How Do Virtual Experiences Influence Our Travels?

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Studies show that exploring the cyberian frontier amps up our desire for real adventure.

In the Information Age, we’re virtual voyagers first and socks‑and‑sandalled tourists second. It’s rare to set foot anywhere without leaving a trail of cookies across Yelp and Tripadvisor galleries or tip‑thumbing our way through the Instagram stories of someone else’s vacation. We can even scale the facade of Notre‑Dame or swim in the ancient underwater city of Pavlopetri without boarding a flight. But do these virtual exploits influence how we actually travel? 

March 17, 2022

Scholars have taken up the question through the lens of “media‑induced tourism,” a line of research that explores the power of film, video games, social media and virtual reality to inspire us to book tickets, pull on real wetsuits or re‑enact iconic scenes. For instance, is it even possible to stroll past the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s front steps without hearing the Rocky theme in your head? Tens of thousands of visitors a year would say no.  

   Photo: Assassin’s Creed Unity

The well‑established pull power of cinema spurred researchers at Ryerson University to investigate the link between travel and video games. They surveyed online comments about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed Unity, which transport players to hyperreal depictions of 15th‑century renaissance Florence and 18th‑century French Revolution‑era Paris respectively. The researchers found players who visited either city in real life not only associated their travels with their virtual exploits as a roof‑hopping assassin, but the gameplay also helped some find their way around town. “It’s just like Assassin’s Creed except the Duomo now has a marble facade, making it significantly harder to climb the exterior,” remarked one commenter about visiting Florence.

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“There were a lot of people saying, ‘I’ve done this in the game, and it feels surreal to be able to do it in real life,’” says Dr. Louis‑Etienne Dubois, co‑author of the study. In more recent research, Dubois and colleagues found that because video games create deep immersion, they can elicit strong emotional responses influenced by the way a destination is depicted. “If the storyline is not overly positive, it leads to a lasting negative impression as well,” he says. Unfavourable film representations can have the same effect – 47 years after its release, Jaws still makes some of us wary of wading too far out into the ocean.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that positive VR experiences instill a greater desire to visit places in person, or even compel people to pay more for real‑world products. Virtual interactions can also extend your vacation experience both before and after a trip, Dubois says, whether it be revisiting a museum online, away from the madding crowds, or coming face to face with African elephants roaming the savannah through your virtual headset. 

So, while virtual simulations can’t replicate real places, they do evoke real responses, including the emotional connections you get from being there in the flesh.

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Pretend It’s a City  

Add these trending virtual destinations to your travel bucket list.  

Photo: Second Life

New Babbage, Second Life 

Founded in 2007, this Victorian‑era city state is the longest‑running steampunk community in Second Life, an online world created by Linden Lab. Here, people live out parallel lives as swashbuckling airship captains, mad inventors and street urchins, attending Oiling Festivals, tall‑tale salons and balls. As the city motto asks, “What could possibly go wrong?”  

Photo: Decentraland

Genesis City, Decentraland 

Genesis City is the capital of Decentraland, a blockchain‑powered metaverse where a tract of virtual land recently sold for the equivalent of $2.43 million. From Genesis Plaza, visitors can head to the Voltaire Art District to bid on NFT art auctions at a replica of Sotheby’s London galleries, gamble crypto MANA at the casino or visit the theme park FantasticLand.  

Photo: Roblox

Roblox

Roblox is an online platform where people can play games made by indie developers. Last year, gamers spent more than 11.2 billion hours dressing their avatars in exclusive digital threads from Ralph Lauren, scarfing down pseudo‑burritos at Chipotle and even travelling as virtual passengers on board flights complete with check‑ins inside virtual airports.

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