While claiming to have visited another world will usually only get you strange stares and a possible diagnosis of major psychosis, most fantasy lovers will attest that they have indeed journeyed across space and time to visit faraway lands. Bookworms, film buffs, and gamers have all had the experience of this kind of out-of-body adventure. In fact, I would argue that this lure of escapism is the primary draw of any entertainment media. It’s a release to lay aside the stresses and struggles of daily life to gallivant with roguish pirates, invest in the heartache of star-crossed lovers, press for survival against endless waves of zombies, or single-handedly manage a sprawling metropolis.
The more time you invest, the more connected you feel to the characters and the world. With video games especially, you feel like the game has become a tiny (or maybe not so tiny) part of yourself. You’ve internalized the dynamics of that universe and those people. It’s clear that even worlds of complete imagination can command a strong place in human hearts. How many tears have been shed over characters that never even existed in the first place? (If any of you even think of mentioning Aerith or Axel right now, so help me, I will crane kick you in the spleen). How many hours have been spent daydreaming about becoming a part of that world? (Little Mermaid reference regrettably unintended). The power of imagination is absolutely astounding.
But what happens when the story comes to a close? Oddly, many gamers feel an internal pang when the words “The End” finally lay to rest in the middle of their screens. Why is that? Shouldn’t I be flush with the thrill of victory? Sure, that’s a part of it, but there’s also often that twinge of loss and grief, like saying goodbye to an old friend. But that’s not all; I usually end up feeling a bit adrift for the rest of the day when I complete a particularly good game, as if I’m walking in a fog. I feel a little distant, disconnected, and adrift. When it’s more severe, I even feel a bit empty. It’s a sensation that I like to call “Alternate World Jetlag.”
I know that I’m not alone in having this experience. In fact, I’m sure that my feelings can’t hold a candle to the contact that more hardcore gamers have had with this condition. In fact, you occasionally hear of tragic cases of people committing suicide because their sensation of utter despair over this loss becomes so overbearing. I feel that it is important to note here that if you or someone you know ever feels this way, please avail yourself of the resource of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which can be reached 24/7 at 1(800) 273-8255.
But what is this strange feeling? It’s a little more significant than a fairly minor disappointment, like dropping your half-eaten ice cream cone to the ground. But at the same time, other than in rare occasions like those aforementioned, it’s usually not quite an existential crisis either. I think that it fundamentally represents real loss, grief that is often overlooked and invalidated. Human beings are made to connect, and at times characters can feel so real that losing them seems like a snapshot of genuine relational bereavement. Their stories made an impact on you, and may have even changed you. Leaving them stagnant in time, knowing that they fundamentally cease to exist after the last pixel of the end screen has faded away, is sad.
On a deeper level, I think Alternate World Jetlag also represents the loss of a dream, and the return to a reality that may not be as kind. Our world—the physical one that we all inhabit, that is—is a broken place. All of us have experienced pain and heartache at varying levels. We’ve been hurt, and have sometimes even hurt others. That knowledge, felt on a visceral level deep within one’s soul and body, can be overwhelming. The world of a video game can provide a temporary reprieve from that, and can create a semblance of control that we don’t always possess in our real lives. Video games can be a form of wish fulfillment in that way. Obstacles can be overcome by hard work, willpower, and a few more experience points. Destinies can be rewritten with good old fashioned elbow grease, a dusting of magic, and the support of colorful companions. Dreams can be achieved, goals can be conquered, and wrongs can be made right. In video games, it’s usually relatively easy. In real life, it can seem unattainable. Even for those whose lives have entered a season of peace and joy, there is always a yearning for wholeness and restoration of what is broken about our universe. That’s part of what binds us together as human beings.
I think that’s part of the beauty of video games; at their best, they can give us insight from another perspective, orient us to issues of ultimate meaning, provide hope for the future, and forge connections between people. Somewhat paradoxically, I think that Alternate World Jetlag actually highlights the value of this medium, underscoring that you invested in something worthwhile. I also think that it can serve a purpose akin to that of a dashboard light in a car; it signals that there is something of importance going on. Something needs to be examined, whether it be a need for self-reflection, a push for personal growth, a signal of the importance of connecting with others, or even a reorientation to one’s own concept of spirituality.
I hope that resonates with you, that I can put words to an experience that most gamers share. And I hope that if you’ve ever felt the symptoms of this condition, that you know that you’re not alone. We’re in this thing together, friend.
How about you? Have you had an encounter with Alternate World Jetlag? What do you think might be behind it?