This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden. All photographs courtesy of the author.
I've always been a mopey little emo kid. In almost every old photo of me in my parent's house, my younger self either looks disappointed or just plain fucking sad. Growing up, I was never really comfortable with myself, or even my surroundings. Or the situations I ended up in. I always had a feeling that I wasn't supposed to exist in the form that I had been given; I was uncomfortable in my own skin and with how reality worked.
I'm not trying to get deep here; not belonging was just always a feeling that was hard to describe or even define, and kind of a big burden for a kid. But always there to help me through the hard times were the ever-welcoming open arms of video games.
Whenever disappointment in my own reality filled me up, I figured that escaping was the best self-medication for my disorder. A loaded syringe of escapism right into my veins. Nintendo-branded uppers down my sad little throat.
I wasn't even that into following a narrative or completing a big quest, I just enjoyed hanging out in fictional environments.
Even though I liked to escape into movies and books like any other kid, video games were the all-inclusive tickets to my destination of choice. As long as I could get my parents to buy me new games, or convince some stupid neighbour that his newest Zelda for my Air Boarder 64 was a fair trade (it wasn't), I could go anywhere. Like a young, slightly less besieging Vasco da Gama, I roamed the new seas of The Millennial Generation, in search of a place where being a depressed, socially awkward little shit was actually okay. I wasn't even that into following a narrative or completing a big quest, I just enjoyed hanging out in fictional environments. Those places meant a lot to me and helped me through a lot of awkward teenage years.
That's why I keep a lot of virtual places just as close to my heart as I do real physical ones, because I really felt those places. And I finally got to visit those cherished places earlier this year, when I was on holiday in the US.
I was at Alcatraz Island when it dawned on me that the US is actually home to a lot of the game worlds that I've always wanted to visit. Alcatraz, of course, isn't just where America's most notorious criminals used to live, but one of the raddest skate spots there ever was, thanks to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4. There might have been one or two quarter-pipes missing, but other than that, I found myself knowing exactly where to go, and went around collecting those invisible SKATE-letters as I went along.
After that, my trip slowly started to shift from a regular vacation to trying to follow my own gaming footsteps. My whole stay in Los Angeles, I was trying to figure out where I got my first digital blow job from a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which I'm sure I respectfully paid for, before driving the sweet girl home). While staying in Las Vegas, I couldn't stop looking for landmarks I had seen in Fallout: New Vegas (even though the Ellen DeGeneres-branded slot machines sort of broke the illusion). That same game series also helped me find my way around the National Mall while visiting Washington D.C., after remembering that I walked along those same paths in Fallout 3. Same thing goes for InFamous: Second Son's depiction of Seattle, Left 4 Dead 2's version of Savannah, and of course the countless number of video games set in New York.
After following my gaming footsteps for several weeks I started to get insecure about the meaning of words like "real" and "fake". Was there even a difference between them? I didn't know anymore. It was like all my different video game personas had slowly turned into my own ghastly army of Tyler Durdens. I couldn't shake them off me. Every time I saw a building or a neighbourhood that I had experienced in a game, I got excited about how normal it felt, just because I had already been there. The borders between my reality and my video game world started to dissolve. I swear I felt that if I focused hard enough, I would see dollar-green binary code raining from the skies.
Seeing those game locations in real life suddenly made all the made-up worlds seem realer. Realer than reality. Zeroes made flesh. Nothingness made solid. It made me feel like my younger self was right all along, and I wanted to call my parents and be all, "Screw you mom and dad, I wasn't just rotting in front of the TV, I was exploring the universe!"
Sadly, the story doesn't end with me wonderfully mashing up my two worlds into one. Even though I was in a beautiful haze visiting old, familiar places, I was also becoming immensely aware of the differences between my two worlds: flirting with a sexy alien in Mass Effect is nothing like the awkwardness of a real date. Even though this slightly melancholic insight hit me, I felt fine. Just because something isn't real, it doesn't mean it's not a real experience. Just like our smartphones can now be considered external parts of our bodies, technology has made our explorable universe infinitely bigger, as the digital direction is an axis with limitless depth.
I'll never stop traveling IRL, the world is too beautiful for that. Just as beautiful as the deserts in Arizona or the swamps in Florida can be, so can the serene dunes of Journey and the dragon-enriched sunsets of The Witcher 3. Since our planet is slowly turning into a big, spherical cyborg, we might have to widen our definition of travel. Maybe the definition needs to include not only borders between countries and states, but also the borders between physical and digital life.