Have you ever watched a TV advert for a new computer game and struggled to tell the difference between the gameplay graphics and real life?

If your answer is yes, then you could well be onto something. Thanks to recent mind-bending developments in software modelling and in-game design, the digital worlds of today’s games have become so detailed, realistic and vast that an exciting new trend has emerged: digital tourism. 

What is digital tourism?

Digital tourism allows “travellers” to recreate all the experiences and feelings of real world exploration, with the small difference that each epic voyage takes place in a digital dimension. It is the crossover between tourism as we know it – or have known it – and gaming. Because over time, the once obvious boundaries between what is “real” and what isn’t have been gradually eroded by developments in technology. These changes have given rise to a brave new world – one that is freed from the laws we are familiar with and is defined by endless possibilities. The thrill you get when you step off a plane or the buzz of exploring somewhere completely new are no longer the exclusive preserve of well-heeled holidaymakers. Instead, digital tourism offers a groundbreaking and thrilling new way to travel.        

More and more gamers are choosing to go off the beaten track, becoming fully immersed in their virtual worlds. From the dense overgrown jungle and epic temples of Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the vast open expanses of Metro Exodus’s former Russian Federation to the otherworldly, volatile planet of Anthem and the futuristic, war-torn Halo 5: Guardians, digital tourism caters for all types of travellers.

Immense rock structure high above the ground

Tyrant Mine, Anthem

Reality as we know it happens in a flash ­– and a big part of what makes an experience seem “real” is how we feel, experience and remember it. Thanks to technological constraints, video games have not been able to get close to replicating a “real” experience. Until now. Virtual reality and other ground-breaking technologies are driving force behind this change. Now that gamers are starting to experience similar feelings in the virtual world to ones they undergo in the “real” world, who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t?

Why not just go there in real life?

Part of the appeal of digital tourism is its ready availability. Granted, consoles and games aren’t cheap these days, but neither are flights and hotels. You can engage in digital tourism from the comfort of your own living room, you don’t have to take time off work, get any vaccinations or visas, or deal with any other tiresome travel-related admin – and it’s environmentally friendly too.

There’s also the social factor. Okay, so you don’t meet the people you are gaming with face-to-face, but you can talk to gamers from all over the globe whilst exploring a faraway new world together. Technology has come a long way since the days of dial-up modems and painfully slow internet connections.

But digital tourism is not all about convenience and cost. Due to the variety of games and the vastness of the worlds within, digital tourism provides gamers with a unique chance to have a truly bespoke travel experience. Imagine being able to travel the world – and in some cases entirely new planets – without having to leave your own living room. That’s what digital tourism is all about and why it’s so popular. With so many worlds to choose from, digital tourism offers the user more choice than the real world does, where fantasies run really, really wild. 

In-game photography

Digital tourism has become so popular that sub-trends have begun to emerge, such as in-game photography. Travel and photography have always been closely linked – if you don’t have a picture of you standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, did you even go? This relationship, coupled with the huge variety of digital landscapes and the new opportunities presented by them, helps to explain why gamers are taking in-game screengrabs to document their digital travels.

In fact, in-game photography is becoming something of an art form: there are dedicated Instagram accounts and even gallery exhibitions documenting some of the world’s finest in-game snaps. Duncan Harris, who goes by the name Dead End Thrills, is one of the best-known in-game photographers around. He has been “photographing” game scenes for more than ten years, from epic abstract vistas to up-close-and-personal portraits.

Of course, this trend in particular begs the question, are these in-game screen grabs actually photographs? Not in the traditional sense of the word, as they are essentially capturing images of the work done by the game’s developers and designers. However, traditions, words and technologies are all changing, and there is a strong case that they do constitute art. After all, in-game photographers have the same motivation as real-world photographers: to document a moment in time, capture striking images of landmarks and to preserve memories. In-game photography is another example of how technology is changing the way we perceive and experience the world.

Find out more

Rough Guides have partnered with Xbox to produce The Rough Guide to Xbox, a pioneering new guide that embraces digital tourism. The guide documents and explores the in-game worlds of eight Xbox One X Enhanced games: Forza Horizon 4, Sea of Thieves, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Anthem, Halo 5: Guardians, Metro Exodus and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Using Rough Guides’ unique “tell it like it is” ethos and user-friendly format, the guide features maps for each game, along with in-game photography and other useful features, helping to bring each virtual world to life for the reader.   

Dense skyscrapers in the evening

Noctus, Halo 5: Guardians  

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