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Games are ageless. Nostalgia is for grownups.

March 1, 2018

The release of the film Ready Player One is good opportunity to think about why we are nostalgic about games. If you haven’t read the book, but you love games and pop culture, you should catch that movie. It’ll be awesome. Or, in the words of the dystopian world described in the book – It’ll be Canon.

 

Don’t worry – there’ll be no spoilers. Ernest Cline created a captivating story, filled with games, movies and books’ references, about how we keep going back to our childhood games/memories. And when we’re smart, rich or powerful, we’ll take others with us on this journey.

 

 That guy was a mess in school, but he had lots of friends. 

 

The aching part about nostalgia is that the human mind is far from being a perfect record keeper. When we’re thinking about things that already happened, we usually blend in our feelings from the present, as well as omitting some key details (i.e., was Space Invaders that good?).

 

Most of us don’t keep records of our feelings all the time. Some of us may post images and temporary thoughts on social networks. These posts do not necessarily represent how we feel, but how we’d like other people to think that we’re feeling - “look at me - I’m at a party! I have lots of friends!” (or "BTW Screw you for dumping me >:)

 

Before social technology occupied us, kids used to write journals. If you’re a millennial, journals were paper blogs with one reader, namely you. Usually, that reader would get so embarrassed by the text, that they burned it down or put it in box so that a mouse will eat it in the attic.

 

Which is cool, because cyberspace will keep your thoughts forever.  (Yes, one day giant, hermaphrodite, translucent beings would land on earth, only to find out that once on 9th grade, you texted Sean “‘sup?” and he never replied. Oh, the embarrassment.)

 

But usually, it is our most private thoughts, the ones we’re working hard to never share with the world, which get lost and so our memories remain seemingly ‘objective.’  

 

Finally, after a few years, when we’re older, wiser and less touchy, we will bump into our old classmates. Or we’ll meet total strangers, who were born around the same time as we did. And we will immidiatley start talking about how funny was watching Alf, playing Nintendo or listening to A Flock of Seagulls (millennials – google it. Lol).

 

 One more time, please, what was it specifically that was great about the 80s?

 

Because nostalgia help us share our feelings without being specific. If we both loved watching the Muppets, it was not only because they were funny. It was also because watching this show, made us feel less lonely. It made us feel like there’s a group of furry, clumsy and jumpy friends out there, who will never harm us. Just like reading The Lord of the Rings made us feel that even when things look bleak, the good will always triumph.  

 

It is not surprising that TV and movies can create a powerful emotional response, especially for kids. Moving images have a powerful impact, since the first screening of The Arrival Of The Train in 1896, which allegedly made people run out of the theater.

 

Books also have a deep influence – reading takes a lot of time and requires active imagination, so the worlds they describe gradually become real inside our heads.

 

Games are not so obvious for nostalgic purposes. We’re not talking about modern, immersive, CPU-intensive games. These games can be more mind-blowing than films (though we could argue about the authenticity of the feelings they generate). People who grew up in the 80s and 90s miss Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Super Mario. That’s right kids; grownups miss a bunch of pixels. Moving on a flat screen, along the X and Y axes. Doing rad stuff like fighting, eating and collecting other pixels.

 

But as primitive as they were, these games filled a meaningful gap in kids’ lives.

 

The first thing they did was bringing a piece from the edge of technology into our homes. Child psychologists note that kids, and even toddlers, are intuitively drawn to innovations. They just can’t take their eyes off anything which look like a novelty. One theory is that do it because they feel it is relevant for them as people who will live in the future.  

 

The second these games did was marking the changing perception of childhood. The Baby Boomers, who grew up in the 1950s and 60s have fond memories of playing with friends, being outdoors and making somewhat risky discoveries away from home. Their memories sound like they were living in the film Stand By Me.

 

 

This was a common problems for kids who grew up in the 80s, Photo by Pexels

 

Gen X kids, who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, remember watching Stand By Me on VCR. They were living mostly indoors, often alone, experiencing the world through an endless stream of books, comics, TV, video games, and movies.

 

It was the rise of cable news and a spike of property crime rates (but not of violent crimes) in the early 1980s, that made so many parents fear that the outside was becoming too dangerous for kids. More of them kept their kids inside. Parents and women, in particular, worked longer hours and gave birth to less babies. With no one to play with and without the stimuli of the outdoor environment, kids found comfort in technology and pop culture.

 

Kids, usually shy boys, found the companions they needed in the gaming environment, even when those were a yellow circle, an orange ape, or a nervous plumber. They were the 1980s and early 90s not-so imaginary friends, who listened to them, and were there when the kids needed them. 

 

Gradually, games became social and meaningful. Being a computer nerd became kind of okay. Kids invited their other nerd friends to play. There were tournaments. Kids fantasized about designing games. And technology got better. Much better.

 

When the internet arrived, all those introverts that were raising themselves found out that they were not alone after all. That the loneliness and emptiness they felt in front of the screen wasn’t their fault.

 

So, they talked about games. They started game forums and conventions. They opened startups that designed even more games and consoles. They published articles, scripts, and books about games and got recognized by other people.

 

They were finally allowed to go outside and play with friends.

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