Remember the first time you rode a bike? That fuzzy feeling you just got is the result of getting nostalgic, one of the most common phenomenon amongst us humans and guaranteed to occur about every significant moment you ever live through. According to Clay Routledge, a social psychologist at North Dakota State University, nostalgia induces much-needed feelings of joy, belonging and self-approval at times when we are experiencing intense negative pressures. It’s an entirely normal coping mechanism in the slightly broken washing machine that is life.

It makes sense for life, but why do we experience nostalgia in and about videogames? Games are designed to keep the happy juice flowing and allow players to climb an achievement ladder, not produce negative experiences that induce nostalgia; yet the vast majority of a group of gamers I interviewed regularly get nostalgic about games, even during play. It could be linked to a game’s design to keep us happy that when we search for something to lift our spirits, game-created memories emerge first. Certainly nostalgia occurring during game play appears to happen when a task gets sticky and the player remembers successful moments in the game to convince themselves to play on.

When interviewing this group of players, however, it emerged that only those who played excessively experienced in-game and from-game nostalgia, leading me to a far stranger phenomenon: the second life. Gamers immerse themselves in games to the point where that environment becomes a second home and their character becomes their second personality – they create a virtual life that carries the same weight as the physical life we all know. Nostalgia occurs as a by-product of life’s stresses, and the virtual nostalgia experienced by gamers is no different.

Because both types of nostalgia are regarded equally, virtual nostalgia manifests through the same channels as physical nostalgia, the most satisfying indulgence of which remains around-the-campfire-style storytelling. World of Warcraft gamer ‘Rosie’ recalls, “Flying over Shattrath […] everyone had just figured out they could do loop-the-loops with their dragons. I asked my guildies how to do it […] they told me to right click the icon of my character in the top corner of the screen… Of course at that point I didn’t realise that actually dismounts you and so I plummeted to a grisly death!”.

When returning to Shattrath on daily quests, ‘Rosie’ often gets flashbacks to that prank from “the best guild [she] ever had”. Flashbacks even occur in physical life, with another interviewee, ‘Jack’, remembering Runescape scenes whenever he hears words like “dragons” or sees pictures of medieval weapons.

Just as in physical life, specific places are linked to happy memories in games, leading gamers to physically return to specific game environments purely because they feel nostalgic. My third interviewee, ‘David’, returns regularly to the second level of Halo 2 because he spent hours playing it with friends during his childhood, inducing nostalgia from both his everyday and in-game life, and ‘Chris’ takes “mini-holidays” to World of Warcraft’s Ironforge simply because it is where he began the game. Several interviewees returned to nostalgic areas to see how things have changed over time, comparative to visiting a childhood home.

Memories created in games form around the same themes as in physical-life – childhood, significant moments, achievements, and other happy memories – and are triggered by the same things: stress or sudden action- or environment-triggered recollections. Memories from both lives can merge when a gamer feels nostalgic: ‘Rosie’ met her physical-life partner during a raid on Mount Hyjal in World of Warcraft. Nostalgic memories can also result in action in the same way everyday-life memories can: ‘Chris’ returned to Dun Murogh in World of Warcraft to defeat ‘Hogger’, a difficult boss he encountered when levelling up his first character, after a nostalgic flashback.

If you’ve ever wondered why gamers are so relaxed, now you know. Nostalgia relieves stress from the present moment in any form, be it virtual or physical. While most have but one life’s worth of happy memories to draw upon, gamers have, at minimum, two. Gamers travel to specific areas in a game, either by physically logging on or by visualising in their minds, to escape the stresses from physical-life; to relax into another world where the sum total of difficulty arises from completing quests that have guaranteed achievability. To deal with the added pressures of two lives, gamers can reverse this by spending time in the physical world to escape virtual-life stress, as well as escape the pressures of the game while remaining in its virtual boundaries by re-visiting old environments or exploring new ones that have no association with the current stressful quest or level.

Nostalgia is a by-product of life; produced by humans to ease the negative pressure we all live through from time to time and keep us feeling happy. Although it seems strange for a person to experience nostalgia in an environment that, initially, appears to be solely advancement-driven, it makes complete sense when we realise that, to a gamer, a videogame isn’t just an achievement ladder to be conquered: it’s a second life.

Words by Kate Oatley