#2: Exploring a city like a video game
From peak tourist to strong opinions
👋 Hi friends, it's Hesam with issue #2 of 4 bits. 4 bits is a biweekly newsletter where I share thoughts and musings on how to build memorable experiences.
Here's what I've been listening to: Rüfüs Du Sol Sundowner Mix.
I'm experimenting with rotating between music recommendations and life updates per issue, so expect a life update on the next one.
Exploring a city like a video game
Last summer, my family and I went on an adventure that, in hindsight, was a little crazy.
We decided to travel overseas for six weeks with our children. On most days, I felt like a puppet, doing whatever trick I could to keep the children entertained.
The highlight of the trip? We reconnected with what it was like to travel. We revisited familiar cities and explored new cities we hadn't been to before.
Along the way, I couldn't help feel like I was in a video game navigating levels of increasing difficulty. I was stuck at the same level in some cities, while seamlessly transitioning to new levels in others.
And as a beginner, it all starts with Level 1.
Level 1: Peak tourist
Let's take Paris. What some view as the city of love others view as a tourist trap where locals don't want to help you with directions.
When you're first exploring a new city like Paris, it can be overwhelming. As a new player in the game, you gravitate towards what's obvious: the tourist attractions. You can't go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, right?
To fit all the attractions into your schedule, you might book a bus tour with a bunch of old people like my parents did the first time they took me to Paris. Or maybe you get a private walking tour. Or maybe you visit every museum possible, even if you don't know what's in there other than "art".
You're constantly checking your phone to make sure you're headed in the right direction. You can't figure out how to buy public transit tickets.
You wonder why that person who was dressed like a Bohemian by the bridge said you had dropped your ring when you don't have any jewelry? You're confused by the entire situation.
You follow the sea of tourists from one stop to the next. You're taking it all in, a beginner in a new space.
Level 2: Wandering like a nomad
Next time around, you take a different approach.
You realize that the best part of exploring a new city is the sense of adventure and discovery that comes from stumbling upon different places.
This time, you walk around neighborhoods. There's no destination in mind. You come across an interesting cafe or shop. You stop to check it out.
You're more comfortable ordering food and menu items than when you were in Level 1 of this game. You don't panic as much when you see the waiter approaching.
You have a new appreciation for the city and start to form opinions about what you like and don't like.
Many years after the horrific bus tour with my parents, I revisited Paris with my wife and wandered the city, walking 15,000+ steps a day. We stopped walking only when we needed to recharge or came across a place that caught our attention.
At Level 2, you’re starting to hear the whispers of the city.
Level 3: Favorite places
After enough time in Level 2, you start to narrow down on your favorite neighborhoods and places. You keep going back to those places.
If someone were to tell you that they're traveling to this city, you'd be able to offer them a list of places and areas to explore. You feel like you have guidance and expertise.
You're still understanding the nuances of the culture and terrain, but you can confidently walk into a store or restaurant and not feel lost. You navigate public transit effortlessly.
After visiting Delft, Netherlands for many years, we finally reached Level 3 this past summer. We even made a Google Maps list with our favorite places and notes to remember. We share the list with others and can revisit the list next summer.
The challenge with being at Level 3 is that you aren't sure if you have the time or energy to reach the final level: Level 4.
Level 4: Strong opinions, strongly held
You're truly an insider when you've reached this level. While some locals can tell you're an outsider, you can impress others with your knowledge of hidden gems, best times to go certain places, and understanding of the vibes of different neighborhoods.
You have strong opinions about where the best places in the city are. You could get into a bar fight over where to get the best stroopwafel (or insert your city's well known dessert here).
You've made friends from repeat visits that you call upon every time you come back.
Knowing where to go is automatic, and you don't need a map as often to decide.
What used to be foreign almost feels like a second home. You might even celebrate some cultural traditions like a local.
You have to work hard to get to this level; you may travel to the same city for years and never get to this point.
Mastery and progress
In games, we are the protagonist—the person with agency, facing a series of choices and challenges along our journey towards mastery.
Amy Jo Kim, Game Thinking
Every time I return to Delft, where I'm at Level 3, it brings back memories of booting up my Nintendo game system as a kid. I'm ready to go on an adventure. Unlike my Nintendo console though, there's a save game feature when exploring a city. You don't have to start from the beginning.
Except when your life circumstances change.
Maybe you had a windfall event and have more money to spend. Or maybe you're broke now and can't go to the places you used to frequent. Or maybe you're traveling with elderly family members who can't walk far. Or maybe you're stuck traveling with someone who has bad taste.
In any of those cases, you might find yourself regressing back to an earlier level, having to relearn how to navigate the city.
It’s also possible that you quit playing the game for some cities. You’re content with where you are or no longer interested in digging deeper.
Or perhaps you haven’t visited the city in a while. The game and terrain has changed. You’ve lost your status at your last level and need to start over again.
To keep the game exciting though, you need to feel mastery and a sense of progress. It's no different than any other experience you design or participate in. The 1st visit shouldn't feel like the 100th visit, unless it was intentionally designed that way.
Building those moments of mastery and progress is what makes us come back for more.