I used to play Red Dead Redemption because it made me feel homesick, in the best way possible. I was living up in Chicago at the time, suffering through the corporate world after a misguided jaunt through grad school, and John Marston’s Adventures in the Wild West helped me recall the years when I worked as a cowboy on the Central Texas prairies.

In Bonnie MacFarlane’s ranch, I saw a ghost of the spread where I used to work. The simple act of traveling from one location to another reminded me of a unique chunk of the real world where it once wasn’t uncommon to ride up and visit with neighboring ranchers on horseback. Even chance encounters with outlaws reminded me of the time a frightened poacher turned his rifle on me after I caught him in the act some time in 1996. Miles and years away from Texas, I realized I loved “open-world” games like Red Dead, where you can wander endlessly with no purpose at all, because they help me re-experience a moribund way of life that I’ll probably never actually experience again.

Sure, Red Dead has an absurd amount of shooting and outlawry even by the standards of the Old West, but Marston’s simpler exploits, like roping the occasional calf, are rooted in a reality I’d actually lived, and Rockstar captured the lifestyle and the landscape well. At a time when I needed it most, Red Dead became my personal frontier.


My background as a working cowboy might be pretty unique, but I’m convinced that the video game industry’s current passion for open-world games like Red Dead, Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed and others springs partly from similar impulses in many gamers. It’s commonly understood that these games are so popular because they offer a degree of “freedom,” but it’s rarely argued that we might find that freedom of exploration so appealing because there’s so little of it now in the real world compared with the past.

It was a desire for my old freedom across wide, open spaces that first pushed me into the arms of virtual open worlds after long, dreary hours in cramped offices, and I heard similar sentiments from friends who claimed they played The Long Dark because it reminded them of romps through Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness from ten years back.

Never, however, has the significance of all this hit me harder than on a trip last year through the wilds of Iceland, where an acquaintance of mine expressed awe at the way the “freedom to roam” allowed us to just traipse through large swaths of the countryside with an ease that might have gotten us shot back in the States.

“My God, it really is like Skyrim,” he said at the time.



All this has relevance considering our increasing distance from nature, here in the real world, where 80 percent of the American population was pegged as urban in the 2010 census. The western U.S. might still have plenty of wide open space, but the sad truth is that much of it is locked behind barbed-wire fences, and we see most of it from behind car windows anyway.

Even when we can enjoy such settings directly, they’re usually in a state of careful, reverent preservation that’s commendable and necessary but has little relation to how people related to those spaces in the past. I tend to think of this as a tragedy particularly for Americans, considering our long history of exploration, but the effects of humanity’s withdrawal from nature can be seen around the world. In England, for instance, a survey of 2,000 school children by the TV channel Eden revealed that the distance kids venture from home on their own has shrunk by 90 percent since the 1970s, and that 20 percent of those kids had never even climbed a tree. How is that even possible?

Today, there’s very little of the “perfect freedom” of life out on the open plains that Theodore Roosevelt praised in 1884, and what potential for it there is continues to disappear at alarming rates. In Texas alone, as the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources reported last year, over 1 million acres of rural land were lost between 1997 and 2012. Even the once-cherished American “freedom” to disappear and start afresh with a new name and a new life has vanished with the advent of widespread documentation and computers, thus forcing many of us to stick with the hand we were dealt (which, granted, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on your perspective).

But that’s where all this talk of freedom and frontiers carries over into open-world games—especially those that aren’t as based in nature, like Grand Theft Auto V, which is set mostly in a virtual recreation of a fictional Los Angeles. These games let us become someone else in a world that makes that an impossibility; to explore what could have been.

Back in 1994, astronomer Carl Sagan was aware of the significance of all this: “These days there seems to be nowhere left to explore, at least on the land area of the Earth,” he wrote in his book Pale Blue Dot. “Victims of their very success, the explorers now pretty much stay home.”

We stay at home, that is, and play open-world video games. Such games help us fulfill this desire—this need—to explore and be challenged by the world. The surrounding flora and fauna in such games once again require us to consider their uses for survival and trade, in comparison to the real world, where millions pass by, for example, wild sage every day without knowing you can use it for meat preservation. In these games, chance encounters with random people bear the hint of danger, and thus present more significance than they tend to in the hubbub of real streets. The land and raw nature once again become a part of our experience, and we notice details that we’d overlook in real life. I sometimes think that’s why post-apocalyptic games like Fallout are so popular as well, as they speak to a quiet desire to be pushed back to conditions where stuff like this matters.


‘The Long Dark’

As great as the best open worlds are, unfortunately, their weakness is that they’re subject to a degree of predictability that dulls the excitement of repeated exploration. No matter how often you travel along the south shore of Skyrim’s Lake Ilinalta, you’ll always encounter the same hunter bobbing along on a shaggy palomino. No matter how many times you kill off a camp of mogu in World of Warcraft’s Vale of Eternal Blossoms, they’re always going to respawn a few minutes later. Some games are better at hiding these limitations than others, but I believe their shortcomings are at least partially why so many of us so eagerly hop from one open world to the next. We begin to see the cracks in the Matrix too easily.

That in itself speaks to the danger of embracing virtual open worlds too eagerly. It may yet be far off—many decades, likely—but I believe we’re heading for an age in which open-world virtual experiences will provide our only means of interacting with the land with such freedom.

Virtual reality right now is about as advanced as a kite sitting next to an F-22 Raptor, but that won’t always be the case. Someday, we might step into a holodeck of sorts or slip on some advanced contacts and see what Kansas looked like 100 years ago, and perhaps we’ll even get to shoot some outlaws in the process. Sounds great. But someday such tech might be our only method of, say, seeing the unprotected forests of the American East at all, and that, I believe, will be a dark day. As such, the best open worlds also remind us what we have to lose. We should heed their lesson.

“We can never have enough of nature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “We require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.”

And once we ourselves end up being responsible for creating the semblance of that nature, when someone else creates all the landscapes to be explored, where then will be the mystery?

Leif Johnson is a freelance writer who lives on a ranch near Goliad, Texas. You can contact him on Twitter at @leifjohnson.

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