I’ve spent the last five days roaming the election trail, in search of answers, in search of the real America. I’ve put more miles behind me than Donald Trump and Joe Biden put together. I’ve transcended the pandemic. I’ve done it all from my bedroom in the basement of a houseshare in London, with only a copy of American Truck Simulator, a HTC Vive headset and a Ferrari steering wheel. The most consequential US presidential race in modern history is on the brink. Hop in, we’re driving a Kenworth T680 directly into its heart.
Right now, American Truck Simulator (ATS) America is limited to eight states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Idaho. The States are further limited by a handful of cities, the cities limited further by a handful of recognisable landmarks, depots and gas stations. The Truck Simulator games aren’t about these places, which serve as destinations, though. They’re about what happens in the spaces in between, the journeys. There is plenty of in-game America for that
Playing in VR produces all sorts of sensory hallucinations. Chugging down the rocky red deserts of Arizona, I was momentarily deceived into thinking I should take my jumper off in my freezing British winter bedroom. If the arid plains of Utah practically cottoned my throat, then the forest pines of Washington had me gasping lungfuls of fresh, nutritious air. It’s the cool breeze of Ohio’s saltwater, the smell of hot rain on tarmac in a city like San Fran, the sweat above your eyes in New Mexico, the hankering for a Calippo along California’s coastline, the seediness emanating from Las Vegas. Absolutely none of this was being induced by the game, but it felt like it was.
Beyond what the regions feel like, the in-game radio affords the opportunity to hear what they sound like – greatly enhanced by an add-on which pulls in real world stations, as they broadcast live, some national, some hyper-local, which you can only access depending on your in-game location.
TruckersMP is an unofficial mod which transforms the game into an online multiplayer. Truckers from around the world congregate in-game, and convoy together. Encountering Americans on a digital replica of their home soil is the closest thing lockdown-bound writers like myself are going to get to conducting vox-pops to gauge the mood on the ground.
To communicate with the other players of TruckersMP, you need to be within a range of around 500 metres. This means your ability to maintain conversation is governed by travelling along the same route as another player, at around the same time, and at the same speed. The main ATS server is capped at 1,500 players, and though the map is not 1:1 scale (otherwise it would regularly take entire days to traverse), it’s still incredibly vast, with deliveries frequently requiring literal real-world hours. This means sharing a journey for any sustained period is a rare happenstance, unless as part of a convoy – mostly arranged outside the game, in the attendant Discord servers and Twitch channels of the community.
Plenty truck alone, mind. You’ll most often chance across them passing you on the opposite side of the freeway, ships in the night. This is how I encountered my first fellow traveller. As he drove by, he beeped his horn and got on the radio. “Safe travels, friend.” I was so taken aback by the sheer class of the gesture, I pressed the wrong button to reply, took my eyes off the road, veered into a barrier and totalled my truck.
I quickly learned that “safe travels” is a customary exchange in TruckersMP, a motto almost, which I couldn’t help but find quite moving. You can travel for miles without encountering another soul en route, experiencing a palpable loneliness which only makes itself apparent in the fleeting moment you share the same online space as someone else. Receiving a cheery message of support is like an adrenaline shot. There’s something thrilling about being the person to initiate a “safe travels!” It carries a risk of putting yourself out there, only to be crushingly aired, but it’s an almighty satisfying rush when you receive one back.
Somewhere around Yuma, deep into in-game night, visibility limited to metres in front of the grill, a pair of headlights broke out of the darkness. I chanced my arm, sent out my conversational flare. Safe travels! A gruff Southern drawl exhaled: “Oh, man. I really appreciate that. Safe travels, to you too, man. It’s been a long day…” A deep, forlorn sigh. “I appreciated that, man.”
Five days solid of imbibing another country’s radio stations does something strange to your mental furniture. I’ve memorised jingles you wouldn’t believe, heard shock jocks segue seamlessly from state-of-the-nation rants into plugs for erectile dysfunction treatment show sponsors. I’ve tapped my feet to sincerely affecting country songs about daylight savings time. My inner monologue is tuned to America’s FM frequencies, I hear their callers in my dreams.
After listening to around a hundred hours of phone-ins the week before an election, the thing that perhaps struck me most was a profound lack of enthusiasm across both sets of supporters for their preferred candidate. Granted, ‘people calling into stations that one specific VR-trucking guy in Britain happens to pick up while passing by the virtual locality’ is neither the most representative or reliable sample size – but these were evidently people who liked talking politics (or, at least enough to bother ringing up a radio show to air their views), yet their mood on getting through was so often one of total weariness at finding themselves doing so.
I observed similar election-lethargy among the people I spoke to in TruckersMP. So many conversations ended as quickly as they began. To be fair, we were often hurtling past each other at 70mph, which meant I’d barely managed to blurt “how-are-you-feeling-about-the-election?” before they’d be out of reach. It’s not the most efficient way to interview anyone. I was regularly met with understandable silence, or polite declines. “I don’t really like to talk politics, sorry brother!” “Don’t wanna get into that, if that’s alright.” “Naw, I’m good, buddy!”
In the TruckersMP Discord, I meet Brian*. He immediately starts regaling me over voice chat with all sorts of ribald stories about his youth, getting dishonourably discharged from the military and his penchant for drinking before work. Despite offering up all manner of intimate stories and opinions unsolicited with disarming candour and an infectious laugh, when I ask his thoughts on the election, he’s momentarily tentative. “I don’t wanna offend you, man!” Having canvassed during multiple UK elections, this seeming reticence to shove your political preference in someone else’s face was alien to me.
“Almost half of all voting age Americans do not care enough to even cast a vote, much less force their opinion on others voluntarily,” offers ThatCampinGuy, an ATS player and Twitch streamer I manage to pin down for a longer conversation. “In my opinion, the average man or woman is not polarized on every subject as they are often portrayed.” He might be right.
After days of trying (and failing) to chance across a convoy in the wild, I manage to join the back of one rolling through Tucson in Arizona. “People don’t know how to disagree anymore, I’m right down the middle,” says the only guy who can hear me, a Trump voter in 2016. “Nobody thinks Trump gets it right 100 per cent of the time. I certainly don’t.” Around Twin Falls, someone tells me they’re voting for Biden, but they’re worried about his mental faculties. Loitering around Seattle, someone remarks that they’re not voting Trump because he doesn’t wear a mask, then someone else suggested they were against Biden because they feared another lockdown. Before any sort of dialectic could start, they launched into an animated discussion of their computer specs.
After assuring Brian I wouldn’t be offended, he tells me he doesn’t really like either candidate, but he’s voting Trump. “Purely because I don’t like socialism.” I ask if he thinks Biden is a socialist – he doesn’t, but he’s worried the wider party could drift that way. He laughs. “My opinion counts for a bunch of horseshit in a field!”
He suffers from cluster headaches, and describes their excruciating effects, which can only really be alleviated with oxygen, which he can’t afford through health insurance. He seems far less bothered by this than you’d think, dealing with it with sardonic humour. One episode saw him legally die for 16 minutes, he says. He describes seeing all his loved ones in this limbo state, and talking things out. When he came to, he “freaked everyone out”, and something changed within him. “I no longer think anyone is wrong, or that you can be ‘wrong’. I am trying to stop putting people down. I’m not perfect, but I’m working on it.”
“I want the world to be a better place for my son,” reflects BlackStang610, another Twitch streamer. He got into ATS because his father and grandfather were both truckers. Some of his earliest memories are trucking around the country, an experience well realised in ATS he assures me. “I believe we need universal healthcare and education. I feel there needs to be more focus on racial equality, women’s rights, and work needs to be done to stabilise the middle class. The one per cent need to pay their fair share in taxes and we need to recognize climate change as a major issue.”
Dread about the upshot of the result is a major theme among the call-ins, and the people I meet in ATS. Numerous news shows have segments analysing the legal ramifications of Trump refusing to leave the White House if the outcome of the vote isn’t decisive, while callers of both candidates endlessly anxiously speculate on the potential for violent breakouts of civil unrest. “I’m dying for Tuesday to roll by, I can tell you that. And I’m afraid of the outcome,” a trucker tells me as we cross paths in Spokane.
“Instead of focusing on how to bring everyone together, both candidates, parties and the media are doing everything in their power to polarise,” ThatCampinGuy says. “Right or left, it’s all a bunch of hogwash. The largest portion of people fall in the middle of the curve, being only swayed to one side or the other by few very specific ideologies.” ThatCampinGuy hosts a convoy in TruckersMP with his virtual truck company, which he hosts on Twitch every Thursday. “We do not allow discussions of religion, politics, and other ‘controversial’ subjects in the stream and to be honest, it has never been a problem,” he says. “The best part is almost everyone wants to just chill and truck. We have open convoys every week and tons of people join out of the blue with no prior expectations other than to have fun. This easy come, easy go environment has taught me to not to try to control all aspects of the trip, that having a destination is enough.”
Similarly, BlackStang610 is part of Outlaw Truckers, another virtual truck company who convoy together in TruckersMP. “It does not matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, black or white. We welcome anyone who is wanting a drama-free place to support one another. We focus on building each other up, not tearing each other down.”
What do the members of their convoys talk about in their convoys? Simply put: convoying. Nothin’ but. There’s something quite magical watching the various ATS Twitch streamers. Anticipation builds as truckers make their way to the convoy starting point and patiently wait until the leader decides their party has swelled enough – then they set off as a unit, all big beams and joyous whooping. There’s a skill to the convoy. It’s beholden on the leader to keep the convoy organised so nobody gets left behind, so everyone’s fuel needs are met and so the pack is evenly spaced. One mistake can see the entire convoy stacked into a gulch. But when they get it right, when they manage to coordinate 40 odd real people in a single line stretching halfway across Idaho, they take off and fly together, undivided, unspoiled by anything beyond convoying. There’s something very affirming about human beings connecting inside these burgeoning un-worlds right now, when there are so many things threatening to make the real one smaller.
I have only known the America depicted through film and TV. That’s still true after my experience of playing a monastic amount of ATS. The game’s lighting has a distinctly cinematic quality, the world feels close to having been rendered in kodachrome. The lonesome neon hum of the petrol stations, the tacky burger chains, the dilapidated signage, and other carefully curated bits of faux-Americana you pass have the same glorious, ambient melancholy of a William Eggleston photograph. I know it’s totally bogus, because I know my frames of reference for it are illusory. The America of ATS – both visually and atmospherically – is exactly how I imagined it would be.
The people are different, though. I wholly concede that the dangerous fanaticals that characterise so much of the coverage we receive about America must and absolutely do exist somewhere, but I found scant evidence of their frantic, frothing fervour in the places I looked. The American media seems feverishly intent on turning the country into an absurd spectacle, neatly separating the population into two warring factions. Its citizens seem very reluctant to sign up for this narrative, however, and extremely wary of the potential consequences.
I learned a little of what it’s like to be bombarded with American news coverage, and I discovered that many Americans find engaging with it as bewildering as we do from afar. Most people neither accept the media’s framings wholesale, nor reject them entirely out of hand. This feels deeply familiar. After all, even if you’re aware that your window onto the world is distorted, you know that dispensing with it necessitates cutting yourself off from it entirely.
I trucked off in search of America, and found a small slice of it in a place where Americans go to find sanctuary from reality. In this ersatz version of their own country, united under one big convoy, they go safely on their travels.
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