Imagine for a moment that you’re a Swiss mercenary away from your homeland and fighting for some European king during the 17th century. Now suppose that over cups of hot coco and hair braiding you and your fellow mercs begin to pine for the good old days when video games came with thick manuals and forced you to micromanage your system memory in order to get things to run. Most likely you would all be referred for treatment of a neurological disease, not only because video games didn’t exist in the 17th century, but also because nostalgia in any form was considered a malady of the mind on par with any other physical disease. Proto-psychologists of the time thought that the condition was limited to the Swiss people, and attributed it to all kinds of weird stuff, including pressure from tiny demons squeezing the wrong parts of your brain, changes in air pressure forcing blood up into the skull, and brain damage resulting from the prolonged clamor of cowbells.1
Current research has progressed quite a bit, and generally defines nostalgia along the lines of an emotional state characterized by sentimental longing for things in one’s past. It’s a common concept, and it’s not unusual to encounter some old fart of a gamer reminiscing about how much better and more fun things used to be back in the old days. If you ever find yourself in a room full of gamers and want to cull out these people, just say the following words in a loud, clear voice: “Man, how about that Nintendo Entertainment System?” Then just tag all the people who won’t stop talking. Double tag the people who use words like “DOSBox” or “gog.com.”
This begs the question, though, of why we feel nostalgic about games2 at all. And more curiously, why do we so often look at the past through rose-colored glasses and claim that old games were so great? This despite the honest fact that today we’d rather chew our own faces off than use pencil and graph paper to find our way around a dungeon or type IP addresses into a command line to find a multiplayer match –with vanilla deathmatch as the only option, no less. Yes, some games are classics and serve as important signposts on the medium’s road to maturation, but seriously even today’s mediocre games and hardware represent improvements on every front. So why do we get all nostalgic?
(Photo credit: Hendricks Photos.)
To answer that question it might be useful to look at what psychologists think are the triggers and reasons for nostalgia in general. A few years back several researchers from the University of Southhampton published an article in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that revealed a few things about the content, triggers, and functions of nostalgia.3
For example, the researchers found that our nostalgic narratives most often featured a “redemption sequence” where the subject started off down in the dumps, but found a way to parlay that experience into something positive. So maybe your love of games made you a bit of a social outcast in general, but you formed one really solid friendship with a kindred soul. Or maybe you learned something about lawn care and the gray market for kidneys4 in the course of saving up for a Sega Genesis.
The link between negative moods and nostalgia also came up when the researchers looked at what triggers bouts of the emotion. They found that feeling down in the dumps or displeasure over current circumstances is likely to prompt people to reminisce about some uplifting experience in the past. So maybe you’re more likely to get nostalgic for the 8-bit era when some high def, high poly foes are sucking all the fun out of your current experience.
These findings all point to the idea that we engage in nostalgia because it has psychological benefits. It makes us happy and improves our state of mind, especially when we need that kind of mental pick-me-up. Specifically, nostalgic reverie about a time when we were enjoying ourselves or finding ourselves particularly competent or connected to other people raises feelings of self-regard, which is a feeling that well-adjusted people tend to like. Today’s role-playing games are all about grinding that I don’t have time for, remember when I got my entire party of characters in Final Fantasy IV to level 99? Man, I was hardcore then.
But is what we’re remembering accurate or really representative of what we felt at the time? The fact that we seem to engage in nostalgia specifically to make us feel better suggests that we may be unconsciously biased towards remembering things that make us happy and against remembering the things that don’t. We have a remarkable propensity towards that kind of thing. It’s cute, really. We require less information to confirm beliefs when they are consistent with our current state of mind5 and a substantial body of research6 has shown that we are predisposed to remember more of the good things in life. For example, one pair of researchers7 asked subjects floating in a sensory deprivation tank to recall and rate experiences from their past. Sixty-six percent of the recollections were considered positive (or “of positive affective valance”, as it’s said in the biz) while the remainder were neutral or unpleasant.8
An additional wrinkle in memory’s landscape is that the emotional footprints of positive memories tend to fade more slowly than those of negative ones.9 This is something known as the “fading affect bias” though I prefer “fading affect effect” because it’s punchier. Regardless of what you call it, this might be due to the fact that downplaying negative memories is an effective coping mechanism and leads to better mental health –a far cry from having tiny, nostalgia-inducing Swiss demons swimming around in your brain.
Or it could all be a case of bad mental aim. Another group of researchers claim that vividly remembered events seem so great relative to the hum-drum of the present because simply remembering something feels good. Jason Leboe and Tamara Ansons reported on studies10 showing that people tend to have an “Ah-ha!” moment when experiencing easy recall of information, and that kind of moment is innately pleasurable. It’s just a cognitive quirk in the brain. What we tend to do, the researchers argued, is mistakenly attribute the pleasure not to the easy recall of the experience, but to the experience itself. While some stand-out experiences obviously were pleasurable, this kink in the human brain biases us towards erroneously remembering such events as more positive than they were.
So, next time you’re feeling nostalgic about how great Quakeworld or the original Donkey Kong Country was, I recommend going with it. It’ll make you feel better even if you overlook the problems at the time or the improvements that have been made since. Just don’t over commit yourself to any opinions born of memory’s fickle biases. Because graph paper, himem.sys, and two buttons on a controller were worse than you really remember.