The power of gaming nostalgia

Old Mario

Old Mario

Those of us that grew up with gaming have enjoyed the distinct privilege of seeing a medium advance and explode largely only during our own lifetimes, and even a small window of time – a handful of years – evidences enormous progress.

It takes a special kind of devotion to have grown up into an adult gamer, a commitment to keeping pace with a hobby that generally grows ever more complex and expensive to enjoy. We’ve weathered old age’s judgmental attitude and the misconceptions of friends – most of us know that dedication to dragging others ‘in’ with us, since gaming is something we deeply want to share. It takes even more devotion to become a game developer, to excel in a profession that many, many people have dreamed of since childhood. A career in development asks much in return for the reward of a dream fulfilled.

Advancement can be difficult, the studio economy is often whimsical, and years of long hours and intense focus are often the price of just one game. I’m often asked if I’d ever want to go into development myself, as many game journalists often eventually do, and I can’t imagine saying yes – after having seen that world up close, I’ve learned I’d never survive!

The fact I have few applicable skills aside, sometimes it’s tempting – at least in concept – since games journalism is its own gruelling arena. I field scores of emails regularly from writers wondering how to get started; there are innumerable fansites where folks write thanklessly and unpaid, hoping to be noticed or hired by the big sites, even to be paid to write a review or two. And the work is a minefield, with the constant tense dance with marketing and PR on one side – and on the other, a demanding readership that’s always ready to turn into an angry mob. Publications, even those that have become long-running institutions, can die quickly and with little warning. That there’s always someone young and hungry who wants to take your work, and probably can, doesn’t make it a comfortable or lucrative career.

But serious fans, writers and devs alike all stick with it even against their respective unusual odds. That’s true passion – and I believe one of the main drives that enables people to endure is the power of nostalgia. When we were kids, games fascinated, inspired and intrigued us, acting as windows into other worlds. Simple bits, line art and softly glowing green text were the scaffolding we fleshed out with our imaginations. Every single one of us has at least one story about how a game saved a summer, created bonds between friends, between parent and child. We learned the power of this medium in ways we’ll never forget, and that still motivate us today.

It comes as no surprise, then, that nostalgia and gaming culture have always gone hand in hand: we cling to the memories that taught us to love gaming, and may often find ourselves using our hard-won platforms to try to recapture the pure feeling we had back before our careers began to ask so much of us. We often see teams of professional developers who might have played together if they’d known each other back then, pooling their creative resources to try to develop the kind of games they would have been eager for. The press is known to love titles that capture the familiar, Zelda-like magic of discovery, or that ask us to sketch maps, write down clues and use our heads like the adventure games of old. One of the great things about the indie dev community is how consistently it finds ways to reappropriate and reinvent classic forms and styles, favouring traditional aesthetics and arcade-style difficulty levels.

I’ve written before on how I feel nostalgia culture, which tends to drive a kind of secret vocabulary, can be detrimental to the evolution of a broad and diverse game industry. Instead of (consciously or otherwise) forever chasing our childhoods, it’d be great to see games that strive further toward what modern adults – even those unfamiliar with gaming – might find permanent and meaningful.

It’s this latter element we’re still learning to be good at, as much of what passes as ‘adult’ today is really teen boy stuff. Many of us would love to see games break out and grow up. But nostalgia has also been good for modern videogames in ways that deserve acknowledgment. I recently wrote about how many games of the ’90s – especially those grievous ‘live-action’ adventure games – struggled because they were too ready to sacrifice what’s really great about games as a medium on the altar of more ‘realism’ or ‘maturity’.

Change is good, and when new consoles come, there’ll likely be overwhelming opportunities to reach new heights of what developers are able to achieve with games. Hopefully, in terms of themes and aesthetics, there’ll even be some advancement on that maturity front I’m always going on about. Yet just as many genres have had to go back to basics in order to rediscover and mobilise their audiences, a communally felt and deeply understood lifelong language – nostalgia culture – will keep us anchored, remembering what’s quintessential about gaming even in the face of significant advancement and change. That’s a great thing.

Illustration: Martin Davies