Nostalgic Gaming: Bittersweet Escapism?

 

Have you ever found yourself wanting to find a new game, a new experience, and failing? You look at games you’ve barely picked up or you scroll through page after page of games on the Steam store and find nothing. You sigh, and chuck on a game you’ve played time after time. You’ve sunk hundreds of hours into it. It’s an old faithful, a relic from your childhood that still makes you smile today. It’s a rosy cache of nostalgia unlike any other, because you can touch it, you can interact with it. You can play it again.

Last year I picked up Crash Bandicoot: The N-Sane Trilogy. I was very excited for it, as was my mother. We had played the original three games for the Playstation One to death, both of us 100%-ing all three eventually, and watching each other play, and helping each other out with the bits we struggled with (I was terrible at the driving levels, my mother didn’t like the underwater ones). In fact, Cortex Strikes Back was my first ever videogame and one of my most vivid memories is dying repeatedly to the armadillo enemies in the very first level.

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With emulators, I can play the original trilogy as they were back then on my PC. I can just boot the program up, load the ISO and boom. Crash is there on my screen and I’m shredding through those dastardly armadillos like there’s no tomorrow. With the N-Sane trilogy however, my nostalgia wasn’t there. Crash was too shiny, the controls were markedly different, the soundtrack was different. Sure, they were the same songs but they were different. That’s when I realised I didn’t play Crash Bandicoot for the gameplay, not anymore at least, but because it was a familiar experience. Something I remember from my childhood when life wasn’t as hard as it is today. Struggling to run away from a giant polar bear isn’t as hard as struggling to find work. So managing to beat that level whilst also cracking open every crate is satisfying, it’s a win that I’m not getting now. And it’s not the only game.

Spyro the Dragon, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy V, Pokémon Gold, Dungeon Keeper, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Curse of Monkey Island. These are games that for me constitute most of my nostalgia factory. They have no secrets from me. I can complete each and every one of them with ease. They are patently not new experiences for me and yet I can still boot any of them up and enjoy a few hours with them. If I can’t play them right then as the mood hits me I might pull YouTube up and listen to one of their soundtracks. The FFIX OST got me through every exam season of university – I listened to it so much I almost know the song order off by heart. Final Fantasy IX is my favourite game of all time and I can pick it up at any point. But why? Surely by now I should be bored of finishing the same old games over and over again.

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Nostalgia is defined by Wildschut et al. (2006) as “a sentimental longing for the past” and can be a bittersweet experience. It has been associated with loss, homesickness and melancholia. It has also been associated with positive self-perception and feelings of social connectedness. It’s a complex cognitive phenomenon. Verplanken (2012) discusses findings that associate nostalgia with positive affect, but also increased anxiety and depression within individuals who tend to worry a lot. Verplanken says this is the ‘bitter’ of bittersweet coming to the fore. To be candid, I suffer from anxiety and depression, and find that I most long to play games in my nostalgia factory at my lowest points. When I feel like I’m hopeless or I can’t do anything, I play these games. They’re a reminder of days when I felt ambitious, like I could do anything if I just tried hard enough. This contrast between past and present is a ripe condition for just sitting back and playing some familiar videogames. For some it may be music, or old TV shows, but give me an hour with Guybrush Threepwood and I’m sold. Verplanken goes on to say that habitual worriers (feeling very attacked already) would do best to avoid nostalgic cues and stimulus, but hey, what do they know. It feels nice.

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Ortony et al. (1988) categorised nostalgia under a sub-set of negative well-being emotions. They believed it was an emotion that related to loss and distress, despite not ever being associated with other negative emotions in content. In fact the content of nostalgic thoughts and memories are wholly on the positive side. It is maybe the loss of the positively associated content that we are remembering fondly yet bitterly. Positive affect, with tones of sadness. Bittersweet. The word keeps coming up in the literature and I have to say I agree that nostalgia is an emotion uniquely born from bittersweet cognition.

Wildschut et al. (2006) studied the phenomenon of nostalgia in 172 undergraduate students. They found that the most common trigger of nostalgia was negative affect, and amongst those who were nostalgic as a response to negative affect, many of them specifically mentioned loneliness. They also found that experiencing nostalgia in general would increase mood. In this way, we can view nostalgia as an adaptive mechanism that we can utilise to increase our mood temporarily, even it that does come with feelings of wistfulness, or increased depression and anxiety down the line. Learning this has had implications for me and the way I use old videogames as a coping mechanism. I play games alone most of the time. It’s an intrinsically lonely hobby, yet I don’t feel lonely when I’m playing. Maybe that’s the point – maybe my nostalgia factory is a response I’ve conditioned for myself out of periods of loneliness. It would certainly make sense.

So what do we do with this information? If you, like me, play videogames from your childhood to cope sometimes, or do something similar like listen to old albums or watch the movies you grew up with, maybe you should have a moment of introspection about the motives you have. I know that when I’m having a particularly bad time of it, I’ll fire up a game that I know inside-out and play that. It doesn’t solve any problems, it may even be maladptive in the long run as I don’t gain anything new and it’s time that may be better spent being proactive. It does however give me a bit of a boost. Even though these games aren’t as shiny as the ones that came out this year, and even though the soundtracks are grainier and they may be simplistic in comparison to today’s standard fare, they’re comfy. They’re like another home away from home. I think I’m okay with that. And I’ll be buying the new Spyro, just to see if it scratches that bittersweet itch.

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References

Ortony, A., Clore, G. L., & Collins, A. (1988). The cognitive structure of emotions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Verplanken, B. (2012). When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


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