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Are the games we grew up with (sometimes called Retro Games), the games we swear are absolute beacons of gaming perfection, are those games actually good? Can we trust nostalgia?

Transcript(ish)

Hey Future Caleb, Are games from our youth better than current games, current to our respective times, of course. I’m sure what I find amazing here in 2017 you find laughably archaic in your future 2078 home, which certainly contains at least one room dedicated to dismissively laughing at relics from the past. And if your future home doesn’t have such a room, well, then I don’t know why I’m putting all this money into stocks, and don’t you dare tell me that money went toward your kids’ college education. College isn’t necessary in the future. College is the exact type of past relic at which you’d better be laughing from your future dismiss-o-room (™).

What I’m really talking about is nostalgia. If we assume videogames, at least here in the US, weren’t really commonplace until the late 70s at the earliest but more likely the early to mid eighties, that means people like current me, in their 30s, 40s, are the first generation of people to have videogames as a nostalgic referent. That means we’re the first people to be able to claim that videogames were way better when we were young, meaning we’ve–the 1up generation–need to keep one very important thing in mind…videogames were not way better when we were young.

Nostalgia, by definition, is lie.

According to Alan R. Hirsch in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” nostalgia is “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past […] not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

In other words: a lie.

According to research nostalgia does a lot of great things for humans by highlighting positive moments of our youth. It’s bittersweet sure, as we can be tricked into thinking things will never be as good as they once were, but the net effect is that life feels more meaningful and death less frightening. Nostalgia smooths over the rough parts of childhood, so we aren’t emotionally weighed down by how awkward we were as kids or how mean we were to other kids or how that one time you lit the city dam on fire and though in reality it probably caused a lot of pain for a lot of people all you remember is how pretty the fire looked. You were a sick person, future Caleb.

The problem with nostalgia is that it is powerful. Very powerful. You and I, Future Caleb, We will both probably defend the old game Top Gun on the NES even though it’s probably objectively not good. My question is, does the degree of that power change as the amount of time increases between you and the nostalgic referent, and as the number of possible replacements for that referent inevitably increases? Basically, wIll you, Future Caleb, hold on to the memories of Top Gun as strong as I, Present Caleb, do?

Half of me thinks, yes, I hope you do remain ignorantly nostalgic. I don’t want you, Future Caleb, to decide, as you are surrounded by all types of future gaming innovations and ubiquitous mechanics expanding peripherals, the likes of which I can only dream, that Super Metroid sucks. Present Caleb loves Super Metroid. It’s the best game ever…is what I still believe based on Past Caleb experience.

The other half of me thinks that our connection to a game, and any judgement passed on that game, will diminish as time passes. And the greater your breadth of experience–vis-a-vis the number of additional games you play, and in the future the number of accessories you add to the gaming toilet in your Dismiss-o-room–increases the possibility of finding better games to drown out the old, not actually good, games. Otherwise, what does that say about the innovation of the video game medium? That it’s stagnant? I don’t want that.

So I’m saying two things here. I want to believe in a world where a quarter-of-a-century old game isn’t the peak of my experience, but I also don’t want that experience, and all of the emotional energy I’ve invested in it over the years, to be false.

I understand it’s not binary. I can discover a new favorite game while still considering Super Metroid a great game. So perhaps that’s the simple resolution to this situation. Good works on a spectrum. But even if I accept that, I’m still interested in whether or not the power of nostalgia can be affected by increased temporal distance and a deeper experience pool.

Happily, I think this question can be tested. Unlike event-based nostalgic referents like schoolyard games, birthdays, and lighting dams on fire, videogames and other forms of media, are able to be relived and re-examined objectively. The context could never be recreated, of course, but the artifact itself, as it existed back then, exists today.

Am I ready for this though? Am I really willing to accept that these games, which I remember as wonderful games, actually suck? Am I okay to be confronted by proof that these pillars upon which I build my childhood are cracked?

(two hours later)

Despite my little skit above, I have played Super Metroid since childhood. In fact, I play it at least once every year. And I can say that yes, the game is objectively great. Top Gun, on the other hand, I just played for the first time since I was a kid, and, it’s really bad.

I wonder what other lies my childhood was built upon…

No I’m fine actually. Luckily there are so many amazing current games that a few new bruises to my childhood who have any lasting damage. At least that’s what future Caleb’s therapist says.

Current viewer, do you go back to play the games you remember fondly as a child? If so, were you surprised by your present day feelings toward the game, good or bad?

And to you future Caleb, say hi to your grandkids for me.

Sources

  • Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7326
  • What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html
  • Fire image By Petty Officer 2nd Class Rachel McMarr – https://www.dvidshub.net/image/121499, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39450119
  • “2 Hours Later” clip from Spongebob Squarepants (Nickelodeon)
  • Arcade images http://www.bitrebels.com/geek/geeky-memories-video-game-arcades-in-the-80s-10-pics/
  • Crying Birthday http://www.sheknows.com/holidays-and-seasons/articles/811617/10-tips-for-avoiding-birthday-meltdowns

The following are YouTube videos licensed under CC BY 3.0

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCXNXGvYfVk
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzsctHHb-JQ

Music Credits

  • 8bit Dungeon Level Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com), Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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