Are players tourists or travelers?

“Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here,” according to a recent piece by Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison in Opinionator. There are clear parallels to gameplay here— many gamers can attest to the dangers of play-as-escapism. Unlike travel, however, players can return home with the ease and immediacy of pressing an on/off button. Unless, of course, they can’t pull themselves away.

Stavans and Ellison differentiate “travel” from “tourism,” the former being rooted in open-endedness and discovery, with the latter based around set parameters and control:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Seeking meaning in the lives of others requires interaction, and while many multiplayer games offer plently of it, one would probably deem “sudden death-match” more akin to destroying meaning in the lives of others than “finding” it. So which category does gaming fall under— tourism or travel?

Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.

What do we seek when we play games? By choosing to play those that challenge us, those that ask us to channel our restlessness, we may be dragged through discomfort and struggle towards something rewarding and unique