Game Nostalgia, Identity, and Other Blurred Objects

Generations are warping, and it may just be nostalgia’s fault.

Megan Hoins
Apr 15, 2019 · 15 min read

Nostalgia (nä-ˈstal-jə), n. symptoms may include “despondency, melancholia, lability of emotion including profound bouts of weeping, anorexia, a generalized ‘wasting away’ and, not infrequently, attempts at suicide.”

No, wait, that sounds a bit too dated. 17th century, to be precise. Let’s try…

Nostalgia (nä-ˈstal-jə), n. a “self-focused emotional process through which people recollect experiences that imbue their lives with meaning.”

Or maybe…

Nostalgia (nä-ˈstal-jə), n.believing the past is better than the present.”

Oh, I give up. There’s at least five more of these that I don’t even want to bother with. We don’t have that kind of time.

Ultimately, no one can agree on what exactly nostalgia is, but it’s generally referred to as a bittersweet emotion (not an illness, but thank you for your contribution, 17th century) that crops up whenever we interact with artifacts — physical or not — from our past.

It’s a rather common feeling, though the reaction itself and what we react to is much more idiosyncratic. One person may burst into tears when they catch a whiff of baking bread, while another may grin when they hear the opening notes to an 80s pop song. The experience of nostalgia is entirely unique to each person, but there are certain nostalgic objects that have piqued the interest of younger generations and marketers alike.

Video games are a source of intense nostalgia due to their gameplay and social aspects. In terms of the five senses, Tim Wulf and other academics from Germany and the U.S. assert that “video games allow people to return with more than the aural sense, namely visual and, in the case of past gaming controls, haptic sense.” They provide sight, sound, and touch all in one. (There’s one company trying to add smell, but if anyone knows about any games that provide taste, let me know.)

The central nostalgic draw of games, though, is that they “can offer players the possibility of not only being there but of doing things there — of playing the past.” Video games are, essentially, about the experience, according to The Atlantic:

Players aren’t remembering the time they watched a hero defeat a bad guy (as in a movie) — they’re remembering the time they beat the bad guy.”

There really isn’t any other medium that offers this kind of intense interactivity, and it thus lends itself to increased nostalgia. The more that your senses are engaged, the more of an imprint the experience will leave on you, especially in those early, highly-developmental years.

It’s partially why I vividly remember playing Swords and Serpents, a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game that I would mash buttons through for hours when I was about six years old. The music from the game alone can send me rocketing back to our stiff, carpeted basement floors, the plastic controller clenched in my grubby little hands.

Even the cover art gets me waxing poetic, even though it features some of the most muscular and sexualized men and women I’ve ever seen.

Games also have that draw of investment, where players can spend anywhere from 10 to 1,000 hours or more in a game. It also helped that, as a child, I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to games, like Stan Horaczek and many other players at the time: “When I got a $60 game, that was my entertainment for the foreseeable future.”

But enough about me — what about the other folks we played games with? Wulf has some thoughts:

Several studies imply that the content and (social) circumstances of past games make people nostalgic, and that perhaps the technology itself is secondary to the experience.”

Playing with other people adds another layer to gaming nostalgia, where you’re not only reminiscing about the game itself but also about the relationships you had at the time. In my case, my Dad and I bonded over Super Mario Bros., taking turns to try our hand at each increasingly-difficult level. We’ve never beaten the game, but what mattered to us then and now was the time we spent with one another trying.

Video games can essentially, according to Wulf, “fulfill intrinsic needs… by playing together with others (relatedness), be succeeding within the game (competence), and by being able to independently explore the virtual environment (autonomy).” This type of multi-layered experience is sure to have an impact, as is evidenced by the large number of people still playing “retro games.” The average age for a gamer is 35, and many of them are “particularly attracted to video games for nostalgic reasons.”

It might also help that nostalgia can shape identity. We base much of our social and private identities around the media we consume, sharing our favorite movies or songs with others and bonding over interests. Our fixture on nostalgia is based on, according to Ryan Lizardi of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, “an increasing reliance on defining who we are as people and societies by what media we consumed as children.” Video games are an inexorable part of this childhood tapestry, and our review of that tapestry can affect how we define ourselves now. Wulf agrees:

Retro gaming… allows gamers to revisit and maintain their gamer identity.”

Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist, further “argues that our memories of past times are increasingly based on our experience of media representations… rather than through direct experience.” We, in essence, create our own realities for ourselves based on the media we consume and relate to.

Yikes.

That sounds a little dystopian sci-fi, but we do form our own media-based communities and modes of identification, which become the foundation for a reality entirely built from nostalgia. How else do we get “only 90s kids will remember” or listicles about snacks we used to bring to school?

Additionally, Wulf argues that if our adult identity is initially formed as a child, it only makes sense that our identity as a gamer would be created in tandem:

…how people remember and evaluate past life events impacts how they see themselves.”

Positive events lead to acceptance of those events and the identity associated with them, while negative events can be abandoned, along with the identity they’re tied to. The actual acceptance or abandonment of those events further forms identity, as no one can take or leave the past without it impacting who they are in some way. Taking certain events over others is, in itself, an event, and no identity forms in a vacuum.

Identity is thus not an isolated construction. Jonna Vuorinen posits the following in their thesis:

Instead, there exists an intricate and widespread discourse through which nostalgia towards retro gaming is shared, constructed and negotiated socially with other people, and without which retro game culture as such would not exist.”

Video game nostalgia is an independent and shared experience. Many of us have reminisced about, for example, Spyro with other fans or relayed the educational PC games of our youth to one another in the hopes of finding some common ground. (Replaying Pajama Sam 3: You Are What You Eat From Your Head To Your Feet with college friends was an experience in and of itself.)

However, the relationship between nostalgia and identity isn’t so simple and clear-cut. If the definition of nostalgia is muddled, then boy oh boy, is our construction of identity based on that nostalgia a mess. Vuorinen thinks so, too:

Indeed, as a consequence of the digitalized and globalized culture of our late modern age, the concepts and boundaries of time and space have become blurred, resulting in confusion and uneasiness in people trying to construct and maintain a coherent identity.”

The rapid increase of digital tech — and indeed, the evolution of that tech — has brought us to our accelerating present and the future ahead of us while also changing how we create identity. It used to be that each generation was defined by an important event or invention of the period, but now, it’s become unclear where one generation ends and the other begins.

Generally speaking, we currently have six generations around right now: the G.I. Generation; Traditionalists, or the Silent Generation; Baby Boomers; Generation X; millennials, or Gen Y; and Gen Z. What I’m interested in are those last two generations and the supposed divide between them.

The development of tech began escalating around the beginning of the millennials with the advent of the Internet and mobile devices. Most generation definitions put the end of Gen Y and the start of Gen Z around 1996–1997 or 2000, but even that small time gap makes a huge difference in how we define the generations themselves.

I was born in 1997, but I’ve always considered myself a millennial. I identify with the “meme-y” nature of Gen Z, but the defining event for millennials were the September 11 attacks in 2001. However, even that definition is a source of discontent. The Center for Generational Kinetics makes the claim:

The end of the Millennial generation and the start of Gen Z in the United States are closely tied to September 11, 2001. That day marks the number-one generation-defining moment for Millennials. Members of Gen Z — born in 1996 and after — cannot process the significance of 9/11 and it’s always been a part of history for them.”

In my own experience, I lived about an hour away from New York City and I was on the Whitestone Bridge at the time of the attacks. Though I was only four years old, I remember the whole event vividly, and it had a huge impact on my family and the way I was raised.

This isn’t to say that all millennials remember the attacks with the same clarity, or that all Gen Z kids don’t have any personal experience with them. It does show that what we think of as “definitive” modes of identification are a lot more tricky and, well, undefinable.

Even in games, that generational blend is clear to Sarah Collard of the Australian Broadcasting Company: “…it doesn’t seem there is such a generation gap like you have with music, where a lot of kids would never listen to their parents’ music.” There are rating recommendations on games, yes, but those don’t really prevent anyone of any age from picking up the controller. It’s like my Dad and me — we both enjoyed the same game over and over, even though we’re years and a whole generation apart.

If our larger social identities as generations are under question, then that brings even our personal and private identities into question as well. How do we form identities when the structures for those identities are unclear?

At the same time, companies still use nostalgia as a marketing and production technique, especially in the game industry. Sony and Nintendo have created “mini” versions of their old consoles, the PlayStation and the NES, that have both sold millions of copies. Some console companies have created systems by which players can access retro games, like the Nintendo Switch’s NES Online.

Despite the continued evolution of graphics and gameplay, these companies are still “stuck” in the past for the supposed benefit of their consumers — and their own wallets. Is this entirely a result of nostalgia? Or is this an attempt by companies to capitalize on the confusion of identity — an attempt to provide consumers with a concrete way to define themselves to others by showing how much they’ve invested in their past?

That investment additionally has the frightening potential to metastasize and become more of a dependency than a simple indulgence, as maintained once more by Wulf:

At worst, an over-usage of video games to satisfy social needs via nostalgia might turn into a problem… if people lack in alternative strategies for such coping (e.g., maintaining friendships).”

While nostalgia has proven to be a largely social emotion, it does mean that a reliance on the social feelings it brings can lead, in extreme situations, to a white-knuckled dependency on it. The lack of social connections can be easily “replaced” by the mere echo of that connection, which has often been the case for online games just as much as retro games.

Additionally, nostalgia has been described by Vuorinen as “an epidemic worsened by the objectivization of space that accompanied the objectivization of time.” The word “epidemic” here implies a much further reach than the individual social level examined above. Nostalgia may just be an “illness” like the 17th century always thought it was — an illness perpetuated by an equally-obsessed industry.

It doesn’t help the game industry’s case that their regular products are just as entrenched in nostalgia as their marketing campaigns and one-off creations. Mark Hill of The Atlantic is critical of this type of production:

Big names like Mario and Final Fantasy get slapped on everything from basketball games to dance titles, but companies are hesitant to experiment with new ideas.”

Though we’re getting new games every day from the indie market and even from AAA companies, it’s still hard to find the bigger corporations creating new, lasting franchises. Microsoft is still fixated on Halo, and Nintendo released their first new franchise — Splatoon — only four years ago.

Even brand-new games are often homages to old console generations or styles of gameplay. In the past year alone, we’ve seen The Messenger, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, and Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon — all games that either revamped an old game with new graphics or paid tribute to old systems and styles.

Robin Sloan, a Senior Lecturer at Abertay University, outlines the structure for these creations:

In other words, these videogames tend to have a modern core (modern technologies, engines, gameplay programming) and a nostalgic shell (audio, visual, and narrative designs indicative of a bygone age).”

This style is common in game production — if a game isn’t a new title in a long-running franchise or a re-release with new graphics, it’s emulating those structures. This brings us to question, like Sloan, whether this industry loop can be considered “progress” at all.

Negative connotations of nostalgia strengthened following the development of modernist thinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This stemmed from nostalgia being conceived as the binary opposite of the modernist ideal of progress.”

The 19th century stopped thinking nostalgia was an illness, but they didn’t think it served their ideals well, either. Though we’ve moved past that and embraced nostalgia culturally and in our products, our obsession with it is concerning. Are we clinging to nostalgia in an effort to stop the seemingly-ceaseless path of progress, and is that clinginess inhibiting that very same progress?

That’s not to say that progress itself is inherently a good thing, but our nostalgia fixation may be hindering more than just progress. Lizardi certainly seems to think so:

…repeated activity contributes to consumptive ideology, as playing these video games over and over again affords consumers of the past the illusion that one has mastery over the depicted historical periods including their own pasts, which are continuously re-fed to them.”

We’re stuck in a loop, wherein we obsess over our pasts; companies regift that past to us in games, consoles, and merch; and we buy it all up and seek further nostalgic validation. In doing so, we begin to lack the critical thinking about our pasts that’s necessary to move forward in a positive and constructive way. We end up reliving our supposed glory days through thick, rose-colored glasses.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into a simple, shared longing for the past. Either way, studies like Lizardi’s continue to deconstruct nostalgia for its presence and pressure on our current culture:

…when a past is defined by media texts more than shared cultural experiences, then the subject who embodies that relation to the past is more likely to have an uncritical historical view and be in danger of lacking the capacity for using it to reflect critically on the present.”

By viewing everything through the lens of media, we narrow our field of view on the past and, by extension, the future. Defining our identities solely through media means we begin to lose the capacity to critically examine not only history but ourselves as a whole. Instead, we seek to perpetuate our past selves over and over and over. We’re stuck in ruts of our own creation.

If that doesn’t sound terrifying enough, Sloan further argues that consumers create their own “hyperreality” where simulations of reality (through games, primarily) and actual reality become indistinguishable from one another.

When the real is no longer real, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.”

Scary, right?

It doesn’t help that, as Wulf demonstrates, not all nostalgia is positive, either:

It is reasonable that people, when deciding to re-play a video game associated with a meaningful past, miscalculate the fact that playing the game might also cause negative affect, such as nostalgic regret for the past or even frustration due to its (unexpected or forgotten) difficulty.”

Our pasts are not inherently positive, so neither is our potential nostalgia for that past. In my own experience, going back to play Super Mario Bros. can quickly become a frustrating experience where I remember just how difficult that game was and still is. That one level with the Bullet Bills and the Hammer Bros in inconvenient places still gets my blood boiling if it even crosses my mind.

Our obsession with nostalgia then becomes a much more tricky landscape to navigate, as, in our craving for the positive hit of nostalgia, we may end up stumbling across increasing despair or anger.

Nostalgia, then, is a kind of double-edged sword. It can be positive, reaffirming, and gratifying, but it can quickly transform into a dangerous, slippery slope toward potential regret and blurred critical thought. Vuorinen proposes that, in a way, we’ve created systems to guarantee this comes about in the feedback loop way that it does:

Our contemporary digitalized society thus has a twofold relationship to nostalgia, both bolstering the affect while simultaneously providing new ways of dealing with it. The Internet in particular serves as an adequate example of this, on one hand contributing to the experience of estrangement and fragmentation, while on the other hand providing meaningful content and social connections…”

Our inevitable interconnection leads to the double-sided nature of nostalgia, and even to nostalgia’s existence in general. Without the widespread “gamer culture” that we have fostered, much of our commercial and personal nostalgia wouldn’t have an outlet or a place to grow.

But nostalgia is a fleeting thing. It’s slippery and hard to hold onto for very long — hence the feedback loop we’ve created. Will this loop, then, even survive if it is based in a fickle emotion?

Wulf has set forth the idea that nostalgia may be “a sort-of novelty effect,” in that the initial entertainment wears off after the consumer is sufficiently gratified. This seems reasonable, and it also means that the hyperreality feedback loop might not be sustainable. After we’ve had enough of our youth, we’ll move on, though it’s unclear whether anything will take its place.

But the fact that that nostalgia is there in the first place is something to consider. What are we yearning for that we don’t have now? Is it a simpler time, with less tech to fuss over and only our childhood whims to focus on? Is it the connections we formed at an age when no drama was more complicated than who stole whose juice box?

Or is it a desperate attempt to slow down, and breathe, and take a break from the world that’s moving too fast for us to keep up? Can we even grant ourselves this simple moment if companies are constantly pushing it at us, if we ourselves are struggling with the social and personal implications of delving into our pasts?

Either way, our identities may be fragmented, our generational gap may be blurred, and our obsession with nostalgia may be destructive, but eventually, maybe, it’ll die down. It’ll simmer back into the past, ready for the next generation (if there is one) to uncover it and ask what we cared so much about.

Flashbulb Reality

A series of five essays about the ways in which we respond to media, specifically focusing on video games and memes.

Megan Hoins

Written by

Professional writer, lamentable gamer, avid bibliophile, and Internet culture enthusiast.

Flashbulb Reality

A series of five essays about the ways in which we respond to media, specifically focusing on video games and memes.

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