It Takes a Video Game to Save a Village

Most cities have a love-hate relationship with tourists -- civic officials love them, and residents hate them. Tourism generates billions of dollars in revenue for cities across the globe each year. The number of traffic accidents caused by tourists not watching where they're walking? So far, no reliable estimates have been made.

Still, tourism is a vital part of any urban economy. Even moreso, it can be a powerful factor for a neighborhood that is trying to lift itself up. Tourism As Economic Strategy is a well-worn path. But with all of the emerging technologies related to the web and wireless communication, it seems like the old urban tourism formula (cleaned up historic buildings + quirky neighborhood attraction + Starbucks and/or Cold Stone Creamery and corresponding independent cafe/gelato bar = success!) is due for an overhaul.

Let's start by thinking small, with the traditional Japanese village. Japan's demographic woes have been well-reported over the past few years; indeed, as young residents of this highly urbanized island nation put off having families and move to the cities in droves to pursue fast-paced careers, the raw population number isn't the only thing being affected. Culturally, Japan is seeing the evaporation of its small villages, and the slow death of ancient rural and cultural traditions.

Enter: mixed-reality gaming. An explanation, c/o Very Spatial: "One of the areas of convergence for location-based applications and gaming is the idea of mixed reality, where places in the game correspond to real-world locations, and actions in one lead to events or consequences in the other." A recent Nintendo DS game, Treasure Quest: Enoshima, follows this very blueprint, using a small island north of -- surprise! -- Tokyo as the setting for a handheld video game. Players have to visit and explore the actual island to play the game. The DS unit acts as the mixer, blending the fictional and real worlds, literally with the push of a button.

The problem with Treasure Quest, though, is that it's over. The software could be downloaded off of the internet, and the game only ran until February 19th. Makes sense, considering that Nintendo doesn't own the island, and thus can't stake any real claim to it. But what if they could? What if, as a way to draw in tourists, a rural village somewhere in Japan agreed to sell off a large number of its abandoned buildings to Nintendo in an agreement to become the permanent setting for a mixed-reality video game?

It sounds crass at first, but with the right amount of finesse, it just might be a win-win economic development strategy. For instance, to prepare the town for guests (players), Nintendo would agree to upgrade local utilities. It would also take on the responsibility for upkeep of public areas. Streetscaping, garbage collection, and parks maintenance would be taken care of by the entertainment giant. Villagers would enjoy a higher quality of life at a lower rate of taxation (though I'm assuming the American system there since I know very little about the governance of rural Japanese villages). In return, residents would agree to coexist peacefully with players. A particularly savvy game designer would craft the game as a cultural experience, creating some sort of mystery or adventure plot that made use of the area's native traditions.

The argument could be made that Nintendo (or whatever company helmed the project) was being given too much power over a municipal entity; it could also be said that cultural traditions were being bastardized and pillaged in the name of commerce and fleeting entertainment. But when the options for the village are Sink or Swim, the picture becomes less black and white. After all, don't most -- if not all -- preservation efforts (architectural or cultural), on some level, tokenize the very things that they aim to preserve?

So assume that Nintendo creates a mixed-reality game around a rural Japanese town, and it becomes a wild success. Players start booking rooms at a nearby hotel months in advance for their chance to play. The villagers find new opportunities to pass along their cultural history and traditions. Nintendo makes a buttload of cash. Everyone's happy. A small town in rural Portugal hears of the success and decides to give it a try. Sony's European headquarters gets a call from the mayor...

Ten years later, mixed-reality gaming has become an economic silver bullet. Hundreds of villages in countries around the world have mixed their realities with fantastical virtual counterparts. The trend goes big-time when the city of Detroit sells a square mile of its infamous "urban prairie" to the Walt Disney Co., which painstakingly re-creates the neighborhood circa 1930 to stage a depression-era mob mixed-reality urban epic. The arts & crafts bungalows are the hotel. Visitors live in the game. A month later, Blizzard Entertainment announces a joint deal with CCTV and the city of Shanghai to buy up hundreds of defunct surveillance cameras and create the world's largest multi-player mixed-reality on-and-offline mega-game. The setting? Pudong.

Of course, it must be asked: when is the reality in question no longer considered to be mixed? When does "mixed" become simply "augmented?"

(Photo from Flickr user Mathias M. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Mixed Reality Gaming In Japan (Very Spatial)

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