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You can see the smoke from the West Coast fires in Microsoft Flight Simulator

Flight Simulator takes the tragedy off of Twitter and back into the real world

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A screenshot above San Francisco in Microsoft Flight Sim on Sept. 10 Image: Asobo Studio/Microsoft Corporation via Polygon
Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Over the last month the state of California and much of the West Coast have been battling massive wildfires. While the dry summer months often create a suitable environment for these kinds of large-scale fires, this year’s have been particularly disastrous due to a number of factors — including climate change. They have also been deadly. So far at least seven people have been killed in the fires, while tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate their homes. As of this writing, agencies are still struggling to contain what some are calling the worst wildfire season in the region’s history.

While the basic tragedy of the fires is easy to grasp, their shear size and scope can be a little more difficult for most people, which may be part of why they were de-contextualized so quickly on social media. The fires went from a catastrophe that many people were just learning about one day, to a gender-reveal-party meme the next. Now we’re onto the the apocalyptic-photo-shoot phase, as if the torrents of smoke have become nature’s custom-made Instagram filter. None of this is to say that these trends are bad or that people shouldn’t indulge in them — after all, everyone copes in their own way — just that it’s important to remember how fast a news story can lose it’s context.

And, oddly enough, that’s exactly where Microsoft Flight Simulator comes in.

Microsoft Flight Simulator can take you from the clear skies of your own home airport, to the source of these haunting, smoke-filled photos being captured thousands of miles away. And, in the case of the California fires — which are now represented in-game — the game does an admirable and helpful job of drawing a believable facsimile.

Microsoft Flight Simulator doesn’t so much recreate the real world as it renders it, in real time, through its game engine and a collection of live data services. One of the game’s major selling points was its accurate digital recreation of landscapes, a feat it mostly succeeds at. But, now that the game is in consumers’ hands, recent news cycles have focused on its weather systems. Just a few weeks ago, players could fly their planes into the eye of Hurricane Laura, which hit the southeastern United States with another tragic cost in human lives.

Now, it’s the smoke from the California fires that has been reproduced inside the game.

From the in-game air above California, the smoke almost completely obscures the ground, which gives the entire area a strange and eerie effect. It isn’t the same as the red-tinted photos all over social media. The game doesn’t seem to be able to render smoke and its effects on this scale. It certainly doesn’t capture the scene in the same way that drone photography has. But, it does help to contextualize just how big the fires are, and how much of the state is impacted by them.

From the view of a plane in-game, making its ways across the coast at top speed, we can see the smoke coverage stretch on for miles and miles. Microsoft Flight Simulator gives us a realistic sense of scope, one we can’t quite get from even the best aerial photographs.

It might sound odd to turn to a video game in search of a better understanding of the real world. The basic act of digitizing things automatically makes them unreal. Any lack of detail or noticeable anomaly — something that Microsoft Flight Simulator has run into more than a few times — takes you straight out of the experience and reminds you that you’re in a virtual space and not actually flying a plane in the real world. But, one thing that Microsoft Flight Simulator can give us is a perspective. The pulled back view of its virtual world reinforces not just the scale, but the reality of the catastrophe on the West Coast, and drives home the fact that it’s happening in our world — even if many of us only experience it firsthand in the artificial one.

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