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Video games have an enormous capacity to evoke a range of emotions due to their ludic and near-tactile nature. This is often exploited by game designers to provide their players with a curated and intentionally designed experience that manipulate them into certain emotional states. As the industry further ages, however, it seems that developers have begun to increasingly access a much more specific emotion: nostalgia. With the past few decades’ game developers having placed emphasis on independent (indie) developers and wider distribution platforms, a nostalgic “neo-retro” style has emerged as an incredibly popular game design choice in mechanics, style and aesthetics. To analyze and attempt to explain this emergence and its audience in terms of wider nostalgic theory and game design theory, I intend to provide a general overview of the interactions between nostalgia and gamer identity, and the subsequent communities that have risen to embrace that nostalgia.
Nostalgia is officially defined in the Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” In short, it is a sense of intense longing for some past time or artifact. Historically, the state we know as “nostalgia” has been considered a negative and harmful emotion, likely because it is often triggered by feelings reported as “negative mood, loneliness, [and/or] meaninglessness.” The connection between negativity and nostalgia and why the emotion was considered at one point to be a sort of “disease of the mind” is easy to see (Routledge, et al, 2013). If one was nostalgic for some bygone time, often it seems that negative emotions would have preceded that feeling. Modern research, however, shows instead that this nostalgic response to negative emotion is in fact a positive self-regulating coping mechanism for the brain (Sedikides, et al, 2008). It is not the negative feelings that cause the nostalgia, rather nostalgia is a reaction to said feelings. Research has further divided this responsive emotion into two loose types: Restorative Nostalgia and Reflective Nostalgia.
To define these types, it is important to know the etymology of the word nostalgia. The first half, nostos, is greek for “return to home,” while the second half, algia, translates from its latin origins to “ache,” “suffering” or “longing” (Boym, 2008). Combined, nostalgia can be read as an “ache to return home.” However, some views keep these root elements of the word separate and assign two different types of nostalgia based on each root word’s original definition: Restorative Nostalgics (who are rooted in nostos) and Reflective Nostalgics (who are rooted in algia.) Restorative Nostalgics wish to rebuild or reconstruct the past for which they are longing. Historically, evocation of this form of nostalgia is expressed following a perceived loss of national identity and a desire take action in order to return to that past identity. Restorative Nostalgia has manifested throughout history in its most extreme forms through revolutionary toppling of governments (Boym, 2008). In contrast, Reflective Nostalgia is far more individualistic. One participating in Reflective Nostalgia is more focused on cherishing memories and artifacts from the era they are nostalgic for (Boym, 2008). This feeling is usually what culture and media is referring to when talking about nostalgia in general. In short, Restorative Nostalgia is about cultural action, and Reflective Nostalgia is about individual remembrance.
Regardless of the view taken on the semantics of the definition, nostalgia as a whole has been shown to produce positive effects. Dr. Jamie Madigan, a prolific games researcher and author, explored this in an article for psychologyofgames.com; “Nostalgia seems to act as an antidote to sadness and feelings of loss. It elevates our mood and other research has found that people who tend to get nostalgic easily tend to have higher self esteem, find it easy to trust others, and suffer from depression less” (Madigan 2015). Research seems to point to nostalgia being a coping mechanism to return one to a previous, more positive mental state. In addition to the short term effects, those who frequently evoke it seem to benefit from positive long term effects that permanently improve their mental states. These beneficial results may explain why a society’s media has a tendency to repeatedly return to past eras that may be nostalgic for the cultural audience. The creators and the consumers of this media get the opportunity to embrace the positive effects of nostalgia while exploring their culture’s past.
Unfortunately, media often presents a reality that is distinctly more idealized than the true past might have been. The “rose-tinted” worlds portrayed by media may stem from designers or writers acting on a false consciousness told through their Reflective Nostalgia. Among psychologists, it is often argued “that nostalgia is a form of self-deception… not least because the bad or boring bits fade from memory more quickly than the peak experiences” (Burton 2014). No era in human history was flawless, but because of the unreliability of reflective representations the past is often presented as romantically as possible. Not necessarily to intentionally deceive, but rather because the creators of the present culture’s media genuinely have heavily idealized nostalgic memories for the era in question.
Second hand nostalgia from cultural memory
Remarkably, it seems possible for an audience to be nostalgic for a time they never experienced. For example, Generation Z and Millenials often report an affinity for time periods that came and went long before their births. They would have a longing for a “past not experienced, but indirectly known in a mediated way” (Mendes 2013). I will speculate that this is because the glorification of bygone culture presented through media has implicitly saturated younger audiences with an incomplete and rose-tinted notion of a perfect past that they can never experience.
As previously stated, the media’s portrayal of a past era often over-idealizes that time in an unrealistic fashion. While this may be comforting for consumers who have personally experienced that era, it is unintentionally deceptive for those who did not. There is an incredibly real possibility that the overarching nostalgic and idealized cultural memory of a previous era would be passed down to the children of that culture, who would embrace and long for a return to a world they never lived in. For example, in present day America there is an unmistakable romantic notion of 80’s American culture. The media representing that era tends to have a rose-tinted lens that makes life in that time far more ideal than it actually was. The romanticization does not seem constrained to those who lived it, rather it seems pervasive across younger generations as well. I posit that this idealization is, at least partially, due to this effect of “second hand” nostalgia.
Nostalgia in Modern Video Game Design
The medium of game design is particularly influenced by its past, as evidenced by the sheer plethora of games with retro design and aesthetic elements released in the past few decades. Among Hyper Light Drifter, Shovel Knight, The Binding of Isaac, and Terraria, which are some of the most popular modern games with nostalgic retro design and aesthetics, there are 489 results on the personal computer (PC) video game storefront Steam for the tag “retro.” A large share of these games are not genuine retro titles being re-released, rather they are new games that take design elements from the past and reimagine them for a modern audience. From here on, this paper will refer to these styles of games as “neo-retro.” Developers are taking elements from an era of aesthetics and mechanics developed due to severe hardware limitations and constrained development budgets thanks to an abundance of passion. Given the persistence of these “neo-retro” style titles over the last few years, I’d argue that the development of such games is not a trend, rather it is the natural evolution of the art form.
In a piece published by the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), Dr. Maria Garda spoke to this emergence of the use of nostalgia in modern game design; “Nostalgia in retro game design corroborates the fact that videogames are a mature art form, the masterpieces of which evoke reflective longing” (Garda, 2013). Because they are such a recent medium, video games have only just begun to reach a maturity that allows for such a development over this past decade. Subsequently, the very first consumers of video games have only just begun aging into development positions in the industry. Through that lens, the choice application of nostalgic elements into modern game design makes perfect sense; these developers are trying to reconstruct their pasts that they remember so fondly. This only strengthens my expectation for this game design practice to continue and expand as the industry ages further.
Using the aforementioned separated definitions of nostalgia types in nostalgia theory (Restorative and Reflective), we can apply the theory used to define Restorative Nostalgics to the developers of these “neo-retro” games. Rather than simply being content with recollecting their past, these developers actively attempt to restore the era for which they are nostalgic. If they can not literally reconstruct this era, then they will create games that mimic the concurrent games of that time as closely as possible. This expression of Restorative Nostalgia is not nearly as extreme as it has manifested throughout history, however the basic process is the same. Instead of a culture toppling a regime to return to their former cultural identity, these members of gaming culture are simply trying to restore elements from a form of entertainment that they remember fondly.
A genre or art style can only last as long as it maintains an audience. Fortunately, as well as consumers old enough to have experienced the first few gaming eras continuing to nostalgically purchase games that share elements with original retro titles, upcoming consumer populations may be experiencing second-hand cultural nostalgia for games from before their time. In short, the appeal for these “neo-retro” games is incredibly widespread, and the cultural significance of classic retro game titles seems to transcend their original audiences. Perhaps through being passed down through family, through being shared via emulation forums, or through re-releases on digital storefronts, video games from the first few eras have been finding their way to audiences for which they were never intended. This explains why “neo-retro” video games have such a wide appeal. They have been primed for reception by a multi-generational audience with lasting nostalgic memories for the digital past.
Reliving the Past Through Emulation and Community
If “neo-retro” titles are centered around Restorative Nostalgics and their quest to rebuild their perception of the past, then retrogaming and the communities formed around it are for Reflective Nostalgics and their desire to perfectly remember and archive their past. Retrogaming in this context is defined as playing original “retro” games. This is done through a variety of methods: some retrogamers may seek out original console cabinets, others may collect vintage consoles and cartridges, others still might resort to emulation (the practice of using software to play games on platforms they were never intended to run on). Unfortunately, satisfying Reflective Nostalgia in this case often carries a significant monetary investment in order to procure original hardware and software, or a willingness to explore the legally questionable and murky waters of retro game emulation.
For hardcore Reflective Nostalgics who cannot afford to collect, more customizable solutions are required. This brings up the question of emulation. Retro game emulation has attracted a massive audience over the past decade due to lower and lower hardware barriers to entry and user-friendly emulation softwares being developed. Despite this large audience, Nintendo of America’s (one of the largest remaining copyright holders of original era video games) legal stance on the matter of emulation draws a hard line: “[t]he introduction of emulators created to play illegally copied Nintendo software represents the greatest threat to date [emphasis added] to the intellectual property rights of video game developers. As is the case with any business or industry, when its products become available for free, the revenue stream supporting that industry is threatened” (“Legal Information”, n.d.). In the video game community as a whole the overall ethics of the practice are still debated, but Nintendo’s view is strikingly clear.
The industry has attempted to cater to the retrogaming audience with development and release of “official” emulation solutions, such as the Wii Virtual Console, the NES and SNES Classics, the Playstation Classic and so forth. These have been met with middling to downright negative responses. There are a variety of explanations for this vitriol, but Dr. David Heineman, a new media and communications professor at Bloomsburg University, outlined perhaps the most relevant: “[w]hen the industry chooses to publish only certain titles, it runs counter to the character of the discourse in retrogaming communities wherein the classic game canon remains open for debate” (Heineman, 2014). For those passionate about video gaming history (and certainly for those most nostalgic for certain video game eras), the re-release and re-publishing of certain titles over others would personally invalidate the history that they experienced. For them, despite the fact that it makes financial sense for Nintendo to re-release Super Mario Bros. for the umpteenth time, the omission of a re-release for Zoda’s Revenge: StarTropics 2 or some other obscure retro title fuels their belief that the industry simply does not agree with their own personal adjudication of what constitutes a classic game.
This industry/consumer dynamic is a unique and divisive one. For those who consider re-release options an invalid offering for their needs, there are few options aside from emulation. In contrast, those who consider emulation morally questionable are left with the scant re-release options posed by the industry (which are often viewed by the same community as an abuse of their beloved titles in a shameless cash grab attempt). This explains why, in spite of Nintendo’s and other developers’ positions on emulation and their competitive alternatives, gamers are often still willing to resort to potential digital content piracy or spend large sums of money and time collecting in order to properly relive their past game experiences.
There may not be a proper solution for companies to completely satisfy retrogamers. Most, if not all, attempts made in the past have been considered by the community as “official challenges to their own vernacular views of gaming history” (Heineman, 2014). The historical canon built up over the decades by this naturally archivist community often conflicts with mainstream developers’ attempts to serve them official methods to relive the gaming past. They are instead usually perfectly content to relive it in a fashion that suits them, despite the questionable ethics and legality of emulation or the costs collecting and archiving may bear.
Nostalgia has a unique place in the gaming industry compared to other forms of media. It is pervasive and strong across generations despite how relatively recently the medium has become popular. In addition, this nostalgia is incredibly varied. While every generation has had its most popular games that pervade into the cultural nostalgic gestalt, each individual has their own sense of hierarchy regarding their own gaming history. There is no objective answer to which games induce nostalgia, because all games, past and present, have or will have that potential.
Video games as a medium have a unique potential to influence, elicit emotion, express, and inform. They provide a platform by which three of the five senses can be stimulated, creating a unique experience for each and every play session. It is little wonder that the tactile, visual and aural sensations of playing a specific game at a specific time and place create such visceral feelings of nostalgia. Nostalgia has a massive place in gaming culture, and, as the community ages and grows, it shall continue to be an increasingly important factor to consider in development and study.
Boym, S. (2008). The future of nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Burton, N., M.D. (2014, November 27). The Meaning of Nostalgia. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201411/the-meaning-nostalgia
Garda, M. B. (2013, August). Nostalgia in Retro Game Design. In DiGRA Conference.
Heineman, D. S. (2014). Public Memory and Gamer Identity: Retrogaming as Nostalgia. Journal of Games Criticism, 1(1). Retrieved May 2, 2019, from http://www.gamescriticism.org
Legal Information (Copyrights, Emulators, ROMs, etc.). (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2019, from https://www.nintendo.com/corp/legal.jsp
Madigan, J. (2015, October 20). The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.psychologyofgames.com/2013/11/the-psychology-of-video-game-nostalgia/
Mendes, Diana. (2013). Nostalgia ” in second hand ” : Memories mediated by the media in Millennium generation. 10.13140/RG.2.1.2492.5843.
Routledge, C. , Wildschut, T. , Sedikides, C. and Juhl, J. (2013), Nostalgia as a Resource for Psychological Health and Wellâ€ÂÂÂÂBeing. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7: 808-818. doi:10.1111/spc3.12070