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The Gamer's Guide to Hitch Hiking

Staring Over the Fence

by Justin Unrau
Sep 08,2005


Staring Over the Fence

"There's North Korea," our guide told us as the river came into sight. "Impressive, eh?" I shrugged.

We were staying on the Chinese side of the smallish river. The bus sped past the city with the big tourist crossing. On the bridge there they sell illegal Kim Jong Il pins and you can pay to look through binoculars at giant portraits of the Dear Leader. We weren't doing that.

Soon we were looking at unimpressive countryside again. It took a while to notice their lack of trees. While the Chinese highway was surrounded by light forest, the hills on the other side were bare. Except for one hill our guide pointed out.

"That forest there can't be cut down. In some war some time the Great Leader hid there. It's the closest thing they've got to a national park or something."

International borders these days are funny things. Especially when we fly it's often hard to get a sense of them. You go through Customs at one end and can pop out into a very different place.

This is one of the problems I've got with SciFi games. So much of the feel of how big a place is, and here let's count the universe as a place, is the gradual change that happens as you cross it. Really fast travel negates that to some extent. When your suborbital lander can pick any place in the world to get to in like half an hour, the place doesn't seem so very huge.

Now anyone who's ever been on a road trip from Canada to the US knows that crossing when you cross that border nothing has really changed. It's still (if you're crossing in the Prairies) flat with a few farms. Sure you can laugh at the crazy new billboards and you have to convert miles into kilometres but it's not quite the whole "I'm in another country" feeling. It's only the slow changes and subtle differences that become apparent.

In the Middle East I ran into this same kind of thing. Jordan's borders were made up by Winston Churchill in the back of a taxi (or while drunk). There's no real geographical difference between western Syria and western Jordan and eastern Israel. You keep on forgetting which country you're in with the arbitrary borders that have been created.

Unless of course, the countries make a big deal out of the differences. I'm thinking about the border between India and Pakistan at Wagah. There's no river or mountain range, no real physical shift to mark the difference, just a cultural one. But they seem to be trying to make sure that everyone knows there's a difference, hard as it may be to detect. When the border between these two nuclear rivals closes for the night it is something to see.

On each side of the border there are permanent seats for a couple of hundred people, like at a stadium. The idea is that the people are trying to outdo each other in their patriotic displays. On both sides there are loudspeakers blasting out patriotic songs; people from each country are cheering and waving their own flags. Some representatives will run to the gate waving their huge flags frantically at their counterparts on the other side then return to their friends triumphantly. I went on a Sunday evening, when the crowds are the biggest and it was packed.

After the people had had their chances to make their displays it was the official flag lowering time. Both sides had soldiers in ceremonial uniforms doing subtly different silly marches (and when I say silly I'm talking Monty Python style high kicks to each step) and slowly taking down their flag, folding it up, and returning to their guardhouse, accompanied by huge amounts of cheering.

In July I had the chance to travel Fangchuan in eastern China. There's nothing really to this place, just a small guard tower on a hill; its only claim to being a scenic spot is that you can stand in China and see Russia on one side and North Korea on the other. Sadly you can't do the "stand in three American rival nations at once" thing.

China and Russia seemed similar in the same way that the US and Canada do (although they were visibly non-Chinese Russians on the other side of the barbed wire fence), but North Korea was strange.

The border between China and the DPRK is a river but the terrain on either side should have been almost exactly the same: hills and trees. Well, that's what it's like in China at least. On the other side the hills had been stripped of trees and the roads were dirt, abandoned machinery lay about. We could watch it from the highway on our side with the other tourists in China: Land of Opportunity (which is sort of a weird way to think of China, but hey).

The differences here weren't because of the terrain but the human impact. People had cut down all the trees on the other side. People had built a highway to the odd scenic spot. And people wanted to get across.

In the last city before getting out to the point there's a prison where the refugee North Koreans are held before being sent back. The Chinese army has a very visible presence along this border. All the guard towers were on our side, while the other side of the river had none at all. I guess the only people wanting to get into the DPRK can be found in Tom Clancy novels.

So if we're gamifying this kind of thing what should we be looking at? Let's be obvious here: it was different. There was a visible difference between these two places that wasn't because of a mountain or sudden jungle or some natural phenomenon, but the differences between how the places are run. More subtle than rings of mountains around Mordor, but still different.

Obviously that's tough to put into a game, and more often than not we're going to make flashier things than fewer trees to let people know they're somewhere new. But when you're really there those are the things that'll stand out.

What I'm trying to get at is that frontier areas between two countries aren't going to be hugely different without a good reason. A ring of fiery mountains would probably count as a good reason. Even between two countries that are really different, if it's easy to travel between them, those frontiers will probably be more similar to each other than they will be to their capitals. Conversely, they might have elaborate rituals to emphasize that they're different.

Completely different ways of doing things existing right next to each other have to be intentionally maintained; they don't necessarily just happen. Actual tangible differences might be more in terms of material things, like one side having highways and the other having dirt roads.

I realize that this whole article completely ignored Europe, where there are piles of borders and economies and cultures and things, but I don't really have experience with any of that. Please let us know how it works out there.

Next time we'll be talking about languages. Zaijian.

J Unrau
Hungry J Propaganda:

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