Why Retrogaming?: Some Thoughts on Nostalgia and Gaming

Matt Barton's picture

Why are so many people these days, surrounded as they are by some of the most sophisticated gaming technology ever designed, still captivated by so-called "obsolete" games like Pac-Man, Joust, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., and Frogger? Why are so many thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people running MAME or any number of other computer/console emulation programs on their modern PCs? Indeed, why would someone with a "decked out" PC capable of running the latest FPS in near-cinematic quality want to run programs intended for the humble Commodore 64 or the outright meek Atari 2600? The reasons, I think, are not as obvious as we might think.

Nostalgia and the Etch-A-Sketch
When we hear older citizens waxing on about the "good old days" and "kids these days" and the like, our natural response is to say something along the lines of "PHOOEY." A few moments of historical work is sufficient to prove to us that these sugary-sweet "good old days," when there was no sin or suffering in the world, never existed. Instead, what the "good old days" are is a sort of mis-remembered past. It's not just a question of forgetting parts we didn't like, but actively working to dream up a sort of ideal that neither the actual past nor the present could ever hope to match. Also at work here is a dread or anxiety about the future, or dissatisfaction with current developments. We long for a return to a mythical state of innocence.

More interesting, however, is the ways in which so many companies in our capitalist society have begun capitalizing on this impulse. Every time I visit the local department stores I am flooded with so-called "vintage products," ranging from 80s fashions to toys. Seemingly, all I need to "connect" to a previous era of American culture is to buy the right assortment of "retro" products. Look! It's an Etch-A-Sketch, a Lite-Brite, a Panama Jack t-shirt just like we had back in grade school. Suddenly, because these items seem to spark cherished memories in our stressed-out heads, we have a flash of pleasure at just being reminded in such a tangible way of our past. What ends up happening (to the unwary, at any rate) is that their "good old days" get transformed into a number of products that they can purchase at the store--along with a demand for even more products that no one has thought of resurrecting yet. Okay, so we have the Panama Jack t-shirt, but where's that California Raisin shirt I liked so much? Quick! I want a Rubix cube. Pretty soon we'll see entire stores dedicated to feeding these strange and ultimately misguided desires.

The reason I say "misguided" is that it's actually impossible for us to get what we want from these products. Why? Because we're no longer the same people who once had these things--things that we didn't just "own," but in a way "owned us," changing who we were. Sound silly? Well, I know that there was a period in my life when I had never heard of Etch-A-Sketch. Then I got one for Christmas. Then there was a period of days when I played with it constantly, then a period of months when I played with it every now and then, and then a period of years when it sat in a closet barely touched (but picked up occasionally and idly played with). Finally, it was lost somewhere (perhaps sold at a garage sale?), and lots of years went by in which I never thought about that damnable red drawing instrument that forced you to draw pictures with an unbroken line. Then, maybe a few weeks ago, I went into a Target and saw one on the shelf. Suddenly, I think, "WOW!! An Etch-A-Sketch!! Amazing!" and seriously ponder buying one just to "relive those glorious days" of Etch-A-Sketching. Suddenly, the Etch-A-Sketch takes on a whole new significance that it never had before; it becomes, in effect, greater and more important to me now than it ever was when I was a kid.

The reasons for this are manifold. For one thing, keep in mind that, like most people, my "memory" of my childhood is seriously distorted, warped, as it were, to focus on positive and pleasant images and even capable of lightening up really horrible times as "learning experiences," or "I can laugh about it now..."

In effect, what was really pleasant and enriching about my childhood was the transformation process I went through--or, rather, the many millions of small transformations that took place as I learned new things, becoming, as it were, less naive. I can remember, oh so vividly, the first time I kissed a girl--what wonderment--what joy! How time stopped along with all pain, all longing satiated in one delirious dollop of "for sure" affection. She likes me! There is a definitely a pre-first kiss, post-free kiss segue in every person's life (well, most of us, anyway, I hope). Now, I could kiss a million girls and not ever be able to relive that same level of transcendental ecstasy I experienced the first time. At best, and I do mean at best, a really good kiss might help spark some vague recollection of that oh-so-significant event. It might help stir the sediment in my brain a bit and kick up the dust of that incredible moment. But I can't ever get to the point where I forget what it's like to kiss a girl, and then get to relive that transformation. Once it's done, it's over. Besides, I could never even write my signature (in cursive, of course) on my Etch-A-Sketch.

Retrogaming and Delusions of Authenticity
When asked, many people who indulge their retrogaming desires claim that the reason they do so because the games are simply more fun. The games are simpler, more intuitive, more family friendly, less time-intensive, or whatever. Without doubt, it's easier to play a round of Ms. Pac-Man than Halo. Likewise, Risk is a much easier game to master than Age of Empires or Civilization. On the other hand, it's often cheaper to play older games than new ones--why pay for all that expensive new gear when your old games are still fun? So, maybe we just like retrogames because we're too busy, too lazy, or too cheap for the modern stuff. Nah.

Other people are more academic about their retrogaming. For them, retrogaming is a valuable exercise in history, or sociology, or perhaps a way to learn more about the origins of our "digital culture" and the like. They might say that they are running a ColecoVision emulator, for instance, out of purely historical interest--or to learn more about this amazing technology that it was able to do so much with so little. Often, these folks claim that even though old systems seem vastly inferior to most folks, actually, they are far more advanced, simply because the engineers and programmers had to be near-geniuses just to accomplish what they did. Imagine! This entire game fit into 2 kilobytes of RAM; this game came out an entire decade before Doom; I was doing that on my Commodore Amiga 500 back in 1985! Of these folks, perhaps the most admirable are the "historians," even though they also seem at times a trifle biased in favor of the "miracles" these machines were about to perform. Folks who actually did very humble things are granted titles like "pioneer," "brilliant," or even "revolutionary" just because they stumbled upon some "concept" a bit sooner than their rivals, or just because their particular variation on a common theme got swept up by the masses and sold a million copies.

The "everything important has already been done by my generation" attitude is particularly common regarding current games and their many alleged "predecessors," we want to show that the latest "genius" being trumpeted in the media is just a shameless plagiarist who did what's been done many times before. Sim City? Ha! It was called Fortune Builder on my ColecoVision.

In any case, it seems likely that any nostalgic bias whatsoever is dangerous to creating anything resembling an objective history. People will remember the "good" anecdotes and dote humorously on the shortcomings. A system's flaws suddenly become its beloved "eccentricities," the very thing that make it "unique." Meanwhile, outrageous conspiracy theories pass as "fact" when it comes to their lack of popularity (whether then or now). My (fill in the blank with your favorite platform) would now be the standard if those idiots at the corporate level hadn't screwed up so badly. Even folks who grew up with DOS tend to see "Windows" as somehow inferior to DOS, though they can claim a less transparent line of descent than fans of platforms. I've even heard people extolling the virtues of Windows 3.1, and how Windows 95 didn't really capitalize on what was truly innovative with 3.1. I'm already bracing for impact with Windows Vista; surely, it will be in almost every way inferior to XP.

The final category of retrogamer is what I might call the "pure" nostalgic, the one who has little interest in the technology or wider culture, but only wants to be reminded (however lamely) of that time when he or she was young and learning to love videogames. Keep in mind that someone who loved Frogger in the 80s can never manage to re-create that state of "discovering Frogger" that he went through the first few times he played it. What was indeed so enjoyable the first time round was not knowing the game; of it being totally alien and mysterious, and our slowly (and often frustratingly!) learning the system and later reflecting on it with our friends. Gradually, all these "first time to play" experiences gelled together into a sort of mushy mass of pleasant experiences, a mass that we like to massage a bit from time to time in our emulators.

However, what's important to bear in mind is that, at best, a kid who grew up playing Joust in the 80s can't recreate that experience in 2006, no matter how hard he tries. What is possible--and indeed, what is so wonderful about retrogaming--is that it's not really necessary. It's more than enough to let these games tickle our memories a bit; to trickle on us just a bit of that magical fairy dust that landed on us as kids as we popped quarters into these Pandora's boxes. Why did we put so much more into those coin slots than our quarters? Why did we give them our youth, and now our allegiance? We're older now, and much more foolish, but it wasn't always that way.

In short, we can never have an "authentic" retrogaming experience "just like it was back then" because we're no longer the same people. Even if we were able to forget our experiences and make new ones, there's no reason why we'd want to follow that same course again. If someone stripped me of my every memory playing with my C-64, I wouldn't afterwards rush out to recreate them--why would I, when I would then have no idea what made them special? I find evidence of this in the fact that I am much less inclined to tinker around with Atari or Apple computer emulators because I never encountered them growing up. If they were truly as wonderful as their fans claim, wouldn't I be drawn to them just as powerfully as I am to C-64 and Amiga emulation? No. Instead, I only have a sort of detached, historian's interest in these other platforms. They might have been innovative, and the like, but they don't carry with them that raw, Narcissistic fascination of the systems I grew up with.

Retrogaming and Self-Obsession
I might end these "thoughts" with a rather cynical observation--we retrogamers are a self-absorbed lot. We just love learning more about ourselves and what makes us different from everyone else. We're special people that the rabble just can't understand.

For us, playing retrogames is a way to learn more about the kids we weren't and the grown-ups we can never be. It's a way of gazing at ourselves in a mirror that assures we are the fairest of them all. That mirror, of course, is the glow of an 8-bit screen now enhanced and expanded into 50" plasma-screen glory. We play it as "it was truly meant to be," or, to be more precise, as it never was and as it never will be.

Yet, somewhere we're still kissing for the first time, and that's just too wonderful not to try to get back to, even if the girl is gone now, and married, and has kids--kids just as innocent, naive, and self-obsessed as we were, back in the good old days...


Joined: 11/20/2006
"New" Retrogamers?

For me (at least I like to think) my inner retrogamer is a whole lot simpler than all of that. Perhaps I just haven't analyzed myself quite as thoroughly, but I think there is an in-between group (perhaps a new, emerging group?) that was left out of your discussion.

For me, it can boil down to the original always being thought of as special. I see old games as why games like Gears of War (or pick your favorite new title) have come into existence. Playing retrogames is one way, at least for this gamer, to pay homage to those who came before. There is still something great in those games that has never been duplicated, only imitated (hence the success of serial titles). This may come back to your point about trying to relive exactly what was so great about that first experience, but I find I replay Atari (on emulator on the original system) without wishing to relive how I played the first time, but simply to relive the games. Relating this to your "real-world" example (if I may be so bold as to call it that), I don't continue to kiss because I'm trying to relive that first experience, but to simply relive a pleasurable experience.

I see pieces of my attitudes towards retrogaming in what you're saying, but scattered throughout and not centralized in one role. I'm not a historian of any repute; I couldn't have a conversation about the development of these systems, etc, etc. I also tend to stay away from the hip trend of "new" retro merchandise that has exploded all over my department stores. Maybe I'm too young to be considered a retrogamer and maybe my views will turn into one of your mentioned roles. As you say, why people retrogame is not as obvious as we may think; I have to mention that the reasons I play older games doesn't seem to fit with the answers you have presented. Not that they don't fit other people, but again, perhaps I am just too young to see myself in this type of gaming.

Forgive me if this comment ends a bit awkwardly, the idea formed itself into something more complicated than I originally thought it would be. Interesting how that happens, no?

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