Chasing memories: nostalgia’s effect on video games

The majority of my friends are male and when we get together, video games tend to feature in some way or another. It might be a few rounds of Street Fighter at Meltdown London after work; a console title in somebody’s living room on a Friday night; upcoming releases and new indie projects at expos; or conversations on Twitch that generally descend into amiable insults.

We accept that the ‘gamer’ tag could be applied to us and while we don’t agree with or support the stereotype, it’s one we’re happy to be labelled with.

But there’s a friend in our group – let’s call him ‘Keith’ – who stands out because he could easily be the epitome of the word. He’s one of those people who always complains about never having any money yet always seem to have enough cash to buy a couple of new releases a each month. Every time I log onto Steam I can see him playing something and I’ve known him to stay up days at a stretch, living off of a diet of nothing but caffeine and crisps just to complete his latest purchase in one sitting. He’s a human-encyclopaedia when it comes to video-game-trivia and he’s usually rallying the rest of us into a multiplayer.

Everyone in our crowd has their quirks, those little eccentricities which make them who they are. But there’s a certain habit Keith displays that makes me want to pull my hair out and stamp my feet: the never-ending flow of criticism he piles upon modern games. He regularly posts reviews and comments against his Steam profile and is often the first to start a discussion; and every time a current title is the subject, you can pretty much guarantee his overall opinion will be negative.

For example, he recently sent a tweet asking for opinions on memorable soundtracks from video games. When several followers replied citing retro titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island and Tomb Raider, he then asked whether we could name a current game with memorable music. Although a few were provided none of them were good enough for Keith; and this is typical of his conversations, usually designed to prove that new releases just don’t cut it on multiple fronts.

Chasing memories

This is the result of looking back on the past through rose-tinted glasses (or a rose-tinted Oculus Rift display) that make benchmarks from our childhood appear warm and golden. The word ‘nostalgia’ is derived from the Greek terms meaning ‘returning’ and ‘suffering’; and in a May 2006 article for the Journal of Personality and Psychology, researcher Tim Wildschut and his colleagues noted that the ordeal of Odysseus is a good illustration of the emotion as it was originally conceived. This Greek hero suffered a massive bout of nostalgia when he longed to go back to the way things were. He ached to return home to his wife Penelope (along with all of his favourite 16-bit video games) so much that he even turned down offers from sexy sorceresses to do so.

Wildschut’s investigations found that when asked to describe nostalgic memories, most people recalled social contexts and good relationships with others. We tend to star in our memories but usually have a supporting cast; so you might just reminisce about playing Streets of Rage or Sonic the Hedgehog 2 but the chances are you’re actually thinking about bonding with friends or loved-ones over a game. The most nostalgic memories for gamers probably revolve around a time we shared our hobby with others, made new friends through gaming or enjoyed a great co-op experience – events which made us feel good about ourselves and those around us.

Assistant professor Clay Routledge has conducted extensive research in the area of video game nostalgia and believes that the impetus behind it is the need to reconnect with the past and recall former happiness. In a Eurogamer article back in September 2012, he said:

I think retro gaming actually has little to do with the specific games one is nostalgic for. Instead, I believe that games serve as a cue or reminder of experiences we had in our youth that were truly fulfilling for us. For example, I have very fond memories of playing The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. on the NES. These are legitimately good and important games in the history of gaming, but I think what makes them so special for me personally is the broader context of plating these games.

Keith’s favourite titles are those from The Legend of Zelda franchise and everything he now picks is weighed up against them. He rates Nintendo highly, has owned every console and handheld they’ve ever produced, promotes the majority (if not all) or their releases and refers to them as the ‘last great video game company’. This is because the developer reminds him of a time before the realities of life crept in: when gaming was an exciting experience he shared with his parents and siblings, and he had the freedom to play all day as a child.

Every generation thinks that current releases – whether that’s video games or any other form of media – aren’t as good as those from their younger years. How many times have you heard your parents complain that today’s music is terrible when compared to songs produced by the stars of their day? Today’s releases become tomorrow’s classics and someone will look back on them with the same sense of nostalgia in the future. The problem is that it’s an itch you’re never going to be able to completely scratch; regardless of how much you long for the past like Odysseus, you’re never likely to fashion the same experience and end up chasing memories.

‘Innovative’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘new’

Keith’s biggest issue with current video games is what he calls their ‘lack of innovation’. Most of his arguments stem from the opinion that today’s releases don’t do anything new; they simply recycle old gameplay styles and mechanics used in previous titles and to him, this is a sign of laziness on the developers’ part. But there are two holes in this point of view. Firstly, the classics were innovative because they were originals released during a period when PCs and consoles first began to appear in homes. Video games were new and every early release was a cause for excitement. How can you be anything but ground-breaking when you’re the start of your kind?

Secondly, to innovate doesn’t necessarily coming up with something completely new. It actually means to ‘make changes to something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products’ according to the Oxford dictionary – so you can be innovative by creating an improvement on an old concept. For example, nobody can deny that the invention of the verb wheel in the adventure game was pioneering. But the designers took the words previously displayed at the bottom of the screen and placed them into a different visual layout; they took an existing mechanic and made it better.

When summing up with an overall opinion, Keith tends to veer towards the negative side because he doesn’t see the game in question as innovative when compared to something like The Legend of Zelda. He allows nostalgia for this series to influence what should be a critical study of an entirely separate video game, which should be judged on its own merits and compared to others in order to arrive at a complete picture. He’s letting his memories and that rose-tinted Oculus Rift spoil his enjoyment of something new.

And on top of that, those memories may not even be entirely accurate. The fact we seem to engage in nostalgia about games to make ourselves feel better suggests we may be unconsciously biased towards remembering things that make us happy and against thinking about the recollections that don’t. Was waiting for a Commodore 64 tape to noisily load, drawing maps on scraps of graph paper whilst working through a text adventure, or arguing with a sibling over who got to be Mario really that much fun? As humans we have a remarkable tendency to fool ourselves. We require less information to confirm beliefs when they’re consistent with our desired state of mind, and research like that mentioned above has shown we’re predisposed to remember more of the good things in life.

Working with nostalgia

Regardless of whether you’re prone to nostalgia or believe a certain video game isn’t innovative, if you enjoy playing it then it’s still a great game – and that’s despite what a review score of journalists’ opinion may lead you to believe. Both the gaming industry and community is leaps and bounds ahead of where it used to be; the range of what we play has grown enormously along with the ambition behind it. With technological advancement comes the ability to tell new stories, pioneer new types of gameplay and give players new ways to interact with both games and each other. Let’s face it: it’s a marvellous time to be a gamer.

So by all means remember those good times past, but don’t let those rose-tinted glasses hold you back from new experiences and make you miss out on all the gaming world has to offer. Who knows, that release you bought yesterday could just end up being your new favourite video game.

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