Gaming Nostalgia

So I’m working on an article about the psychology of nostalgia as it relates to video games and I’d like to ask the QT3 populace for help gathering some anecdotal data by way of a short exercise. If you’re interested, here’s what I’d like you to do in this thread:

Think of a past event related to video games that has personal meaning for you. This should be an event that you think about in a nostalgic way. Specifically, please try to think of an important part of your past (e.g., an event or episode) that makes you feel most nostalgic about video games.

Bring this nostalgic experience to mind and think it through. Then write a paragraph or two describing it in as much vivid details you can. Be as detailed, thorough, and descriptive as possible.

Ready? …Go!

I’ve got several such memories, going all the way back to elementary school and all along the way since then. Some of the earliest ones are of playing games with my dad, uncle, and cousin on the original Atari 2600. I’m not sure why I was so transfixed by that moment, but I can remember the details of the room, the old television, the little cart that it rested upon. I don’t even remember much about the games, just a little bit about the funny little joystick with its rubberized sleeve and single red clicky-button. And then there was the machine itself, with its toggle switches and grooved plastic paneling which seemed to attract an inordinate amount of dust. We weren’t the only ones with an Atari, and we had another chance to play on one with (slightly) older kids when we went over to visit family friends for Thanksgiving. The Atari was the common point in this unfamiliar setting, something that we could all talk about. Even if the games they had were completely different, the controllers were the same.

As an older kid, games were a gateway into computers and technology. The elementary school had a computer lab filled with Apple IIe machines. We were mostly limited to playing educational things like Oregon Trail and Number Munchers. The trick was that we figured out the key-combination that gave us access to the Number Munchers configuration menu and allowed us to circumvent the default difficulty settings. After that, a small group of us was given access to a different set of games like Robot Odyssey, and even some programs that had to be launched from the OS instead of auto-loading like most of the other educational software. I don’t know if this was a reward or if it was just a way to keep us from messing things up for the other kids, but it allowed us to find our nerdy peers at a young age.

I’ve got more, but at the risk of this becoming “Alan’s autobiography as told through games” I’m going to stop here. I will mention though that the games themselves are sort of irrelevant, and I don’t really remember much about them. Mostly I remember the emotions and feelings and relationships formed during those experience, and that’s what makes them nostalgia. It’s also why the memory of playing those old games is often far better than the games were in reality.

  • Alan

I’ve got a ton of these, but I guess the problem seems that they’re so personal that I doubt they have much meaning to anyone else. But I can toss out a couple and you can decide for yourself if there’s any value.

Like Alan, my earliest gaming memory goes back to the Atari 2600. I remember the night I got it, my cousin and I were staying at my grandparents and we hooked it up to their living room television and played Space Invaders for what seemed all night long. The nostalgia here is that I can’t really bear to play Space Invaders for ten minutes now, but the novelty and competition between me and my cousin just kept us going for hours. It makes me nostalgic for how the simpler games used to be enough to grab me – I guess there’s a downside to refining my gaming tastes over the last 30 years.

The next gaming era for me was the mid to late 80s when I played the Commodore 64 almost exclusively. This was mostly a solitary gaming time for me, when I would get engrossed in an Infocom adventure, or Raid over Bungeling Bay, or Ultima IV. I played those games for months, particularly the rpgs like Ultima and Magic Candle. I’m nostalgic for my last attention span, or at least the time to dedicate to these pursuits – seems like if a game goes too long now it risks just getting tossed aside, and not dug into more deeply.

Then there’s college, when my friends would have Madden and Street Fighter tournaments in our dorm rooms on Super Nintendo and Genesis systems. I always sucked at these but couldnt’ turn down a challenge. We’d all fight over who would play the Saints (and this was the early 90s, when they still seriously sucked) and while I wouldn’t trade the connectivity of the net or Xbox Live to connect me to other gamers around the world, I do miss the chance to get a gang together and run a tournament.

I could use an example, Jamie, of what you’re looking for.

I get nostalgic about Clive Barker’s Undying for some reason.

I think it’s the first time I had a deep experience with immersion. That’s when I learned you could play a scary FPS in a dark room if you memorized the interface sufficiently.

I didn’t have a backlit keyboard in those days, and kept a flashlight nearby in case I had to look at the keyboard.

The part I am nostalgic about is I love that feeling of immersion and terror. When we were little, before gaming, it used to be you had to jump out from behind a corner to give somebody that feeling.

Undying made me realize you could have this feeling through gaming too. Playing in the dark, hearing the howls of things in the dark that could rip and render me instantly that were coming for me, I am nostalgic about that experience and I seek it out to this day.

Years later, my cat heightened the experience when she reached out from behind me, where she was lounging on a couch, while I was playing a game in the dark, and tapped me on my neck. Talk about hair rising, bless her little heart. I also think she gave me the courage to make my first post here, years ago, on a thread about cats…

I had a good friend, who I unfortunately lost touch with about 11 years ago, with whom a close bond was formed upon our shared love of video games. My parents didn’t like them (my mother thought some of them were borderline Satanic), so we didn’t have any systems in our house until my cousins gave us their cast-off NES for Christmas one years. But that’s beside the point.

I knew him through church. His mother was the church organist and music director, and we were in the same Sunday School class. Sometimes, on particularly dull Sundays, we’d sneak out of the service and play Doom, one-on-one, in the back seat of his car, on our fathers’s laptops. After church, we’d head over to his place, and spend the rest of the day chasing down demons in Diablo, or working on our comprehensive Blues Brothers mod for Doom (which never took off). The day the Tyrian shareware came out, we spent hours huddled over my laptop, watching the download creep along on AOL.

Sure, we did plenty of other things, but, living in different counties, going to different schools, we didn’t have much time with each other during the week.

I’ll finish this thought later.

My most nostalgic gaming experience occured in the fall of 1996, during the first weekend that I owned a Nintendo 64. I had purchased Super Mario 64, and had just started the game when some friends came over to check it out. We spent some time passing around the controller as we acclimated ourselves to navigating around a 3D world, and were really impressed with the graphics and all of the things little Mario could do. Fun stuff.

And then we got to the pirate ship world. And we went from playing a fun game to being completely immersed in the most amazing gaming experience I had ever had. Nothing in my previous decade-plus of gaming had so totally transported me to an alternate world. The serenity of swimming around, the beauty of the underwater wreck, and most of all the music, came together to awesome effect. And it wasn’t just a personal impact; both of my friends were just as awe struck as I. The shared experience of discovering that world, and then spending the rest of the weekend exploring the misty mines and icy slopes thereafter, is my all time gaming high, one which I wish I could revisit often. To this day, whenever I play the SM64 soundtrack, I get a nice warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling.

I can still remember the early consoles, such as our prized Super Nintendo. My older brother and I were elementary school aged when we first started playing it. We loved every game we bought, even X-Men which we couldn’t ever beat. The SNES really had some great games, such as Super Mario RPG, but the best one of them all was Secret of Mana!

Secret of Mana was great because it was an RPG, but also because it had a little known (or sort of tacked on) coop play mode. Coop RPG? Hell yeah! We loved this game so much that we played before school. I think at times we would wake up as early as 6 or 630am to go down to our freezing cold rec room with equally cold tile floors. We would sit there in our pajamas and play that awesome game. He was always the protagonist, and I was the magic users. The funny part about Secret of Mana is that you have to get a good deal into the game before you get the second character and can play coop. This didn’t matter, though, as watching was just as fun.

We beat the game and loved it, and every few years we have gone back and played it again via emulators. We have probably beaten it 4 or 5 times, and it is a very long game. We both have the soundtrack downloaded on our computers and I am sure that we will play the game together again in the future.

I think the lasting effect that this game had on us was our love for coop. Any coop game is good for us, and coop RPGs have been our #1 love ever since. Even now we are playing Baldur’s Gate coop online while I am in Japan and he is in America. For the most part, we have also stuck to our roots of him being a fighter and me being a straight up magic user in the games we play, though recently I have influenced him into playing a magic user.

Anyways, Secret of Mana is still probably the best coop game I ever played, probably because of the age at which I played it.

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…and then, the MULE theme.

When I was 15 I had to live in a foreign country where I didn’t want to be (long story). My best friend there was a guy my age from California who, like me, had an Atari 800.

Late, late one night we were playing Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, where you’re trying to infiltrate Hitler’s bunker to plant a bomb near him and escape. We were so excited when we reached Hitler’s HQ room and planted the bomb; we were high-fiving each other and saying “We killed Hitler!” as we left the room undetected.

But of course we were playing a pirated copy of the game, so we had no manual, and we hadn’t discovered the “reset timer” key. So we grew increasingly grim as we worked our way past the guards level by level and slowly realized we weren’t going to make it out in time.

When the bomb went off, we looked at each other and nodded and said, “Well, at least we got the motherfucker.” We shook hands, and I headed home. I had escaped my circumstances quite thoroughly.

These are some great stories guys, and I’ve enjoyed reading them. Now, I hope y’all don’t mind if I share some of mine. :)

It was 1986, I was 13, and we had just gotten my first DOS-based computer, a Tandy 1000 EX. This was my second computer – the first being a TRS 80 – and not my first gaming machine, as I owned an Atari 2600, a Vectrex and other machines as well. In the Radio Shack where we purchased the PC, they had a few games, one of which was called Starflight, and I snagged it because it had a neat looking cover. I was a major sci-fi fan and a HUGE Trekkie at the time, so this looked like it might scratch an itch.

I got the PC home and set it all up, inserted one of the low-density 5 1/4 inch floppies into the drive and found myself staring at a Starport with my space-suited avatar in the middle of it. This was intriguing, as I was able to walk around and enter doors and actually affect things like the crew of my ship and our equipment, which was eminently cool. Upon leaving Starport, I then opened the starmap in the game – I hadn’t touched the one in the box yet – and felt my jaw hit the floor. All those colored dots…those were systems…and many of those had planets! I had played games before, sure, but they were all little microcosms of worlds, little snippets of universes. THIS was an entire galaxy opened up in front of me.

I then went to another planet in another system – hyperspace, awesome – and then was able to not only LAND on that planet, but scoot around in a mini rover. I had my own away team! It was here, on a virtual world in a virtual universe with my own virtual crew, that gaming really took a hold of me and hasn’t let go since. It was also here that my love of and desire to play any game with a spaceship in it was born.

I kept exploring, and what felt like a moment had actually been several hours, as I somehow played the game all night without knowing it. I spent every evening and weekend playing the game for months until I finally destroyed that Ulhek brainworld…and then kept playing for weeks more.

A short while later I snagged a copy of Elite and a cheap joystick. The first time I left the space station and was actually able to FLY my spaceship around was…breathtaking. Even with polygonal graphics, my imagination did the rest as I imagined myself in the cockpit of a Cobra Mark III flying between stations, trading, fighting pirates and so much more.

I’ve played many, many games in my time since then, and very few, if any, have been able to recapture the feeling of awe, of freedom, of exploration and discovery that Starflight gave me all those years ago. Even when I load it up today – as I still do from time to time – I’m blown away by the amazingness of its universe. Ever since then I’ve strived to play every game with a spaceship in it, which has led to even more amazing gaming experiences…Wing Commander…X-Wing…Tie Fighter…Freespace 2…and so on. I actually plan to get a tattoo next year with symbols from both of my favorite games, Starflight and Freespace 2, because of the effect they’ve had on me.

There’s something that makes me feeling nostaligic about video games…

I don’t remeber exactly the year but must have be something beetwen 1987 and 1988 (so i was somthing like 6 to 8). At those times my parents had an Atari ST and i was not playing video games that much. But used to spend hours looking at my parents playing Dungeon Master (well actually i was more wathcing at my father than my mother since she never like being wathced at…). I found the game rather fascinating, and even more since i was not allowed to play it. That was fun moments.

And the day they allowed to play, i feel like : “wow, now i really grew up!” (hmmm should have be less than a year after). Some kind of initiation ritual. And my first RPG. I had a lot of fun on the game, as well as sharing the experience with my parents.

Great story. Dungeon Master is one of those classics I totally missed because I wasn’t into RPG’s at the time.

Cool, thanks for the responses so far, all.

I have several but I’ll toss in my first and favourite: playing Infocom’s Trinity with my brother around 1989. This was an amazingly written text adventure and we spent around 6 months playing through the game together. Discussing the backstory and puzzles led to some great discussions.

The game’s opening scenes take place in Kensington Garden and a few years later, I had the opportunity to visit. I dragged my poor girlfriend (now wife) around to some of the areas described in the game, such as Round Pond and the Peter Pan statue. We took pictures and sent them to my brother.

When I think of Trinity, I think of an uncomplicated time when two brothers on the brink of adulthood could bond over something as simple as a game. I also think of the great wife I have who follows me around to real world locations described in games.

What’s interesting about the stories above is how many of them feature social interactions with other people as a central theme, even in a times when video games were not nearly as social as they are now. This actually jives with some of the research on the psychology of nostalgia that I’ve been reading. One of the reasons we seem to engage in nostalgia is to partake of the many positive psychological and emotional effects it has on us. One of those has been shown to be that it makes us less anxious about forming social bonds. We’re literally more comfortable approaching other people and opening up to them when we’re experiencing nostalgia. This has a lot to do with the fact that when we’re asked to engage in that kind of reverie, we tend to remember times that involve other people --family, friends, etc.-- and it helps build a self-image of ourselves as someone capable of that kind of thing.

One thing from the literature that I’m not seeing here and that I had wondered if I would, was the idea of a “redemption sequence.” This is where nostalgic events start off bad or negative in tone, but then people recall how the event led them to be a better person or to some positive outcome. Omniscia and John Many Jars come close, but aren’t quite there. Maybe the topic of gaming prompts us to only focus on wholly positive events, though, since it’s inherently a fun activity.

So let me ask a follow-up question: Under what circumstances, conditions, or triggers do you find yourself engaging in nostalgia about past gaming experiences?

I find that gaming nostalgia is like any other memory. It just so happens that a subset of those experiences are centered around gaming, enhanced by the powerful audio-visual cues that come with it.

  • Alan

Please keep in mind(to avoid the trap these kind of studies can easily fall into) that not ALL nostalgic game experiences that players relate are simply mist-through-time fueled distant memories and obviously those old games pale into insignificance with anything modern or current.

M.U.L.E - the original(pref on Atari 8bit with 4 players) is still the best of that genre.

Xcom - the first is still the best game of it’s type. etc etc etc.

What really grates with these kind of discussions is where some hip ‘young thing’ decides anyone gaming on hardware not of the last decade must have had a horrible time compared to them with their games experiences(“What? your resolution was 240x100 in 8 colours! - the games must sucks!”). That just isn’t the case at all.

For example, while i charge through and discard most modern games, never to look at them again, I find games from the era of the 1990’s to be ones i go back to time and time again. That isn’t nostalgia, that’s my finding these older games are more fun to play(or more interesting/challenging etc).