I like to travel. I mean carry-my-passport-at-all-times travel. When I was younger, people only needed to hint that we could be flying somewhere and I’d be pulling out the Postal Service “hold mail” forms. A busy career and a busier home life have slowed me down a bit, but I still get that wanderlust feeling. Just not as much as I used to.

So it’s more than a little awkward that I love video games, too. To wit: I remember my first trip to Paris, being absolutely blown away by the charm, the food and the people. The architecture was awesome, too. But as we walked towards the Eiffel Tower, I started to realize that seeing the gorgeous, man-made monument was going to be … anticlimactic.

The problem? I already saw the Eiffel Tower up close – nay, ran into it – in one of the Microsoft Flight Simulators I played as a kid.

I memorized winding London streets in The Getaway (remember that game?), saw all of downtown San Francisco years before I actually moved there, and so on. I could have just sat on my ass and saved tens of thousands of dollars in airline bucks.

Maybe I just don’t want any “spoilers” before I go. The recent FPS Homefront took place in SF, and there was a certain pride in blowing enemies to kingdom come within walking distance of my house. But I already knew what my neighborhood looked like, so seeing it virtually was like having a photograph or video capturing a moment you already had, not having a video game trying to create an experience that is yet to happen.

To me, playing a virtual version before living the real thing is like Cliff Notes: You get the gist, but there is no way it will match reading the entire book. It only works if you have no intention of reading it later.

Of course, this issue is going well beyond video games. I can go to Google Street View right now and see the exact place where, say, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is most visible. Virtual tour apps and other tools are making those previously limited experiences available to all.

My problem with them, though, is that the last thing we need is another excuse not to travel. The recession, laziness and inertia, work and family obligations, fear of new experiences. I keep waiting for someone to tell me they’ve also been to the largest Buddha statue in Japan … on the iPad. Broke or fruitful, busy or lazy, I’ve always made the effort to travel, and it’s taught me more than anything I learned in my nerd-length time in academia. I hate to see people believing that a virtual experience is at all comparable to a real one.

But you can’t stop progress. Call me cynical, but I wager virtual Foursquare check-ins will be here by 2012.

Photo courtesy of chez_sugi