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1. Simpler Daze
As you might imagine, there is no single answer to what makes us nostalgic for older games. There are many different factors, and the most obvious is a longing for those childhood days.
During actual childhood, many people chafe at having to follow rules laid down by parents and teachers. And this is on top of navigating obstacles such as middle school (otherwise known as the Ninth Circle of Hell).
But once you grow up and have to pay your own bills, find a romantic partner, and generally keep depression at bay, those simple childhood days start looking better and better. Returning to childhood hobbies is a way of remembering those simpler times, and one of the easiest ways to do it is picking up a controller and returning to an old favorite title.
2. Old Annoyances Misremembered (Or Ignored)
Ever heard of “the fading affect bias?” Outside of psychology circles, we simply call this “seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses.”
This is important because all old games (yes, even your favorites) had flaws and limitations. These are the things that made you nearly hurl a controller into your CRT television when you were growing up.
But as we get older, we tend to romanticize the past. You don’t remember throwing a controller in rage. Instead, you remember how cool it felt to beat that final boss and save the princess. When we return to older games, that is the dragon we are really chasing: the dopamine hit that comes from repeating childhood accomplishments (even if it means putting up with a lot of retro bullshit before you win).
3. The Downside To Game Nostalgia
Speaking of rose-tinted glasses, gamers tend to look at nostalgia-bait as a good thing. For example, most Mass Effect fans rejoiced when Bioware released the remastered Legendary Edition of this classic trilogy of games.
However, our love of older games may actually be hurting the modern game industry. As a basic example, all of the resources that going into remastering and re-releasing beloved older titles could have gone towards creating something new.
And general nostalgia for old games sometimes leads to gamers wanting older-style gameplay in their modern games. Even though it is highly rated, some diehard Final Fantasy 7 fans were disappointed that the remake defaults to a fast-paced battle system instead of the older style. In other words, they were experiencing nostalgia for the older title’s gameplay and not just its characters and story, and this hurt their experience of the newer game.
4. Stress Intensifies Nostalgic Longing
It’s one thing to say that retro games trigger our nostalgic feelings for simpler times. But here’s the kicker: stress can make that longing so much worse!
Research from the University of Southampton discovered that stress and sadness were the emotions most likely to trigger nostalgia. When the modern world is bumming us out, it’s simply human nature to throw on a beloved movie or bust out a favorite childhood game in order to feel better.
With that in mind, you can see why retro games just keep getting more popular. The world is full of stressors that range from climate change to COVID-19 to the erosion of the middle class. When your present and your future both look like they may be completely screwed, it’s no wonder so many people want to vanish (even temporarily) into childhood memories.
5. Memories Of Social Interaction
COVID-19 has certainly played its part in boosting retro nostalgia (just check out how retro gaming prices have jumped over the last year and a half) due to the stress factor. But COVID may be boosting nostalgia in another way: by fostering social isolation.
That same University of Southampton research discovered an interesting wrinkle about our nostalgia for older games. Specifically, they discovered that we don’t tend to focus on the times we played games by ourselves. Instead, we tend to remember things like visiting the arcade with friends, playing Mario Kart on the couch, and otherwise bonding together over the shared challenges and triumphs of video games.
Needless to say, one of the hallmarks of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many of us have had to spend long periods of time isolated from our friends and family members. Nostalgia for old games, then, is also a nostalgia for the times when we could freely hang out with our closest friends without worrying about anyone’s health or safety.
6. Nostalgia and the Gaming Identity
During the GamerGate saga, one of the contentious topics was the idea that “gamer” was an identity. This is why so many people raged at the Gamasutra article about how “‘Gamers’ Are Over”...while the writer wanted to comment on the definition of “gamer” shifting, many who consider “gamer” as their primary identity thought this and similar articles were an attack on their identity and lifestyle.
While the GamerGate people remain very sick in the head, their interpretation of “gamer” as an identity is actually tied to the appeal of retro titles. Researchers at Columbia University discovered that we tend to imprint on certain things at a young age, and these things tend to become central aspects of our identity. In other words, if you are playing games at a young enough age, you are likely to identify gaming as a key part of who you are.
How does this tie into modern nostalgia for classic games? Basically, when we remember ourselves playing these games, we remember ourselves at our best. You may suck at Starcraft 2, but you can revisit the original and remember when you were the best player at your school. And your life may feel out of control now, but you can grab a controller and remember the time you won that Street Fighter II tournament.
Whether you are feeling mild stress, missing your friends, or just need to remember who you were when times were better, retro video games provide a natural escape from time to time.