Bad Nostalgia

Bad Nostalgia

My epic three-day quest to find and upload this scene without spending a cent is a tale for another day . . .

As a thirty-something gamer it’s difficult not to fall into the nostalgia trap. Nostalgia casts a huge shadow in the gaming community right now, with the proliferation of OSR blogs, rapidly changing corporate paradigms, and beloved games being constantly re-iterated until they are almost unrecognizable when placed beside their original versions.  This issue seems to be rearing its head a lot lately in the blog community, and so I’ve been thinking about it.

Here’s what I’ve got.  It’s not as long as it looks (stupid narrow column width!) but nonetheless, you have been warned . . .

I like to look back on the good times in my childhood as much as the next guy.  I am in fact very lucky to have a childhood that I can look back on as overwhelmingly positive.  Like many of us I grew up in an affluent and safe western nation.  I played computer and video games, D&D, Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40,000, and I dabbled in many other systems, particularly as a teenager.  I think my experience was pretty typical.

My posts that mention the subject of past gaming culture probably seem contradictory, and that’s largely because I think nostalgia is an ambivalent emotion – you’re never quite sure how you feel about the past.  One day I seem to be applauding the good old days, the next I’m criticizing the sluggish refusal of gamers (myself included) to learn new things.  Let’s see if I can’t sort out this mess, and work out what I really think.

Games are by definition trivial activities.  They are important, but not serious.  I think it’s particularly important for adults to remember that the games you played when you were growing up were valuable mainly because they were new to you and taught you things.  They weren’t valuable in themselves.

There’s something very backwards-looking about hanging on to the skeletons of games past.  That’s what I think at least some of this talk of “old school gaming” is – intelligent adults bending their intellects to make excuses for why they still want to play ‘Keep on the Borderlands’ over and over.

Now it’s OK I think to hanker for the past every now and again, and I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to playing a game or two of Rogue Trader or a short 1st ed. AD&D campaign for novelty and nostalgia.  But I think the important thing to remember is that these games are done.  To try to reshape gaming in the present in their image is not healthy.  Now you may think, hey . . . didn’t he just get cranky last week because D&D changed? That’s true, I did.  But there’s a big difference between mourning the natural death of a beloved game, and refusing to accept that it’s gone.

Think about why you play games at all as an adult.  Many – perhaps most – adults don’t play games habitually (although that is changing).  If you’re honest, you probably don’t play 40k or D&D for the same reasons as when you were a kid.

Kids play because they enjoy simply learning and participating.  That, and they do what their friends do because they are learning how to be part of a peer group.  Not many adult gamers play games in this simplistic way, and I envy those who can.  Many adults play games competitively, to increase their skill.  Or they play out of habit, because they always have.  Or maybe, like me, they want to relax and the best way they know is by gaming.  And that’s when unhealthy nostalgia can start to creep in.

When I started playing 40k again as an adult, I must admit it was to recapture the feeling of calm and creativity I had as a child painting miniatures, and the excitement of fighting battles.  That’s all well and good.  But when we turn our analytical, adult minds to gaming we get into trouble.  We start to justify our gaming as a sport substitute, and get competitive, honing our skills like an athlete.

Not many kids play this way.  Sure, you get kids trying to win, but in a childish “I’m the best!” sort of way.  You don’t hear a kid say: “I’m playing a series of twenty 40k games up to turn two, so I can work on my deployment skills.”

I don’t mean to come off as anti-competitive here.  I actually think the much-maligned competitive 40k scene is a great example of gamers gaming like adults, with no infection of nostalgia.  That’s awesome if everyone is into it.

But a competitive approach doesn’t work for every game.  Traditional RPGs aren’t competitive games for example.  And what about those adults who, like me, want to play games to relax?  There aren’t many ways to go.  We can retreat into the past and complain about competitive gaming, shallow and uncreative games design based on profit, or whatever. What we really want though is to play the games we used to play, the way we used to play them, but with other adults.  That’s fine too, if you can find like-minded people.

What’s not healthy is to decide that there’s something wrong with modern games because they don’t feel like the ones in our mythical childhoods. Changing games to be mechanically (or thematically, or aesthetically) similar to the games of the past is a mistake I think.  It will not let adult gamers magically feel the wonder of childhood again, nor will it make the game more fun to play.  It will simply stunt the evolution of gaming.

You can’t discover the formula for a fun game through serious analysis and discussion.  It’s a question of attitude.  The player brings much more to the table than the game itself.  It wasn’t just the games that were exciting and creative back then, it was also you, seeing the world through the eyes of discovery. If you are a creative kid today I daresay WoW would be just as inspirational to you as D&D was to me.

I’m afraid that this whole nostalgia movement could achieve nothing but sour our happy memories and make us despise what the present has to offer.  A more valuable approach than the Old School Renaissance I think is simply for each of us older gamers to ask ourselves honestly why we game, and what we want from gaming.

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can really move forward, and isn’t that what life’s all about?  Maybe we can sometimes (or even exclusively) play those old games from the past, without letting them suffocate the future of gaming.  Maybe you really just want to keep playing 1st Ed AD&D for example.  In that case, do it!  Just because they made four or five more versions doesn’t mean you have to play them, or waste your breath criticizing them.

Games are relaxing and fun.  Adults are often smart, serious, and driven. Put these two together and you get either a serious competitive game, or someone old enough to know better who’s totally missing the point.

2 responses to “Bad Nostalgia

  • Thor

    Well said.

    In addition, I find nostalgia often selectively forgets the bad elements and focuses so heavily on the positive that you forget the negative ever existed.

    I recall the first every MMO I got into, Dark Age of Camelot, back in 2001’ish when I was 23. I played with a buddy of mine and to this day we still recall the game with fondness. We’ve even had this discussion on nostalgia and know full well the game wasn’t all sunshine and roses, I mean we stopped playing for a reason after all. But, as you said, it was a time in our lives when things were fun and different and the game just became a part of our memories of our lives at that point.

  • James S

    Thanks Thor. I’ve heard of Dark Age of Camelot but I never played it.

    And that’s true, we do often forget the bad when we look back on the past. I’ve just been re-reading the Dragonlance Chronicles for example. They definitely have their charm, but sometimes they stray into bad romance novel/lame comic relief territory in a horribly 80s way.

    I mean I wasn’t expecting Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t remember any of that.

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