Valerie Johnson is an avid traveler who loves the outdoors. Next on his list is a trip to Walden Pond, Massachusetts. But the 27-year-old Texan won’t need a plane ticket; all she’ll need is a video game.
Johnson was recently diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a neurological disorder that can cause headaches, blurred vision and joint pain. These symptoms make travel, especially outdoors, intimidating. “I’m worried about getting lost on a trail or having trouble getting back to my vehicle,” she says. “So while camping and hiking would be fun, I hesitate to venture out.”
Fortunately, Johnson found a hack through video games, and she’s not the only one. At a time when the use of national parks and other outdoor sites is booming, video games have become an unlikely assistive tool, a new path to nature tourism for people. millions of Americans with a disability or chronic illness.
Instead of having to navigate the unpredictability of nature, video games allow travelers with different abilities to explore destinations from their homes. For Johnson, that means logging in to Walden, a game, an “open world” simulation where players can explore Philosopher Henry David Thoreauthe wooded oasis up close. Throughout the game, Johnson will feel the rustle of the wind in the forest and admire the tall pines at the edge of the beloved pond.
Nature as medicine
The health benefits of being outdoors are well documented. A 2019 study found that spending at least two hours outdoors each week lowers stress-causing cortisol levels and lowers the likelihood of illness and mental distress.
These benefits can be particularly life changing for people with disabilities, who tend to have high rates of depression, stress and anxiety. According to a study, exposure to nature through swimming in the forest or even gardening can relieve chronic pain and prevent symptoms of seasonal depression during the colder months.
But while people with disabilities can enjoy nature, they are often excluded from outdoor activities. Paul Martin, an online gaming enthusiast who uses a wheelchair and crutches, personally faced this injustice during a trip to Yosemite National Park. “What I could do, where I could go, was extremely limited,” he says. “No hikes on Half Dome for me.”
Hiking trails and gravel paths cannot always accommodate crutches or wheelchairs. “Depending on the terrain, the crutches can cause me to slip and fall,” explains Martin. “I love to fish, but getting close to the water can be quite dangerous.”
Partly because of these dangers, some 3.6 million people with disabilities rarely leave their homeslet alone plan a trip to a national park or trail, according to a report from the Bureau of Transportation.
This is where vibrant new, outdoors-focused video games can help homebound travelers reap the rewards. Researchers are discovering that virtual exposure, through photographs, videos and soundscapes, can be just as therapeutic as physical exposure. A supporting data point is a 2017 discovery in which Swiss doctors found that intensive care patients recover faster after they wore a VR headset loaded with images of nature.
(Can’t travel? Planning a trip can improve mental health.)
Construction of the world
Although video games are simulations, they can have even more impact than video tours or photo galleries. “Watching a film or a video leaves the public in a passive position of spectator”, explains Sid Dobrin, author of Mediating Nature: The Role of Technology in Ecological Literacy. “There is a certain degree of active participation when playing a video game. “
For example, in Hiker route, players must choose where to find accommodation, what supplies to pack, and how to respond to emergencies they might face if they physically hiked the mountain. The Appalachians.
“These games cannot add amenities like wheelchair ramps to the [Appalachian Trail], corn [they] can provide access to different types of experiences for people who might not be able to visit, ”adds Dobrin.
(Find out how video games can help kids socialize in these isolated times.)
Technologies like photogrammetry and lidar scanning make video game experiences even more realistic. Lidar (short for Light Detection and Ranging) is used in some smartphone cameras, but has been a tool in airplanes since the 1960s for measuring distance from the Earth. This scanning system involves a laser bouncing infrared light off an object, which more accurately measures the object’s distance. Photogrammetry combines multiple superimposed photos taken from at least two angles to generate a 3D image of an object.
“It is now certainly possible via these two means to create very realistic 3D environments with a real base in a field environment”, explains Alenda Chang, author of Playing nature: ecology in video games.
In other words, video games that use these technologies add depth and breadth to simulated environments. A photo can provide a nice and realistic image of a rock; in a video game, you can go around the boulder and even “jump” on it.
Beyond these advanced technologies, some game developers are adding other touches. For Walden, a game, USC Game Innovation Lab the designers collaborated with birders and wildlife experts in Massachusetts to recreate Walden Pond from Thoreau’s life, after his belief that the area features eight micro-seasons instead of the standard four seasons.
“Every bush, every plant, the color or the light on the pond, the wind blowing, the sky and the weather, all of these things change over the course of our eight seasons of play,” says Tracy Fullerton, director of the lab. “We want to reflect this emotional arc which represents a year of living in the woods.”
Being able to visit Walden year-round through play is a big deal for Johnson, as the weather can trigger migraines and lower his body temperature. “I want to live the seasons without the cold or the heat hurting me,” she says. “I want to be able to close my eyes and almost feel like I’m there.”
(See how lasers helped archaeologists find a lost Mayan city.)
Turn destinations into games
Video games have offered an escape since William Higinbotham unveiled an oscilloscope of a simple tennis game in 1958. Today, millions of gamers in the United States connect to video games. During the pandemic, this number has increased considerably as more and more people sought distractions from quarantine.
Tourism organizations are exploiting this popularity by turning destinations into games. Recently, the European Union funded the development of 40 games at sites in eight destinations. Such a prototype features the historic town of Vilanova, Spain, where players embark on a Mediterranean adventure while discovering the history and culture of the region.
As promising as this development is, video games are not a replacement for ADA in-person hosting. Increasing accessibility is an ongoing process – and a challenge – in nature tourism. Organizations such as Hikers with disabilities encourage natural sites to make trails more welcoming to travelers with different abilities. Some parks and zoos have adopted areas of low sensory sensitivity for visitors with autism.
(Here’s why accessibility in national parks matters.)
Balancing preservation and conservation with access is not always easy. “I’m concerned that if you start adding ramps, elevators, and other concrete structures, you could lose what makes this place special or damage the environment,” says Martin. “Even though I would be one of those who are limited, I think it’s important to preserve as much nature as possible.”
In the meantime, video games are helping to bridge the gap. “Gambling has grown so much in the last year of quarantine because everyone has been trapped in their home as well,” said Martin. “The game has always been my outlet. Games are my window to the world.
Laken Brooks is a freelance writer who has covered disability and wellness, culture and technology for CNN, Washington post, Forbes, and other media.