How To Go Sightseeing In Video Games

What? Isn’t sightseeing for dorks?

When I was a little kid, I was taken on holiday by my grandparents. Our family didn’t have much money, so we didn’t go to Disneyland. We usually went to Wales. It rains a lot in Wales but there are mountains, by way of compensation. ‘Look at the lovely view’, my grandparents would say, a meaningless instruction for a ten-year-old. I didn’t want to look at the lovely view, which was mainly about big hunks of grey rock sticking up out of the ground. When we found a burger bar or somewhere that had arcade gaming machines, that was something to get excited about.

Then I grew up, started to take holidays on my own and sightseeing slowly became more interesting, but the child inside me didn’t forget that there is admiring lovely views and then there is action, and one of those things is inherently more exciting than the other. Video games are all about sensational action, so why would you want to use that medium to go around looking at things? Here’s why.

See the world – take yourself on a grand tour

Look at your bank balance and your remaining holiday time that’s owed to you by your job. Probably not enough in there to take a grand tour and see the world, right? Now look at your library of video games, which doubtless includes a large backlog of games you started and didn’t finish or barely touched. Any Assassin’s Creed titles in there? Far Cry? Anything by Rockstar? Congratulations, you have the makings of a trip around the world, right there.

Added to this, the last couple of years have seen the widespread introduction of photo mode into video games. Nvidia launched Ansel in 2016, a screen-capturing toolset that aims to help players take professional-quality photos of their in-game experiences. Games themselves have rapidly introduced photo mode, because they recognise that gamers want souvenir pictures of the places they’ve been. How are your friends going to know that you explored a South American rainforest or the ancient cities of Italy if you don’t have photos for your Instagram, right? Photo mode in games can be quite technical, much like real photography, with lots of terms like ‘aperture’, ‘exposure’, and ‘focal length’. If you are serious about in-game photography, learning how to use these tools will get your photos up to a professional standard and exhibition quality. If you want to take the easier route and just hit ‘capture screenshot’ or ‘print screen’ from time to time, that’s OK as well. There’s something for everyone and there are plenty of guides online for people want to get deeper into the serious photography aspects.

How to organise your tour

Like all big holidays, your grand tour around the world is going to benefit from advance planning. Don’t just randomly load a game with the vague idea of taking some screenshots, because you will become distracted and revert to your normal gaming style, later feeling that you didn’t see anything unusual or do anything different. Let’s take a more organised approach. There are at least a couple of ways that you can arrange your tour, based on your interests and the games you own.

First of all, shortlist the games you own or can access, that you will be happy to spend some time with over the coming period. Aim for about 15 titles to give yourself enough material to work with. Make a note of where they are set. Remember that some games, like Battlefield 1, have multiple real-world locations within one game. Now decide how long your grand tour is going to be and how fast you are going to get through these games. Leave enough time to do everything at a relaxed pace that takes account of the need to fit in your real life. I took a tour of history using video games in which I played 14 games over 14 long months, but this was an epic project that required a lot of persistence to complete. In planning your world tour, you might aim for a final list of six games selected from your shortlist. Playing them at a rate of one a month will allow you to fit in your tour around your real life and other gaming interests.

Like all good holidays, the fun really begins with planning your trip and you have at least a couple of options for ways to do this. A major decision that you’ll want to make early on is whether you are aiming for authenticity or whether you are happy to include games that give a depiction of various locations that is less than perfectly realistic. As part of that, you’ll also want to decide whether you are sticking to games that are set in places that exist on Earth or whether you are willing to include fantasy locations. For example, Skyrim is undeniably a fantasy, yet its setting is recognisably Scandinavian and in fact is quite a realistic depiction. Here are some suggestions for ways to organise your tour.

The start-at-home tour

Start with the place where you live. For me, that’s London, so my games library tells me that I’ll be playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015). Gradually expand further afield. I could choose to travel East, which would take me through Europe, then the Middle East, Russia, India, China, and eventually round to the US. Or I could travel to the US first and eventually return home via Europe. This will give you a sense of travelling round at least some parts of the world, in the style of a long holiday, but more or less excludes fantasy locations that you can’t find on a map of the Earth. You may also find yourself missing out locations that don’t sit in a neat line and require some jumping around the map, for instance, the path I’ve just mapped out here misses South America and Africa, amongst others.

The biome tour

An alternative journey starts at the Equator and moves towards the poles. This mimics the progression within some games, such as Ark: Survival Evolved, in which the easier zones of the game are sunny beaches, and you gradually progress north until you come to the almost uninhabitable frozen wastes that represent the hard zones. This will allow you more creative freedom because you can zoom around a world map in a non-linear way and it will also allow you to include fantasy locations if you want to.

The authenticity tour

This tour is a different take on gaming. Instead of playing games in order of the place where they are set, play in order of the place where they were made. This will yield a completely different experience, one that might result in playing more mobile and tablet games and in purchasing a few items to round out your collection. It’s important to note that there’s no automatic connection between setting and the place of manufacture. Games made in Africa do not necessarily feature depictions of Africa (although some do). What’s more, there are some parts of the world which simply do not make games. If your tourist ambitions include visiting Antarctica, the authenticity tour is not for you.

But wait – isn’t tourism a problem?

You’re right, it’s a massive problem. Tourists have swarmed over and physically damaged Venice for years. It’s hard to reverse and some people have complained that the restraint measures aren’t helping Venice, which is gradually turning into a theme park as officials install turnstiles at the entrance to popular areas, requiring tourists to queue to get in. Of course, your video game tour of Venice won’t damage it at all as long as you don’t follow up by physically going there, but that doesn’t mean you are off the hook. Tourism in video games has plenty of problems of its own.

The biggest objection is that games, which for the time being are overwhelmingly white and Western, offer gamers entertaining tourism of other people’s lives and problems without ever having to seriously engage with the issues. Critics have complained about identity tourism, closely linked to racism in games, in which white players are invited to live out a fantasy of being a black man. Not just any black person of course, not a woman, not an intellectual. A ‘stereotypical’ black man with ‘huge muscles, a bullish attitude and a gang’. Some games which offer this experience, especially beat-em-ups, are clearly not interested in exploring real black lives or problems such as poverty or oppression, so the gamer receives no insight or worthwhile education. Racist stereotypes are perpetuated and white gamers have a good time, their prejudices untroubled and even bolstered. Another contentious issue is mental health tourism. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice went to great lengths to offer a meaningful and realistic depiction of psychosis. Makers Ninja Theory even went out of their way to consult with mental health professionals and people who live with psychosis, to ensure a fair and sensitive representation. Even so, there were still critics who felt that the game was a form of mental illness tourism in that it offered a simulation of mental illness for purposes of mere entertainment, while keeping gamers from having to do anything less comfortable to educate themselves such as reading or talking to people in their community who are struggling with mental health.

When we grasp these issues, it’s clear that an affluent European or American using their spending power to tour a biased and culturally-appropriated version of the real world might have some problems. Some games were built for tourism – the Assassin’s Creed series is like a catalogue of popular tourist hotspots, conveniently glossing over aspects that aren’t much fun. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is an unapologetic celebration of one, very simplistic account of the 18th century Caribbean where it’s all jolly pirates, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum and no acknowledgement of the slave trade or the fact that the Enlightenment period was largely characterised by Europe aggressively colonising other countries and stealing from them. Far Cry 2 is set in war-torn central Africa and while Far Cry is an outstanding series of games, it’s hard not to wonder whether playing with a simulation of central Africa, where war is really taking place and real people are dying, is absolutely okay if you are doing it for pure entertainment.

I encountered this same problem when I took my tour through history – Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was on my list and probably none of the games I played would have won any prizes for historical accuracy. As you plan your world tour, you have two ways of tackling this problem.

The first solution is to acknowledge the errors and biases and treat them as a built-in feature of an inevitably partial experience. You can treat the bias and partial representation as part of the thing you are looking at, rather than trying to look past it. My grand tour of history was full of historical anachronisms. Humans were running around with dinosaurs in Ark: Survival Evolved. Ancient Greece had fantasy and myth instead of real life, not as an adjunct to it (God of War III). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was more a nostalgic memory of 1990s Los Angeles than the way it actually was, otherwise there would have been a lot more police brutality, riots, national politics and tension between African-Americans and Koreans in poor neighbourhoods. It’s possible to regard these things as an interesting aspect of the tourism you are experiencing as long as you don’t take your eye off the ball and start believing that you are experiencing the real thing.

The second solution is to take the authenticity tour and try to play games which were developed in the locations you are exploring. For example, most games set in Tokyo are made in Japan and Western students of Mandarin Chinese sometimes recommend learning to play simple mobile and tablet games in Chinese as a way of advancing their language skills. This should also give you a worthwhile tour of games from developing markets. If you are really serious about doing this properly, it might mean completing your collection by adding a few titles from developing regions. Games development is finding its place in Africa and you could make a point of getting to know Maliyo Games, based in Nigeria, Black Division Games in Kenya, Cameroon studio Kiro’o Games and Leti Arts of Ghana and Kenya – Leti’s flagship game is Africa’s Legends, played by text message so that people across Africa can play whether they own a smartphone or a feature phone. For India, there are the mobile games of Nazara or you might look at the indie action game Asura by Ogre Head Studio or the art-house, interactive fiction game A Museum of Dubious Splendours, by Studio Oleomingus. Museum is free on Steam and Asura retails on Steam at only £6.99. The Arabic-speaking world is also better catered for in and by games than it used to be. 22 countries are part of The Arab League (formerly the League of Arab States) and they show massive wealth disparity, between Saudi Arabia at one end and Jordan at the other, so it is a complicated and diverse market and branch of the games industry. Companies like Naughty Dog and Ubisoft are working on localisation, which essentially means adding subtitles and dubbed voice acting in Arabic. Then there are games which are made within Arab League countries, which promise to offer a more authentic experience. Doing this should give you a good flavour of how different regions are tackling games development, yet it comes without a guarantee that you’ll get to take selfies using the latest photo-mode technology in attractive locations. Quite likely, you’ll be playing mobile games that are genuinely educational and will broaden your experience but which are never going to look as impressive as the AAA games that amount to most of your current library. It’s your decision what type of tour you want to take.

I only like one genre of video games. Can I still go on a world tour?

You can. Games have placed so much emphasis on location that you can do a satisfying world tour within a single genre. Here are some suggestions.

Driving and racing games.  Dirt Rally 2.0 takes place in Argentina, New Zealand and Spain, among other locations. Grand Theft Auto is unmistakably in LA. Forza Horizon offers a road trip through the UK, France, Italy and Australia.

Beat-em-up is a very East Asian genre. Yakuza is set in Japan, ported to PC from Sega. Persona 5 is set in Japan. Sleeping Dogs is in Hong Kong. There are exceptions – Bayonetta (2009) is set in a fictional European city and so is Devil May Cry, made by a Japanese team of developers, proving that cultural cross-fertilisation in games travels in both directions.

Shoot-em-up is such a large category that there are too many locations to list but let’s note that Metal Gear Solid V is set in Angola. Games set in outer space are over-represented in shoot-em-ups, so if that’s your thing you might want to take an expansive view of what counts as a location.

RPGs are more likely to be set in fantasy worlds – consider Bioshock, Fallout and Dark Souls. If this is your genre, you might want to take the biome tour which doesn’t depend on a firm connection to real places.

Action-Adventure. This is going to lend itself to the start-at-home tour and you can’t go wrong with the Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Uncharted series which seem to have been explicitly developed with tourism in mind.

Puzzle games are a bit like outer-space games in the sense that they don’t attempt realistic locations or even locations which are physically capable of existing. You can definitely still get some nice photos for your album – the island in The Witness is one particularly worth exploring and so is Monument Valley 2.

Travel tips

Okay, you’re almost ready. You’ve decided what kind of tour you will take, for how long and in what locations. You’ve made a final list of half a dozen games, ordered in a way that will take you on a meaningful tour of the places you want to visit. Here are a few last-minute travel tips to help you on your way.

  • Learn how to use your camera before setting off. If your game has a sophisticated photo mode, learn how to use it before you haul yourself to the top of a mountain and need to get photos quickly before there’s a snowstorm.
  • Pick your travelling companion carefully. Don’t pick games based solely on their nice scenery, you will regret it. Make sure you prioritise games where you actually like the main character, because you will be spending a lot of time with them. I had an experience with The Witcher 3, the promotional images for which look just like a travel brochure. It is all rolling hills, meadows of wild flowers and glorious sunshine. When I arrived in the game, much as in real life, it was raining. In fact, just like my childhood holidays with Grandma, it rained a lot. It was dark, muddy and I didn’t like Geralt. So don’t get in this position where you have gone on a holiday where it rains the whole time and you are stuck indoors with some guy that you don’t like. Choose your travelling companion as a matter of priority because nice weather is not guaranteed.
  • Plan to do something on arrival. Of course you will take screen caps and your character will take selfies, but your photos will be more interesting and personal if you plan ahead. Do some advance research and look up some locations within the game that you’d like to go to. Fan communities and possibly the game itself will offer suggestions. World of Warcraft offers an in-game achievement called Field Photographer in which it sets out 42(!) photographable locations where you should take a selfie. Find out if the games on your list offer something similar.
  • Record your adventures! When I took my 14-month tour of history, I blogged about it each month as well as getting lots of screen caps. Your holiday will be much more memorable if you organise your photos and write some notes about the experience you had and what you were doing.

Happy sightseeing!