Playing Games as a Form of Travel

In light of the fact this is a holiday weekend, here's a lighter look at how video games are a context for our cultural experiences, and may one day be a substantial basis for them.

Confronted with his ex-girlfriend's rather facile reduction of two experiences - travel and video games -to somewhat common traits, writer Jason Wilson's first reaction is an enlightened outrage. Flitting across the world in Street Fighter, he's convinced, is most assuredly not like one visiting those places for himself.

Yet then Wilson encounters a game on his Wii, plays it with his two sons, and finds himself taken to a place that feels eerily like ones he's visited before. Not for their scenery or people - but for what he experiences, and remembers.

Travel Channels - How is a Video Game Like Travel Writing? [The Smart Set, Sept. 2, 2009. This essay was also published in The Best American Travel Writing 2009]

Not too long after we'd broken up, I came across the essay she'd referenced, "Nintendo and the New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue," by Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins. Fuller and Jenkins likened Nintendo's Mario Brothers' adventures in rescuing Princess Toadstool to the nonfictional New World travel narratives of John Smith, Virginia Dare, and Pocahontas in the lost colony of Roanoke. Both are "forms of narrative that privilege space over characterization or plot development" and "a different way of organizing narratives" that they call "spatial stories." At the time, it seemed like the sort of loopy scholarship that got debated over a bong in someone's dorm room. But now I'm not so sure.

I thought seriously about travel writing and video games this past year when reading hundreds of nominations for The Best American Travel Writing. I spent a lot of that period playing Wii with my two sons. We enjoyed a game called Endless Ocean, in which you play the role of a deep-sea diver who, along with a somewhat irritating companion, a marine biologist named Katherine, explores the fictional Manoa Lai Sea in a fictional South Pacific. The graphics are amazingly life-like, and over time a whole world with a diverse underwater ecosystem - full of whales, tropical fish, stingrays, sharks, and other sea life - slowly, gently emerges. In fact, calling Endless Ocean a "game" at all is stretching the definition. The challenges aren't very taxing - it's almost impossible to run out of air, and not even the sharks bite. There's only a light plot involving the legends of native peoples of fictional Pelago. Most of the time, you sort of swim around, unscripted, collecting new species of sea creatures and exploring coral reefs, sea caves, and sunken ruins, But after hours of leisurely navigating, a strange emotional experience begins to take hold. Suddenly, the discovery of a simple seahorse or a bit of an artifact is a cause for joy. Upon uncovering an ancient, fossilized whale whisker, I found myself looking forward to surfacing and celebrating with my kooky shipmate, whom I now called Kat. Virtual as it was, Endless Ocean was beginning to take on the recognizable rhythms of travel.

All of which mean that Endless Ocean was becoming a little scary. I wondered if someday in the not-so-distant future, fake gaming worlds like Manoa Lai might replace, say, the real South Pacific as an actual destination. If the current economic and energy crises continue, perhaps my boys will have to skip the old backpacking trip to Europe and instead experience that formative travel though some type of gaming. I guess if that unfortunate outcome truly does come to pass, at least I take solace that some form of travel narrative might still possibly thrive.

- Jason Wilson

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.