The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia

Remember Odysseus, the hero from the 2,800 year old Greek play The Odyssey? He may be more relevant than you think to all those reboots of old franchises like DuckTales: Remastered, Killer Instinct, or the otherwise inexplicable Typing of the Dead reboot. As the researchers Tim Wildschut and his colleagues note in a recent article about the triggers and function of the emotion,1 Odysseus’s ordeal is a good illustration of nostalgia as it was originally conceived. The word itself derives from the Greek words “nostos” (returning) and “algos” (suffering). For 10 years our Greek hero suffered a massive bout of nostalgia as he longed to return to the way things were. He wanted so badly to return to his wife Penelope and all his favorite games from the 16-bit generation that he turned down all kinds of offers from sexy sorceresses and a not very sexy cyclops to do so.

Much later in the 1600s, Swiss physicians and fans of neologism coined the term “nostalgia” in reference to this kind of homesickness. They saw the condition as a literal mental illness caused by yearnings for past lives on the part of Swiss mercenaries soldiering for foreign kings. But while they did good to put their finger on nostalgia as a mental state, these proto-psychologists of the day weren’t very good at figuring out the causes For years they thought nostalgia was caused by things such as little demons living in one’s head, changes in atmospheric pressure, or the incessant clamor of cow bells. No, seriously.

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Fortunately we’ve come a long way since then and many fewer physicians think tiny demons are involved. This is good, because appeals to nostalgia are currently everywhere and remain of interest to both psychologists and marketing professionals. Today, nostalgia is generally defined as a sentimental longing for the past, especially in reference to how things used to be better. Video games have at this point been around long enough that it’s not uncommon to encounter people thinking back wistfully about the days of blowing the dust off cartridge contacts, fiddling with HIMEM.SYS files, and covering their 28.8K modem with a pillow so their parents didn’t hear them calling a friend to play some DOOM deathmatch.

This isn’t lost on developers and publishers. For every new gaming franchise that comes along, it seems there are two others that are just re-launches of old properties that were popular when we were kids. And that’s not even considering the resurrection in other nostalgia-inducing goods, such as the PT Cruiser automobile, “Throwback” versions of Pepsi featuring the original formula and packaging, and Nikon’s new DSLR camera that looks like something you’d find at a garage sale.

This begs the question, though: why do we get so nostalgic about video games and other media from our childhood? The good old days are certainly old at this point, but are they really still good or are we looking at them through a rose-colored Occulus Rift display? Researchers in psychology and consumer behavior have studied these questions, and what they’ve found out suggests that video games may have the potential to elicit more nostalgia than any other medium.

Super Mario Bros., 1985

Super Mario Bros., 1985

But first, let’s consider the nature of the emotion in question. Nostalgia is often experienced as bittersweet remembrance tinged with regret about things lost to the passage of time, so the place many researchers have chosen to start is the simple question: is nostalgia a good thing?” Immersing ourselves in nostalgic experiences can have many benefits for us,” says Dr. Filliplo Cordaro of the University of Cologne, who studies nostalgia and consumer decision-making. “Things like fun times with friends, and family vacations we remember fondly are common examples. The positive and social nature of these experiences means they can fulfill a few important roles.”

Coping with stress and melancholy may be one of these roles. For example, when Tim Wildschut and Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton had study participants think about meaningful memories and write what kinds of experiences or states made them feel nostalgic, they found that sadness was far and away the most frequently reported trigger. In fact, simply putting someone in a bad mood makes him or her more sensitive to nostalgia-inducing stimuli and make it easier to dredge up cherished memories about how things used to be. 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.

Hey, I've got an entire chapter about the psychology of old game nostalgia in my book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact On Those Who Play Them. Click above for more info.

Hey, I’ve got an entire chapter about the psychology of old game nostalgia in my book, Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact On Those Who Play Them. Click above for more info.

So why does hearing the theme music of Super Mario Bros. or catching a whiff of something that smells like an old arcade bring us out of a funk and lift our spirits when we have no way to recapture the original experience? It’s not just about the place or the thing. “On a basic level, recalling these positive memories simply puts us in a more positive mood,” continues Cordaro. “On a more complex level, recalling these experiences makes us feel a stronger sense of social connectedness with others. We’ve done some research looking at what people usually describe as a ‘typical nostalgic experience’ and find that people typically think about positive experiences in which the self is the protagonist, but they are surrounded and interacting with close others.”

X-Com, 1994

X-Com, 1994

Nostalgia and social connections go hand-in-hand. Thinking about the loss of social connection (as nostalgia often makes us do) primes us to think about repairing those connections, establishing replacements, or maintaining current ones. Wildschut and his colleagues also found that when asked to describe nostalgic memories, most people recalled social contexts and good relationships with others. Other research on the power of music found that song lyrics emphasizing social relationships –friends, lovers, family– were most likely to induce nostalgia. We tend to star in our nostalgic memories, it seems, but we usually have a supporting cast. You may reminisce about playing the original Starcraft but chances are you’re most nostalgic thinking about throwing down with friends in multiplayer or at least bonding with them over the shared experience of how you each managed the single player campaign. For us gamers, our most nostalgic memories probably revolve around sharing the hobby with others, making new friends through gaming, and enjoying a good couch co-op experience.

Dr. Morris Holdbrook, who studies marketing strategy, sales management, consumer behavior, and commercial communication in the culture of consumption at Columbia University.

Dr. Morris Holdbrook, who studies marketing strategy, sales management, consumer behavior, and commercial communication in the culture of consumption at Columbia University.

Social connections aren’t the only important facet of nostalgia, though. A lot of its psychological weight is due to how nostalgia relates to our identity and maintaining congruity between our current and past concept of ourselves. This is especially true when we think about our role in cultural traditions and experiences during our formative years. Morris Holbrook, a Professor at Columbia University, and his colleague Professor Robert Schindler have studied this aspect of nostalgia extensively. Holbrook notes, “We believe that there is a critical period –analogous to imprinting in a baby chick– during which we tend to form strong preferences for whatever objects we frequently encounter – say, music, movies, celebrities, clothing styles, automobile designs, or whatever. The timing seems to differ a bit from one product and one consumer to another, but our peak preferences tend to attach themselves to things we encounter when we are in the neighborhood of twenty years old.”

It’s experiences during these periods when we are crafting our identities and finding out who we are that come to mind later in life when we need a quick emotional boost or a reminder of what we have to be proud of. This can be achieved by thinking back on holiday dinners or school functions, but for many of us we create continuity between our current and ideal selves by remembering the special landmarks in the history of gaming that we were part of. Maybe you were hardcore into Ultima Online or Everquest and thus can see yourself as part of the birth of massively multiplayer games. Maybe you used to read trailblazing gaming news sites like PlanetQuake or Stomped and can feel like you helped support the burgeoning field of games journalism. Maybe you’re terrible at Battlefield 3, but how many of those kids at the top that game can say that they remember getting the Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 1942 to work? In all cases, we enjoy a mental pick-me-up by connecting our current selves to the big picture through our accomplishments in the past.

But how accurate are those memories? The fact that we seem to engage in nostalgia about games 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 –the so-called “rose tinted glasses” phenomenon. Was using graph paper to make our own maps in The Bard’s Tale really fun? Was manually entering IP addresses to connect to vanilla deathmatch games of Quake more of a pain than we remember? It turns out that humans have a remarkable propensity towards fooling ourselves. We generally require less information to confirm beliefs when they are consistent with our desired state of mind and a substantial body of research has shown that we are predisposed to remember more of the good things in life.

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 –something known as the “fading affect bias.” Or it could all be a case of bad mental aim. Some 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 studies 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.

Dr. Filippor Cordaro, who studies nostalgia, consumer decision making, and video games at the University of Cologne.

Dr. Filippor Cordaro, who studies nostalgia, consumer decision making, and video games at the University of Cologne.

In the end, though, the rose-colored glasses phenomenon may be beside the point even if it is true. “I would argue that it’s actually adaptive, and part of what gives nostalgic experiences so much benefit for us,” says Fillipo Cordaro. “Usually when you’re in the middle of a largely positive experience, all of the annoying little quirks and frustrating things about that experience are noticeable. But as that experience fades into memory, we forget about the minor annoyances and more vividly remember the positive aspects.” This is good and fine, since nostalgia’s function is to make us feel better and happier with ourselves. If willful ignorance is self-imposed bliss, it’s still bliss of a sort and that’s okay.

Of course, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by people in the Marketing branch of any given organizational chart. As mentioned above, marketers constantly appeal to our sense of nostalgia in order to sell us products, including video games. One common tactic is to use packaging or music that was popular during our formative years. “It varies a bit from product to product and from consumer to consumer,” says Morris Holbrook, “but we tend to form preference peaks somewhere in late adolescence –say, around twenty years old. If we assume that a marketer is trying to target 40 and 50-year-olds, then it might make sense to drawn on objects from the 1980s and 1990s respectively.”

Again, one reason this marketing works is related to a need for social connections. The Journal of Consumer Research recently published a series of studies that directly tested this idea. Working on the hypothesis that consumption of old, nostalgia-inducing products restores feelings of belongingness, the researchers manipulated participants’ need to belong to a social group and then measured their preference for contemporary vs. vintage cookies, soup, crackers, cars, movies, television, and soap. They found that making people feel lonely not only made them prefer the vintage versions, but letting subjects tear open a package of cookies that were popular in their youth and eat them actually decreased their feelings of loneliness.

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The implications of all this is interesting to consider for the specific and relatively under-researched case of video games. If nostalgia is tied so closely to social connections and a sense of community, games have the potential to evoke more of that emotion than any other medium because they are so inherently social and are becoming more so every year. Early video games might have been shared experiences on the couch or playground in much the same way movies or television were, but almost every new game that will come out this year will feature mechanics or tools that encourage players to share, compete, communicate, help, and socialize. And for many games, like MMOs or social games like Farmville, the interpersonal relationship aspect is central to the entire experience. The same can’t be said of music, movies, television, fashion, cars, food, or any of the other common vessels of nostalgia. Video games will someday boost more moods and sell more arthritis cream than anything else in history.

An earlier version of this article was originally published in Edge Magazine.

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Footnotes:

1. Wildschut, Tim, Constantine Sedikides, Jamie Arndt, and Clay Routledge. “Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions..” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 91.5 (2006): 975-993.

23 thoughts on “The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia

  1. Great article, Jamie. I’ve been struck by how many children and teenagers have embraced video games from previous generations – Super Mario Brothers, Prince of Persia, Street Fighter 2, and so many others. For a long time I assumed kids growing up today didn’t want to play old video games because of the graphics. Turns out they don’t care as long as the game is good. It’s great to see so many proprieties from the 80s and 90s returning into pop culture consciousness – makes for some great nostalgia.

  2. These articles keep getting funnier. My favorite line was, “…are they really still good or are we looking at them through a rose-colored Occulus Rift display?” The articles have also been really interesting, and I’m looking forward to the book you’re writing. Keep up the good work!

    • I found that particular line to be both funny and distracting. This post is about a topic, that’s not easy for me to understand. Anybody would like to write me a TL;DR?

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  4. This article is fascinating! I’m certainly familiar with introducing a game I loved as a child to my friends, and games that I’m convinced have stood the test of time, only to be met with ambivalence. I suppose if they don’t have those initial memories of enjoyability it can be hard to get into a game which doesn’t look quite as good and isn’t quite as complex as top end games coming out today.

  5. Ah, the days of the Sega Megadrive and PS1. Those were the days….

    Some of the games I used to play as a child and teenager haven’t really stood the test of time but there are many others that have. Give me the old Tomb Raider games over the one that came out this year. Sure, the graphics and controls were basic but I found them a lot more engaging than many of the games that have come out in recent years.

    One thing I definitely don’t miss: ridiculously slow and useless dial-up connections. I can’t imagine going back to that after years of broadband…

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  7. Thanks for the article!
    I am often remembering the old days of battlefield 1942, quake 3 and so on. But when i play these games now…it’s just not the same, don’t know why.
    You can try it and i bet you wouldn’t play more than an hour. Some good company may extend the good feeling longer, but at the end…uninstall. The games are the same, but we’ve changed

    • Same here.

      My solution is: I’ve got a Raspberry PI for emulation. NES, ZX Spectrum, perhaps some more consoles. Using an Xbox 360 controller is better than old joysticks (yes, I’m not going full retro, been there, done that, not worth my time and money). I can show those old games to my kids and hope, that somewhere along the lines they will grasp the idea of my own childhood, of my own good-old-feel-safe times.

      For the consoles, hell, I’m not selling anything, until I have space. I’ve been selling stuff and buying it again after some time, like Playstation 2 with some Singstar CDs.

      I thought that the new generation of consoles will deliver better entertainment in every aspect.

      No, it wont. At least not now.

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