Why We Get Nostalgic About Good Old Games

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?

The N64 is the greatest gaming console ever! Because I was delighted to get it for Christmas one year!

(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.

Name? Job? Lack of dialog tree?

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.

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1. Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Baden, D. (2004). Nostalgia: Conceptual issues and Existential Functions in J. Greenburg (Ed.) , Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology. Guildford Publications.
2. Or anything, for that matter, but I write about games here, so let’s stick with that.
3. Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (5), 975-993.
4. Not necessarily yours
5. Something known as the “confirmation bias”
7. Suedfeld, P., & Eich, E. (1995). Autobiographical memory and affect under conditions of reduced environmental stimulation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 321–326.
8. An especially powerful result once one considers that how many of the negative memories were probably along the lines of “This one time, two crazy psychology professors locked me in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour.”
9. Holmes, D. S. (1970). Differential change in affective intensity and the forgetting of unpleasant personal experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 234–239.
10. Leboe, J. & Ansons, T. (2006). On Misattributing good remembering to a happy past: An investigation into the cognitive roots of nostalgia. Emotion, 6, 596-610.

34 thoughts on “Why We Get Nostalgic About Good Old Games

  1. I think to a degree that research is bollocks.

    “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.”
    I type IP addresses into a command line on a daily basis, and choose to do so because I’m quite a bit faster with that than with trying to move my hand between the keyboard and mouse a lot. That’s also well-researched (I’d start off with the Humane Interface, and go for literature recommended there for details), so not just my imagination.

    And no, that’s not to say that stuff can’t be better. I don’t play MUDs any longer, because I prefer today’s graphical MMORPGs.

    And drawing maps on graph paper, while rewarding in a way, was also annoying – Ultima Underworld’s method of drawing pretty precisely what you’d actually seen automatically, and letting you add notes of your own is IMO perfection.

    Today’s discovering of whole regions just because you happened to wave your magic wand in their direction doesn’t actually help you in navigating stuff. You get the impression that you’ve seen everything, and then you’re confused when you’re asked to find a spot you don’t remember.

    That in turn can be offset by the game pointing you in the right direction with a compass-like feature, of course. But at that point – let’s be clear about that – navigation has ceased to be a gameplay element, and is little more than a hurdle for how fast you churn through content. Which, from the game developer’s perspective, is important.

    Whether or not you *like* navigation as a gameplay element is, of course, a different matter. I personally do – explorer rates high in my bartle test.

    Lastly, I personally find great satisfaction in replaying some old games – others I find terrible. I find that they pull me in more, even when I don’t recall bits and have to figure them out again. The precise challenges were slightly different, back then.

    The point to this rambling?

    Video game nostalgia might in the majority of cases be pretty much what you’re saying, but it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t have to be. It can simply be recognition of what works well, and possibly even better than the current state of the art in some cases.

    It’d be sad to dismiss those out of hand – and perhaps worthwhile doing some original research on them?

  2. unwesen, do you really think that memorizing or writing down ip addresses on sticky notes is better than an interface that automatically gathers a list of available servers and lets you sort them by tags, characteristics, and favorites? Or is it something that very few people like you who only play particular games on particular servers do?

    But at any rate, I get what you’re talking about with enjoying specific parts of the better games from the past. And you can dive deep into arguments about specific mechanics like navigation and the like. And despite using it as an example in the image caption above, I can safely say that I enjoyed Ultima IV more than many RPGs I’ve played since simply because many other things were involved besides the quality of the game itself: first-time experiences, talking about it with my dad and my friends, and stuff like that.

    But I think all that misses the point that when we think that gaming AS A WHOLE (or even in large part) used to be better than it is now, we’re misremembering the past simply because it’s pleasant to do so. Games have never been better or more widely played.

  3. “seriously even today’s mediocre games and hardware represent improvements on every front.”

    Man, are you sure you want to go there? It sounds like you need to do less reminiscing and more replaying yourself. Grab a few of your favorite classics and pick up some mediocre new games, and see how they stack up.

    My guess is you’ll find the old games much harder, likely engaging but a bit much for you to deal with at this point in your life. The crappy new games you’ll wonder why you’re even playing (or discover a hidden gem, hopefully). The point being that even though you may not be able to bring yourself to replay classic games, your changed expectations and willingness to engage with a difficult activity don’t consitute a failure on their part as games.

    I realize you’re just trying to frame your discussion of nostalgia, but come on. Maybe you don’t want to reread Ulysses at this point, but you’re not going to claim that even mediocre modern books are better.

  4. Put in simpler terms, I think nostalgia has to do with your thoughts going back to a time in life (youth), that for a lot of people was less complicated and full of today’s important life decisions, pressures and concerns.

    Games were also less complex back then. Rescue the princess and you did it! I didn’t have to worry about my kill/death ratio in Black Ops and the fact that online play tells me that there’s hundreds of thousand of people better than me on the leader board.

    I don’t experience nostalgia at all. I wonder what this says about me?

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  7. @Paul: “Man, are you sure you want to go there?”

    Oh yeah, I went there. It’s actually kind of nice here. They’ve got a Jamba Juice!

    I’m not saying that old games failed. The good ones, by definition, succeeded given what they had to work with and the standards of the time. But I’m pointing to a body of research that says we tend to overestimate –in general– how good a time we had. Not every single time, but across experiences and in general.

    • I personally find that some games, specifically rpg’s, held up quite nicely, while others really do feel awful to return to. Rpg’s like Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire still stand the tests of time. Probably because the graphics could be nicely smoothed off with pre-rendered environments, and the gameplay being mainly moving around and clicking menus eliminated any issues related to bad controls and camera angles. I still go back and play those old games now. I could never return to a game like Crash Bandicoot or Siphon Filter though, no matter how much I enjoyed them at the time.

      And it really sucks that everyone has reacted so angrily to this article. Keep up the great work!

  8. @Joost: It means you’re gonna snap someday!

    The leaderboard point is interesting. I wonder if people think they’re as good at games today as they used to given the wealth of data that puts things in a different context.

  9. Jamie, I wouldn’t argue with the research. Just with your comparison between old games and new.

    I mean, memory configuration and typing in IP addresses? Bad, but irrelevant to the fun in the gameplay.

    Graph paper? Many people find solving puzzles on paper fun. “Multimedia experiences” using both computer and paper may not be in vogue, but at the other end of the spectrum the indicators pointing to the mission goals in Borderlands ruined it for me. Automaps don’t manufacture fun.

    Two buttons? Complicated control schemes are normally considered a bad thing. If you can make your game require only two buttons to play, you’re doing something right.

    I’m sure I could find plenty of games that aren’t as much fun as I remember. But I’ve also had a lot of fun playing old games that are entirely new to me, and played some lame new releases. You’re overestimating how much gaming has changed.

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  11. “seriously even today’s mediocre games and hardware represent improvements on every front.”

    I’m sorry, but that statement is just crazy. I played System Shock 1 (yes, ONE) in 2005*, and it’s more original and atmospheric and has cooler music than, e.g., Bioshock. And that is despite the fact that the controls are so bad, it’s almost unplayable.

    I think good games/books/films cannot be recognized by them being completely perfect, but by the fact that they have something so unique to offer that we are absolutely willing to overlook their flaws. Nowadays we get super-polished games, that are completely un-unique. (At least that is true for the mass market games. Fortunately, the developments on the indie market are very promising.)

    Ah, and BTW: If you want to talk about technical weaknesses: himem.sys and IP adresses are nothing compared to the fact that nowadays most games come from consoles and are only ported to the PC, meaning we have to deal with the blinders perspective of people who sit on a couch a few meter from the screen. It makes me feel physically unwell, and I think it’s quite natural that it does — if I were walking through the real world, always looking through a telephoto lens, I’d fell unwell, too.

    *(I had played it before, but at the time I was just too young and the game to frustrating for me, so I never got far)

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  13. @Jamie: Memorizing or writing down IP addresses is not a better interface than one that generates a list. Of course it isn’t. But that interface is a question of user interaction design, not one of game design. I don’t think the two should be mixed up.

    The problem is, of course, that they always are mixed up. As Jef Raskin put it (paraphrasing here), games often are about deliberately doing things that would be considered bad in UI design, and as an example he uses adventure games that obscure which items to use in an “use X with Y” mechanic. Good interface design would make it obvious.

    So from the point of view of saying that user interfaces in games have improved, I’m with you. I really can’t argue that. That’s the case for almost all aspects of computing, though, so not much of a point to make.

    My argument previously was, in a sense, that better user interface design does not make better games, or better gaming experience. Especially when gameplay elements that I enjoy are killed off in the process – yes, that’s subjective, but then the whole “better experience” debate is highly subjective.

    “And you can dive deep into arguments about specific mechanics like navigation and the like.”
    I’d would argue that unless you go into specific mechanics and look at how they evolved, any talk about “better” games is preposterous.

  14. Very highbrow, but I left my monocle at home.

    All this talk of interfaces, design, and graph paper… All I know is that when I’m hanging out with a bunch of geeks, they will all swear up and down about their favorite system’s superiority. They all just *happen* to have been released during the peak of their adolescence. Funny, that.

  15. “why do we so often look at the past through rose-colored glasses and claim that old games were so great?”

    Because about 10% of them actually were, same as now. Or are you arguing that *no* old games were great, or that only modern games will be worthy of nostalgia?

    (Also, that bit about memory configuration — that is setting up, not playing. You weaken your point with such uneven focus.)

  16. I got a reality check on this recently. Just go to GoG.com and download some of your old favorites. Then alternate between them and the latest AAA game like Red Dead or Mass Effect 2 for a few months.

    Yeah, for me the new games were clearly better. Your memories of old games tend to leave out the massive amount of negative and focus entirely on 10% or less of the experience.

  17. I enjoy a lot of old music, video games, movies and books. Recently I bought some EC Comics off eBay from Rush Cochran, but I never read them as a child.

    Older video games often had a stylishness or imagination that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s true I love the era I grew up in (late 80s, early 90s), but I continue to find inventive, interesting, amusing stuff that I’ve never heard of which is old. There’s just so much out there. Why limit yourself to the present?

  18. Also beat Wizardry 1 on Apple II last year, using an emulator. But I used graph paper and pencils. I had enjoyed Etrian Odyssey and Dark Spire enough that I couldn’t help it – and I actually really enjoyed it. Good gamd design! I liked the dark areas and the terrible traps.

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  20. I dont know about you guys.
    but the games i get a nostalgia feeling from isnt that old. i remember a disney game from 2006.
    Treasure planet:battle at procyon.i found it at a lottery last month and i bought every single ticket and enjojed the living hell out of it.

  21. Nostalgia isn’t about the game itself as much as it is a time stamp for a certain moment in your life.

    It’s no coincidence that childhood is always where nostalgia stems from. It was a time where we had no responsibilities, worries, or heart aches. We were just enjoying our little bubble before it popped and discovering sensations for the first time.

    Memories of video games aren’t just about “that one level that was really difficult in Super Mario World” but rather it’s a way of remembering a real moment in your actual life that came along with playing that game.

    I have nostalgia over playing Pitfall on Colecovision because it reminds me of a particular day as a carefree child, and I could smell my mom baking rainbow cookies in the kitchen for me.

    SIMPLER TIMES… nothing more.

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  23. @R You’ve got to be on drugs if you think system shock is superior to Biohock. That series holds a place on my top 10 most immersive and enjoyable games ever whereas system shock was mediocre at best. but i suppose everyone is entitled to their opinions.

  24. Well we could all argue until we are grey about opinions. One gamer may enjoy the challenge of spending hours trying to locate their best friends house so they can complete a “fed-ex” quest. I would rationalize that that’s something your character would know in game so it would make sense to have it marked. Iv’e noticed similar circumstances in many an outdated “nostalgic” game. Now that’s not to say that i Don’t absolutely love revisiting games from my childhood however i also recognise that yes, games have improved Massively. to deny that would to be deceiving yourself because you have those nostalgic feelings.

  25. I’ve played literally thousands of video games and replayed a few when I feel the nostalgic urge, games like Baldur’s Gate or Zelda A Link to the Past. The problem is that when I start to explore games that I never played before from the same era, I
    realise that only the games still considered great now are worth playing. For example i never had a Sega Megadrive so never got into Sonic the Hedgehog. For some that is their form of nostalgia. If I played it I would probably still enjoy it. But when you look at a poor game, say something scoring 60%, that’s is when the rose-tinted glasses fall off. My point is that a game needs to have exceptional game design to survive the nostalgia “test”. Nobody really wants to play “The Simpsons Skateboarding”.. This is why with the recent release of classic consoles, only a select few were put on the memory chip. they could have put many more games on them rather than 20-30 only.

  26. Yeah, Honestly..I’m always thinking about Pokepark. Pokepark Is a Wii game that I just can’t get my mind off. My sister tells me it’s nostalgia. I wonder what’s wrong with me.

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