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Examining the overlap between game design and tourism psychology

How do the two compare and why is this important to how game developers design games?

Can the experience of play be compared to the act of tourism? In a GDC 2022 talk, The Moonwalls indie game developer and and academic lecturer at the Academy of Art in Szczecin Marcin Makaj makes the case that the philosophical framework around the psychology of tourism can be applied to players in the virtual world, with implications for how we design in-game experiences. 

To begin the lecture, Makaj provided a definition of a real-world tourist, as a "person who voluntarily leaves his place of residence to temporarily go to a different place to experience other cultures customers or events and then return to familiar surroundings." Tourism, it is argued, is characterized by impermanence, voluntary, and its primary purpose is to experience other places and cultures. 

There are many theorists who have summarized the motivations and desires of tourists. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin felt that modern tourists do not want a real experience, but rather, a sanitized one. They are typically drawn to landscape features, a framework of reality rather than the authentic experience of the culture they are visiting. Professor of human economy Dean MacCannell meanwhile, feels that tourists are not given opportunities for that authenticity and have to seek it out themselves. And professor of sociology and anthropology Erik Cohen's theory acts perhaps as a bridge between these two ideas, arguing that tourists pursue staged events because they do not have the expertise to seek out authenticity, and having such skills is seen as opposite of entertainment.

These definitions, Makaj argues, can be applied to players. They want something new and different from their own reality, but they want it to be safe. They want a safe margin to explore a culture within what they perceive to be the authentic experience, whether that is a reflection of that culture's reality or not. To that end, a player, like a tourist, can be defined as "a person who mentally leaves his familiar surroundings to temporarily go to a different virtual place, experience virtual cultures, customs or events, and then return to the familiar surroundings." Their motivations are similar to that of people who travel for real-world culture experiences, and they do not want pain, danger or other forms of discomfort in the process--and environmental bubble more akin to an on-rails experience than an authentic representation of place or culture. 

So why is this significant? Because we can this knowledge to develop better games. Makaj says in some cases they may provide what the player perceives to be the superior and more "authentic" experience. Drawing on the theory of simulations and simulacra, he argues that a copy or reproduction of a thing or person is akin to the concept of the "hyperreal", that is, things that are not the "real" thing but are real in their own right. Combine this with sight sacralization theory, the relationship between tourist, view and marker, that the marker of a place gives attraction to its character and in turn will be viewed as symbolic of that specific place. Then apply that to how historical places and buildings are used in video games. In Assassin's Creed, for example, one of the games takes place during the French Revolution, before the Eiffel Tower was built. But because other cultures so deeply identify Paris with the Eiffel Tower, to players of the game, the setting might have been seen as less than authentic because the tower was not present. So the designers had to include a specific time anomaly feature to explain why the building would be present in an historical era it did not belong to. Thus, a virtual copy of something that is real can become real in its own right. 

Makaj's talk was unfortunately cut short of its original planned running time, and thus he was not able to elaborate further on some of his arguments. But wrapping up the session, he summarized the five different types of tourists and players, providing further insight into why players seek out games, giving us new avenues of deliberate design choices. They are characterized as: recreational (recreation experience for entertainment, does not necessarily value authenticity), diversionary (does not look for meaningful connection, seeks escapism-- similar to recreational tourists/players), experiential (looks for life transforming experience, usually because the tourist or player is unable to live authentic real life. ex: someone recovering from grief or loss), experimental (seeking to experience something real, authentic and unique from own life, tends to value immersion), and existential (similar to previous, but more extreme. Becomes a way of life combining reality with virtual. ex: immersive MMOs). With these general motivations in mind, we can have a better understanding of what different players want from the virtual worlds they experience and design games more deliberately around those desires.  

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