Many 3-D computer games invite you to explore a virtual space, but few so far have conjured the experience of travel. Sure, geography trivia games send you from Nashville to Norway, Bonaire to Zimbabwe, looking for Carmen Sandiego. And every MMOG makes you tramp across three maps to kill 30 rats. But this gameplay captures no more of the travel experience than a back-seat game of Highway Alphabet.

What is the “travel experience”? Every traveler gives different answers, but check these:

  • You’re lost and thirsty in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, under a sun that would scorch tar. On a city road so bad all the potholes have joined, leaving isolated mesas of pavement, you see a crowded wooden shack with a hand-drawn sign: TEA. You enter, and in a heartbeat, 30 people fall dead silent. You feel their stares. Sipping from a dirty glass, carefully avoiding eye contact with a roomful of people who seem inexplicably nervous, you realize you’re likely this shop’s very first white customer.
  • In a nearly empty night bus rattling through rural Java toward Semarang, passengers amble over and sit right next to you, as close as possible; that’s courtesy in Indonesia. After midnight, at the turnoff to Yogyakarta, the bus drops you off in some unknown village where nobody speaks any English at all – and I mean none. By the time you find a bicycle-rickshaw driver, a guest house, the bus station and the right bemo south – all without a guidebook – you feel you’re in an old-style Sierra adventure game, putting the tape on the fence to get the cat fur to make the mustache to match the passport.
  • Walking down a village road in Cappadocia toward one of Turkey’s underground cities, you stop to talk to a child – or rather, not talk, because here again nobody speaks English. After a few moments, her parents invite you into their house; that’s courtesy in Muslim societies. The whole family gathers round to serve you black tea, goat cheese and home-grown olives. You have no way to talk, so you just size each other up and enjoy the conviviality. Later, back at your pension, you fall delirious with food poisoning.
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I can almost visualize experiences like these (minus the delirium) happening in a computer game. Yet I’ve never seen a game simulate anything like these incidents, which happened to me on seven-month backpacking trips around the world (1992-93) and across sub-Saharan Africa (1998-99). In my otherwise humdrum life these trips were high points and low points, bringing out in me the best and worst. Travel isn’t inherently good or bad, but it’s definitely extreme. It’s life with all the knobs turned up. Travel doesn’t feel like a story or movie, where you passively observe. Rather, in every moment you’re actively figuring or doing or dodging – just like in a good game.

Games and travel: In certain ways they’re the same thrill. Developers have seldom tried for that feeling. But it’s possible this may soon change.

Of course, games are inherently about exploration, in the abstract sense of discovering strategies and options, seeing how rules interact and so on. And yes, you can summon screenshots of Warhammer halls bigger than the Taj Mahal, or mountain vistas in Lord of the Rings Online reminiscent of New Zealand. But a traveler’s favorite moments aren’t always about monuments, scenery, museums or food. Often the wanderer speaks most fondly of encounters on the road, whether with locals or fellow travelers. For me, the best of travel, its quintessence, is confrontation with the Other: societies wholly different from mine, cultures built on assumptions so divergent from my own that I hadn’t realized they were assumptions.

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This, for me, is why playing MMOGs doesn’t feel like travel. They offer too little of the Other. Online games transport you to other lands or other planets, but once you arrive, it all seems pretty much like the place you left. Non-player characters (NPCs) act the same way. You do pretty much the same things and kill pretty much the same creatures, though they have different animations and color schemes.

In many cases this is a feature, not a bug. Sometimes the genre requires it. You want to easily navigate the worlds in Star Wars Galaxies because, Ewoks notwithstanding, the heroes usually do that in the movies. In Tolkien, one part of Eriador is much like another, and so it is in LoTRO. Your City of Heroes superhero may time-travel visit Cimerora in ancient Rome, but why bother learning Latin when that’s seldom a problem in the comics? Even regardless of genre, MMOGs can safely omit much of the travel experience. Language barriers are only useful if they enforce interesting gameplay, as with the Horde and Alliance factions in World of Warcraft. Players don’t want to get lost trying to find the train station, nor dodge traffic on the way there, nor figure out the schedule, change currency or watch for pickpockets. Travel presents many frustrations, and nobody wants to play them.

But MMOGs omit much of the Other mainly because it’s not cost effective. The work designers and artists expend on creating it is, by definition, confined to a specific area. After they get it all neat and entertaining and Other-y, they must start over from scratch to create a different kind of Otherness on a different map. And for what audience? How many players explicitly seek that experience? The best market is probably backpackers on seven-month trips, and when they can even get online, they’re busy writing home asking for money.

I still think, though, the experience offers clear play value. On the road, the simple challenge of getting to Point B by Time C can be exciting and, if you succeed, satisfying. Players who understand and respect a map’s local cultural norms could get special missions and rewards. They would enjoy offbeat and flavorful dangers, in the same way slumming tourists pay for a simulated illegal Mexican border crossing or a trip to Chernobyl.

How, then, do you create such experiences for a small audience at a reasonable cost? The answer, as with so many current web ventures, is user-generated content.

In truth, you can experience a strong, if selective, Otherness online just by surfing Google Images with Safe Search off – or, in a 3-D world, by logging into Second Life. There you often feel you’ve stepped into a truly alien place – for better or worse – because residents of Second Life can create anything they want. And boy, do they. Brothels of furry debauch aren’t the Otherness I mean, but the Second Life experience does raise the idea of a user-created travel experience.

By accepting and leveraging the cultural differences of their players, internationally popular MMOGs could foster a healthy regionalism, more constructive and less bloody than real-world versions. Encourage players to group in some pleasant, non-threatening way that honors their heritage. Give all the Ukrainian players incentives to create Ukrainian NPCs, missions and architecture near one another. Do the same for the Scandinavian players, the Chinese and so on. They don’t need wildly various terrains or textures – even in an urban environment like City of Heroes, players could create cultural enclaves like San Francisco’s Chinatown or Singapore’s Little India. Provide a community feedback system to rate and promote fun cultural stuff. Reward players for visiting each other’s locales. Just be ready to ban griefers.

Possibly nationalist and cultural identities will prove too scary for MMOG publishers. After all, the blood feuds of ten centuries can easily migrate online. Yet we can still look to individual players. New open architectures and versatile toolkits like Metaplace let industrious creators conjure, populate and link their own virtual worlds. Over time, the best of these could conceivably grow as ornate as Ancient Rome in Google Earth. These home-grown spaces should offer plenty of Otherness – and maybe they won’t all be brothels of furry debauch.

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I’ll look forward to that, but I still hope to keep travelling. No online game can capture that entire experience, because the experience has two parts: going somewhere new and, just as important, getting away from where you were. As long as you can turn off the computer and go to sleep in your own bed, you’ll never experience the second part – the part that changes you.

In space, some astronauts feel a euphoric “Overview Effect.” Travel isn’t so mystical, at least not for me, but separation from the familiar does bring you to a different place mentally as well as physically. That, I think, cannot be replicated in games. A good game is about agency, about choosing actions and acquiring gradual mastery over your environment. In one important sense, travel is about the opposite of mastery. It’s about stepping off the edge, out of your comfort zone, and seeing where the path takes you and what it makes you. It’s not about decisions at all, except for one crucially important decision, the first one: the decision to go.

Allen Varney, designer of the paper-and-dice roleplaying game PARANOIA (2004 edition), now manages Ninjalistics, your top-quality provider of corporate espionage and assassination solutions.

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