Thursday, November 17, 2011

Video Game Tourism and the Azeri Oil Rocks

My interest in Azerbaijan stemmed from two completely different sources. The first from my oft-mentioned hero Ryszard Kapuscinski. In Imperium, his collection of reportage about the Soviet Union, his prose moved from the usually concrete and clipped language of a journalist and took on a surreal quality when he described climbing a tower over the Oil Rocks in Azerbaijan's capital Baku.

From the tower I will be able to see the Oil Rocks shine, and Nik-Nik says that I cannot leave until I have seen this. The tower stands in the middle of the sea, the sea is black, although it is called Caspian, and I am climbing up to heaven on stairs that creak because they are made of wood, the whole tower is made of wood nailed together, it reaches to the stars, and although the wind rocks it like a stalk, it stands, gniotsa nie lamiosta (it will bend but it wont break), so on this tower I am climbing up the heaven, it is dark here, actually it is black like the sea, I prefer not to look anymore, I would like to stop, enough is enough, but I can hear Nik-Nik going farther, so I go too, into the darkness, into the abyss, into the chasm.

Whatever drove him to move to the surreal must be worth further investigation. To this end it's worth mentioning a little about the Oil Rocks. They are some of the first Soviet oil rigs, built by in 1949, to access the vast oil reserves that lie under the Caspian Sea. Instead of an isolated concrete and steel platform hundreds of kilometers from the shore, they are actually a series of interconnected islands built on rocks, landfill and mounds of dirt joined to the mainland (see image above). In the 1980s many of the wells dried up and many of the roads sunk into the sea. According to Google sightseeing:

Despite the conditions, the platforms still have a combined population of about 5,000 men, who work in week-long offshore shifts, and collectively they produce over half of the total crude oil output of Azerbaijan.

The second reason why I considered Azerbaijan worthy of a mention on my "must haves" itinerary was that they are the location of a safehouse used to protect the character Khaled Al-Asad in the 2007 video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I'm sure it is tempting for many readers to write off as naive and adolescent the desire to travel somewhere based on a fictitious fight against Russian Ultranationalists in a video game, and, phrased like that, indeed it does sound ridiculous.

Nevertheless, for a moment consider the effect that the 2000 film The Beach had on tourism in Thailand, or Lord of the Rings on tourism in New Zealand. The former is not only a glorification of Thailand as an exotic and beautiful setting, it is also an unadorned statement of the backpacker's motives - to stay one step ahead of the main throng of tourists, escape the dull homogeneity and the superficial lies of the tourist highway to find somewhere exclusive and authentic. Tied to this is the extraordinary set of circumstances that are required for this to happen - a secret map is given to the protagonist in The Beach by a mad man. The implication is clear - that the proliferation of salivating westerners, trying to outrun one another is nearly complete. The contradiction of film tourism has never been so succinctly stated - if a film depicts a beautiful setting then the very existence of the film, as an artifice of mass media will result in the destruction of this setting in real life. In short the illusion destroys itself. Despite this message, tourists still flock to go and see Maya Bay in Krabi, Thailand or, if you must, "the beach from The Beach" which is resulting in numerous environmental issues for Maya Bay

My point is that in order for a tourist to watch The Beach and still decide that it is a worthy destination despite the fact that the movie also explains, in the very same breath, why it's not, would require such a deliberate suspension of thought on the part of the tourist that we must ask "Is video game tourism so ridiculous?"

What are the differences between film and video games? The first and obvious answer is how "real" they appear - there once was a beach that looked like "The Beach" while "the safehouse" is constructed entirely from the imaginations of developers, that more than likely have never been to Azerbaijan. The argument goes film has an anchor in reality, it is not a projection of someone's imagination. The second difference is how films are a passive form of entertainment while video games are an immersive and interactive experience. Let me deal with these in turn.

For this comparison we need something a little more similar in terms of setting. Consider the difference between The Beach and the acclaimed 2004 game Far Cry. The film is contrived with it's lighting, it's perspective, it's scope, the location which it depicts, all of which are elements from reality which are picked, tweaked and chosen for the purpose of skewing reality so that it is consistent with an imaginary reality. It is interesting to note that Maya Bay was bulldozed to make it wider and sixty palm trees were planted specifically for the film. Both, Far Cry and Maya Bay have "breathtaking cliffs", "corel [sic] beds" and "transparent seas" quoted directly from the Maya Bay tourism site. It is the fidelity of the imaginary projection that is higher in film, than in video games because the reality is constructed from a composition of elements borrowed from actual reality making the projection more realistic. A computer game, on the other hand, is a synthesised imitation, as opposed to a composition.

The implication here is that as the fidelity increases in video games and imitation of actual settings can be achieved more accurately people travelling to various locations because they have played them in video games, or video game tourism, will become ever more prevalent.
This is accentuated by the fact that increasingly our world is a constructed one, a patchwork dreams, strung together from movies, advertisements of all forms and various other forms of mass media (ahem video games) as opposed to first hand experience.

This brings me to the second difference which is the degree of interactivity required of the audience in video games. I'd posit that there is a far more substantial barrier between the viewer when they watch a movie than with a player enjoying a video game. It is almost superfluous to say that this is because the player is able to exercise a degree of control over the movements and events within the game that are just not possible in a film. The real question is how is this likely to affect video game tourism in the future? Let me answer this question with another question: Have you ever spent holidays glued to your PC or console? Was it enough of an escape to experience a world by proxy through a character on the screen? If I am being too cryptic - the second difference might serve as a counter-point to the first - instead of wanting to travel somewhere because one has seen it in a video game, experiencing this place through a video game could become sufficient. It brings to mind Total Recall and the Philip K Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" on which the movie was based. So in the future instead of rocking around a South-Pacific atoll with an M4 Carbine would it be enough to dig your toes in the sand and feel the water lapping at your toes. Either way it is worth considering the two meanings of the phrase "Video Game Tourism".

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