuances that enable a deeper level of connection and appreciation with the landscape.

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Similarly, the Japanese horror game, Deadly Premonition, which also released in 2010, is influenced deeply by the unsettling and weird world of Twin Peaks. However, instead of asking players to struggle through their surroundings to find relief from unrelenting pursuers, Deadly Premonition presents its open-world setting of Greenvale, Washington as a character in and of itself. Simply existing in the world affects the main character, Francis York Morgan. His clothing will get dirty, and he will become tired or hungry, giving tangible effects and consequences to engaging in exploration. Furthermore, Deadly Premonition’s plot, for all its well-trodden supernatural influences, deals with the duality of mundanity and spiritual/supernatural events in similar ways to how the Cascadians partake in nature religion.

One of the few games to both be made in Cascadia and set in the region is Gone Home, the debut game from Oregon-based studio Fullbright. Like Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition, Gone Home, is heavy on exploration. Players take the role of 21-year old Kaitlin Greenbrier, who returns from a year abroad to find her family home in Arbor Hill, Oregon strangely unoccupied. At first blush, Gone Home seems to be working within the same supernatural and thriller tropes that Alan Wake does, but by the end of the story, the game completely subverts expectations, instead revealing itself as something far more mundaneyet infinitely more touchingthan a horror thrillride. Much like exploring the forests and mountains of Cascadia, which often appear as if they’re holding gateways to fantastical worlds or eerie tales, the reality is far more grounded. But what Cascadia lacks in real elves, aliens, and yetis (depending on who you ask), it more than makes up for with the unparalleled beauty and awe. Despite its primarily interior game world, Gone Home can fill players with that very same sense of joy as they discover the story to be found in the topology.

What Cascadia lacks in real elves and yetis … makes up for with unparalleled beauty and awe

Recent games like Oxenfree and Life is Strange deal with the expected Pacific Northwestern tropes of teenagers and paranormal experiences, but much like those previously discussed games, they also explore the importance of the connection between a person and their natural surroundings. While Oxenfree examines these ideas via survival horror that leans heavily on the supernatural side of the Cascadian milieu, Life is Strange does so through interpersonal relationships and moral grey zones, all of it pitched against a seemingly mundane setting.

The influence of these regional themes has even begun to touch games not set within Cascadia, such as the survival game The Long Dark or the upcoming adventure game Firewatch, which are set in the wildernesses of northern Canada and Wyoming, respectively. Despite the distance of their settings from the Pacific Northwest, both games are rooted in a deep connection to nature, teasing the magic hidden just behind the surface of their bucolic mundanity. This proves that these themes endemic to Cascadians, their culture and nature religion, has a quality that can be exported. And it’s through employing the rich facsimiles of these places that videogames can play host to, that this transaction can happen, allowing even those who do not live in the Pacific Northwest to construct a relationship with its magnificent wilderness.

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Photos: “Cascadia Curves” by W & J is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Pinnacle Lake Hike” by Adam Barhan is licensed under CC BY 2.0.