Theme Parks Go Virtual: An Analysis of Gaming Simulations of Theme Parks

Curator's Note

In the final chapter of Theme Park (2008), anthropologist Scott Lukas questions whether the future of theme parks exists in virtual worlds. This question has become more pertinent in the era of COVID, where the future of theme park attendance is uncertain for many. In lieu of physical parks, many enthusiasts have turned to virtual simulations to get a hint of theme park magic. Co-creative games and worlds, such as Minecraft (Mojang Studios, 2009) and Dreams (Media Molecule, 2020) have become convergent sites where creators painstakingly recreate physical theme parks for others to experience both contemporary and defunct rides and experiences. 

Yet “official” virtual experiences condoned by companies like Disney and Universal have been few and far between. Numerous titles feature theme parks as level scenarios (Sonic Colors, Nier Automata, etc.) and the subgenre of theme park management (rPlanet Coaster, Sim Theme Park, etc.) exists as an outlet for gamers to create their own fantasy parks, but representations of real world parks in-game have been rather unremarkable. 

Early attempts, such as The Walt Disney World Explorer (Disney Interactive Studios, 1996), focused on information exploration and served as glorified advertisements for their respective parks. More game centered experiences, such as Adventures in the Magic Kingdom (Capcom, 1990), depict the theme park world as a stationary flat map similar to hub worlds found in games like Super Mario Bros 3. This format has been carried into 3D, with games like Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure (Kemco, 2001) and Disneyland Adventures (Xbox Game Studio, 2011) featuring single-player, virtual representations of real world theme parks as complex hubs for the meat of the gameplay experience: mini games centered around various attractions. Novel in their own respect, these simulations lack the feeling of community and immersion many find appealing about physical parks.

Returning to virtual parks, co-creation adds communal aspects not found in the aforementioned single player adventures. Paired with developing technology that heightens immersion, virtual co-creative parks may become more accessible ways of experiencing theme parks around the world, unconfined by the geographical and socioeconomic limitations of their physical counterparts. 

Lukas, S. A. (2008). Theme park. London: Reaktion Books.

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