The Joys of Using Games For Virtual Tourism

Like a few other writers here, I've been enjoying Sleeping Dogs this week. But not necessarily for its combat, or driving, or story. No, I'm enjoying it mostly because of where it's set.

The game, in case you don't know, is set in Hong Kong. Not a photo-realistic recreation, but a caricature that's close enough. Being an open-world game, it lets you explore, chat with random strangers, see the sights, soak up the virtual atmosphere.

It's not the same as actually being there, of course. It's not even close. But it's something. For a few hours, you can turn off the lights, lie back, and pretend you're actually walking the streets of one of the most vibrant and fascinating cities on Earth.

You can be, for want of a better term, a virtual tourist.

Maybe you don't game like that, and that's fine. We all play for different reasons and get different things out of the medium. But me, I don't play for a challenge, or competition. I play to escape, and prefer a game where I can lose myself in another world, one that doesn't involve the boring, everyday and mundane.

Sure, that means I love my epic fantasy games or sweeping sci-fi extravaganzas, but I also enjoy games like Sleeping Dogs, ones which let me visit places in my world that I wouldn't otherwise be able to get to. At least not easily or on the cheap.

It's a big reason I love the Yakuza series. Tokyo is one of my favourite cities on Earth, and while I've been there plenty of times, I always look forward to going back. It's nine hours and $1000 away, though, so that's usually out of the question. But when I slide a Yakuza disc into my PS3 I can, for a night, make a half-assed trip, complete with karaoke-laden adventures and endless runs to convenience stores for snacky treats.

It's not that the game is simply set in Japan that makes it useful as a tool for virtual tourism. There are tons of games set in Japan! It's that the Yakuza games manage to capture the trivial so well. That makes it sound awful, but it's the trivial, incidental stuff that really encapsulates your experience of a foreign country. I never associate famous landmarks or events with an international city. That's the stuff of postcards. I remember them for the immediate experiences and sensations I feel; the sound of their train chimes, or the smell of a dining district, or the way the average person the street was dressed.

All things Yakuza games get just right.

The same goes for Far Cry 2, if for slightly different reasons. Now, the middle of a conflict-stricken African state is not somewhere I've been, nor somewhere I'd really want to go in real life. But it's somewhere real, and more importantly, somewhere different, a place and time that video games rarely venture outside of themed platformers or racing games. It's the other side of the virtual tourism experience, at least for me.

Yakuza, Sleeping Dogs, the GTA series and even The Getaway let me visit places I like to go. Far Cry 2 takes me somewhere I probably should see, a real place with real problems that don't involve drug lords or super-villains threatening the same old American cities. Which is just as important as idle tourism!

There are other games I'm not mentioning, and there's no doubt obvious ones I overlook (maybe because they're not as foreign to me as they might be to you!), but I know that there's always room for more. Not every video game with an open and vibrant world needs to take place in a big American city. It's a big world out there, and while there are millions of people who enjoy and can identify with the USA, it'd be great if more publishers took the risk of bankrolling adventures set somewhere else. Especially for Americans! GTA IV isn't exactly foreign if you happen to live in New York City.

After all, it's done wonders for Sleeping Dogs.