A Case of Virtual Nostalgia

You may have noticed that Pokémon Go has more or less taken over the world in the last few weeks. Whatever you think about this game (personally I love it, being an avid Geocacher), you can’t deny that it makes excellent use of both the technology found in modern smartphones and the nostalgic influence of a much-loved 90’s video game series.

Even as a dedicated Nintendo fan, Pokémon is one franchise that completely passed me by the first time around, but I can certainly understand why it’s not just kids that are getting excited about it. I found an excellent example of the enduring popularity of the series in a recent article on the BBC website. There was one sentence in particular where the journalist, a life-long fan of Pokémon, mentioned that “Finding him [a Squirtle-type Pokémon] in real life was a dream come true”. It was obviously very exciting for her to see a beloved fantasy character move from the virtual domain into the ‘real’ world. This declaration of fangirl delight resonated with me in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate until a recent trip to Chicago.

Until this week I had never been to Chicago, I’d never even been within 500 miles of it. But the other day I found myself standing in a small area of Chicago called Northerly Island, a place where I had spent countless hours and knew intimately from my childhood. How was this possible?

I was traveling to Chicago for an unrelated research project and as soon as my flight landed and I had arrived at my hotel, I dumped my bags and immediately hailed an Uber to take me to this place that I seemingly knew so well. Northerly Island is a man-made jut of land on the edge of Lake Michigan and about 15 minutes’ walk away from downtown Chicago. The island is predominantly a nature reserve that also houses the Adler Planetarium. But most importantly, Northerly Island was formerly the home of a single runway airport called Meigs Field, which for many years was the default location in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series.

As a child in the 1990’s, one of the only ‘games’ that my Dad had on his PC was Microsoft Flight Simulator 95 and this was a game that I would play endlessly. I remember Meigs Field airport as the starting hub to a vast playground of endless possibilities, where I developed a keen interest in the basics of aviation and open-ended adventure. Over several years I progressed from merely trying to keep my plane in the air for more than a few moments, to slowly learning about all of the instruments in the cockpit. I learned to do stunts such as barrel rolls, loop the loops and weaving in and out of Chicago’s skyscrapers at high speed.

Because there was no story to Flight Simulator, I would make up my own. I’ve been an avid gamer all of my life, but no game has ever stimulated my imagination in the way that Flight Simulator did. One day I could be making my escape from random ‘baddies’ in a stolen plane, while the next day I could be transporting a valuable cargo to a top secret location, flying low to the ground to avoid detection by enemy radar. When I learned about the wider word of modding in the early days of the Internet, I remember downloading ‘skins’ for my planes to help my imagination reach even greater heights. I was able to import an F14 fighter into the game and pretend I was Maverick from Top Gun. I could even be Han Solo in my very own (but near-impossible to control) Millennium Falcon.

Meigs Field Flight Simulator 2004 Comparison
Left: Meigs Field in real life. Right: Meigs Field as featured in Flight Simulator 2004: A Century of Flight

Even without the cheesy Hollywood action scenarios, I also found great enjoyment in simply picking a random destination in the world, just to see if I could make it there in one piece. The immense scale of the game world would leave me in awe. Seeing the vast landscape of fields, woodland and cities creep slowly along under my single engine Cessna as it flew at several thousand ft. was incredibly relaxing. Knowing that the game was a simulation gave the younger me a huge sense of achievement, especially when I was able to fly (and land) unaided between distant locations such as Chicago and New York.

As a ten year old in the mid-nineties who had never travelled to America, Meigs Field airport may as well have been a fantasy world akin to Hyrule from the Legend of Zelda or the Mushroom Kingdom from the Super Mario series – to me it was just a level in a video game. Although I was sort-of aware that Flight Simulator was based on real-life locations, I never imagined that I would develop such a strong attachment to a city that I had never visited, and I certainly never imagined that I would one day go there for real. Microsoft Flight Simulator gave me a feeling of complete freedom – I could go anywhere in the world if I wanted to, and be whoever I wanted to be. This was a powerful draw for a young boy.

Flight Simulator 2004 Comparison
Left: Meigs Field runway in Flight Simulator 2004. Right: Standing in the same spot in real life (note the location of the Adler Planetarium for reference)

Even considering the limitations of 90’s technology, Northerly Island and the wider Chicago area are amazingly recognisable from the Flight Simulator games of the 90’s and early 00’s. Here I was, stood on the edge of where the single runaway once started, looking at the Adler Planetarium straight ahead of me and the Willis tower off to my left – the same place I had been thousands of times decades earlier, ready to hit full throttle and lift off into the sky on another adventure. Walking around Northerly Island not only rekindled memories of Flight Simulator, but of my childhood in general, where anything seemed possible and the tiresome responsibilities of adulthood were a very distant flicker on the horizon.

Northerly Island today
Northerly Island today

Being on this island was like a reverse form of virtual tourism; not a digital replication of a real-world location (such as being able to wander around the Louvre from the comfort of your home), but a real-life version of a virtual world.

Nostalgia inducing attractions for millennials such as myself have started to pop up quite frequently in recent years. I can think of a few great examples from the world of movies such as Secret Cinema’s Star Wars and Back to the Future events. However, it occurs to me that the rich possibilities offered by video games are rather underrepresented. Surly there is a market for allowing people to visit their favourite virtual locations in real life? But then again, without the ‘fantasy’ element of these fantasy worlds, would the experience be the same? I doubt it. Flight Simulator is quite unique in that it is a virtual world based on the real world. Outside of a few notable exceptions such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, magic doesn’t transition well from the screen and disappointment would be inevitable.

Meigs Field and Control Tower comparison
Left: Meigs Field terminal building. Right: Control Tower. Both now abandoned and overgrown

Meigs Field airport was sadly demolished in 2003 after more than 50 years of operation, but many of the structures from the airport, such as the control tower and terminal building still remain. Today, the majority of Northerly Island has been transformed into a beautiful nature park offering strolling paths, play areas for kids and green fields. It is so peaceful – the perfect place for quietly contemplating everything from lost childhood innocence to whether it really was possible to fly a 747 upside down and at top speed under the Brooklyn Bridge.

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