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Confessions of a Video Game Tourist

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Could our enjoyment of video games have something to do with our earliest, nomadic ancestors? In a sedentary civilization, games might be just what our vagrant souls need.

Our ancestors are within us. For roughly 200,000 years Homo sapiens roamed the planet, and it's easy to forget that we, as our even more remote relatives, are nomads by nature -- hunter-gatherers, wanderers, vagrants. It has only been a puny 8,000 years since our style of life has become sedentary, since the concept of "city" or even "village" appeared, since both the blessing and curse of "civilization" were realized. Man is -- both physically and mentally -- nomadic.

So vagrancy is in our genes. It's easy to deny that fact, trapped as we are in a present of cubicle office spaces, pension plans and real estate bubbles. But sometimes, rarely, it still surfaces in seasonal migrations, holiday spots, gap-year travelling, Sunday afternoon walks and RVs complete with satellite dishes. Here's another fact: Humans like to seek out the new, the spectacular, the awe-inspiring, the romantic ruins and the surge of adrenaline. Our bookstores are filled with travel guides, coffee-table books and reports from the most remote places. It's all food for our wanderlust, this itchy heritage from our nomadic ancestors.

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Our bodies and minds have not changed as much as our circumstances in the past 8,000 years. And while we have grudgingly accepted that even today's cubicle-dweller has to sate his unruly body's need for exercise, for being used and kept "in shape," our inner nomad still hungers. We may pacify our vagrant body while staying in one place, as our civilization demands, but what about our nomad souls?

Games are many things: competition, entertainment, social spaces, meditation. But games are more than that: they are virtual spaces behind our screens, tailor-made to our mental need to wander without incurring any of real travel's dangers and annoyances. Games' virtual spaces allow us to roam farther than reality does -- especially now, that the tools made to free us from fixed office spaces and the need to be physically present also, paradoxically, take away the necessity to leave our screens. There is, after all, a reduction in our daily lives' radius; we're living in the age of the "great indoors."

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It shouldn't surprise us that, in exchange, the virtual spaces around us are growing. Games let us decamp and set forth. And they take us to places that are as outlandish as our wildest fantasies: great underwater cities, showcasing madness and art deco, twisted death zones exhibiting the ruins of once-proud civilizations, megalomaniac architectures between Heaven and Hell.

Games give us places, spaces and whole continents to explore and wander. And all of them are here for us to sate our curiosity, to satisfy that ancient human need to see what's behind that hill, that mountain, that horizon. Why? For no other reason than the one the worlds's highest peak was conquered: "Because it's there."

Of course, some games facilitate this kind of video game tourism more than others. In some games -- Tetris, Counterstrike, Gran Turismo -- our actions are the be-all and end-all of the matter. Other games could be said to embrace the idea of virtual travel with all their heart -- Uncharted, Skyrim, Bioshock, Dear Esther, Limbo, Minecraft, Assassin's Creed, to name but a few -- and lure us ever deeper, promising whole worlds to be discovered only by us.

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It's these moments of exploration, of discovery, of being a nomad between the cities of Dunwall and Rapture, of wandering the plains of Skyrim and Pripyat, of exploring Liberty City's back alleys and Far Cry's Rook Island, that make games worthwhile.

It's easy to overlook this accomplishment of the medium; after all, not all games deliver equally in this regard. Experiments like Journey and Dear Esther have elevated the metaphor of wandering in virtual worlds to be their defining, even slightly esoteric moments. But, of course, even more traditional games offer lots of room for virtual tourism. It has become almost a hollow phrase in game writing to state that sense of place, not gameplay or narration, is king in this or that game, but it's still true for a wide variety of today's titles.

It should come as no surprise that the desire to explore and wander these virtual spaces inevitably shows itself in another manifestation of modern tourism: We yearn to take something with us from the places we experience, and so we take pictures. A growing number of accomplished in-game photographers document their wanderings in artful screenshots and show us details most often overlooked by busy players who are just visiting for a game's thrills. In games, at least, virtual tourists leave nothing but digital footprints - and take nothing but pictures.

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But wait: Games as substitute for real travels? That would be absurd. Reality, as frail as its edges are becoming, is still the great adventure of our lives. Anyone who has ever shivered in a tent in the Sottish highlands' summer, has seen the madness and glory of an Indian city or the sunrise over the Grand Canyon knows that reality and the virtual world are impossible to mistake for one another.

Our yearning for movement, for our ancestors' vagrant existence, can not be fully sated in virtual worlds, no matter how intricate. But still, games help us ease the burden of waiting for the joyful day when we turn off the monitor, tie our laces and head out again for real.

Games offer us spaces to explore and wander. By doing that, they give us an escape so desperately needed by our vagrant, nomadic souls trapped in a sedentary civilization. And that may just be their finest achievement.

This article is reprinted with the permission of Video Game Tourism. Click here for the original article.

Screenshot art by Midhras, Anthemios, PixieGirl4, Josh Taylor (2x), top to bottom.