Video Games & Travel
I’m flying at about 4,500ft, south of Canberra, heading towards Cooma. The autopilot is on and I’m just sitting, watching the world go by. Then a buzzer goes off. I hit pause and answer the door – it’s a package that needed delivering.
Good thing flight simulators can be paused.
I, like, a probably an actual majority of people, have found myself very nearly house-bound throughout most of this year. At best, largely bound to my own suburb. It’s a beautiful suburb. Leafy and spacious. But at a certain point, every street feels like I’ve walked down it a hundred times, and I find myself itching to travel. Not even in that “tinder profile of person who notes how many countries they’ve been to” way, just in the “going for a train trip out of the city” way.
My standards, I suppose, have dropped.
But it does mean I’ve been playing video games more than I think I ever really have before. I had sort of lost a lot of interest in gaming in the past few years, but with little else to do, I’ve been burrowing deep into games that let me be somewhere else.
Mostly open-world games – ones I’m fond of, or ones I haven’t played. And Flight Simulator 2020, of course – which has been a balm in an awful year. What I found, though, is that my favourite games are ones that take me to places that truly exist, if in a more real form than the condensed versions of cities and spaces we see in video games.
I very quickly found, however, that the places I most wanted to ‘go’ in these video games were places I have been before.
With a mod tacked on to play GTA V with my VR headset, I drove, in the rain, to the virtual Santa Monica pier and just stood there, watching waves crash and people run for cover.
I found myself remembering what the first cocktail I had at that pier had tasted like. How accurately the bird poop on the hand rails were modelled. The feeling the humidity in sprinkled rain.
Then there was my flight down past the, uh… optimistically modelled Lake George, over Canberra, Cooma and finally into the Snowy Mountains. I’d just stare out the window, and it was there I saw a small farm. A large house, a shed, a water tank, a dirt road leading down the gentle hillside to join Jindabyne Road.
Memories flooded back of visiting a family friend’s property, decades ago. The crisp, cool air and the smell of the bushes. Trying not to tread in rabbit-hole while hiking about. The odd sheep-skull from long-past flocks of past owners. The odd mixture of a very cool breeze coupled with the warmth of the late afternoon sun.
Flights over Hawai’i brought back similar memories – cooking dinner in a cheap motel in the rainforest just out of Hilo, being amazed by the intense green of the little lizard that crawled by on the outside of the flyscreen.
After a few weeks of this I realised something – it had become my primary purpose when I played games. I’d been seeking these out – ways to trigger intense and positive memories through video games.
I can’t see my friends in Seattle. It’s likely I won’t be able to see them for some time yet – but I can walk through its streets in Infamous Second Son, giving me pleasant memories of whiskey bars, rainy mornings, craft beer and walks through nearby forest trails.
I can even bring back weird memories of Schoolies Week in Byron Bay two decades ago, by playing Forza Horizon 3.
When I go to virtualised spaces in a video game, based on places I’ve not been, I am making my own memories. I have feelings and experiences visiting the Mumbai streets in Hitman 2, but they are entirely about that game. They’re about the fictionalised, violent world of contract killing, not memories of the real place brought back from the game – as I’ve never been there.
So I keep playing more games set in places I know and love, and realise something else: these video games are making me want to travel more than any advertisement or even most any movie.
They’re letting me travel, and they’re a gateway to my own memories – in a time when it feels like memories are really all I have.