Nostalgia vs Having an Active Relationship With Your Media

December 15th, 2023

If you've worked with raspberry pi emulators or retro gaming handhelds you notice a common theme pop up a lot in comments and reddit boards. Setting up these devices can be a hobby unto themselves. Curating roms, downloading logos and screenshots, scraping data, picking themes, tweaking and customizing until... you realize your done. Maybe you should actually play a something.

... And then you'll see threads of people talking about the same thing.

Hey, have any of you guys actually played anything? I mean I messed around with mine and loaded a few classics, but now that I'm done, I... don't know what to do with it. I feel like I had more fun setting it up than playing with it.

Now, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the process more than the end project. A garage carpenter doesn't necessarily make a chair for the pleasure of sitting. They can make it for the pleasure of making. Sitting can be a bonus. The part of this that is the problem is... the kinda sadness that comes out after when you're not prepared for it.

You'll see this with nintendo themed "man caves" or other gaming rooms where having the games... having the right screen and the right connectors, isn't enough... having the games of your childhood aren't enough. Gotta collect more, gotta try and get everything. Satisfaction isn't playing a new game, satisfaction is "New in Box". The hobby switches form. The hobby is no longer playing video games. The hobby is paying tribute to the memories of your past, the aesthetics of video games. What they can't force themselves to play anymore was still, at some point, formative and important to them. They can't let it go. The music, the pictures, the symbols of these old game still resonate in their heart.

So instead of actually playing, they construct shrines of worship to the warm, comfortable memories of their youth. This is, of course, nostalgia.

I hate on nostalgia a lot but there isn't truly anything wrong with it. In most realms, it doesn't matter. The people whose love of Star Wars hasn't grown in decades can still watch the movies they like and enjoy them. A few hours, a few times a year, relaxed on a couch. Gaming, on the other hand, takes some stubbornness. It takes some skill. Effort, even if mild effort. Investing the increasingly scarce resource of time. It's frankly more than a little understandable. The problem is when that they don't recognize any of this and when they go back... there is nothing but a weird emptiness and some frustration. For those who don't even realize they've grown out of gaming entirely, gaming becomes an endless line of frustration and backlogs with a few scattered high points. We don't know how to manage nostalgia in the gaming space.

Hell, by we, I feel like I only speak to fellow Millennials. Those of us who have been on the content treadmill, where gaming advanced so quickly year by year that we never had a moment to collect our feelings. Deeply influential pieces of media in our lives got let go off within years or even months because the next thing was that much crazier. Whenever I look at the release timeline of the 90s I feel like I'm going insane. "All those things couldn't have happened that quickly."

We call things retro and they feel retro because our whole timeline was stretched by the insane technological race we grew up in. We'll argue up and down if something is truly retro, comparing time and design styles but... I don't think I've ever seen a zoomer refer to a game as retro. Some games are... merely old. These new gamers exist, seemingly, at the end of time, free to pick from the fruits of the past. A lot of them aren't too technologically savvy, but those who are use emulators end up using them more freely and explore more deeply than a lot of my peers. The peers who don't "because it just doesn't feel right". On their couch, in their pajamas, on a sunday, playing on a fuzzy CRT. They're not burdened by our memories. They're us, picking through our parents vinyl. Their childhood memories aren't being rushed out the door for the next thing like ours were. They're... kinda free?

But we exist in this same time too. At the end of time. The freedom to reach back to the past at our leisure has been there since NESticle came out in 1997.

I'm not even sure who I'm talking to. While I personally know too many peers who have fallen into this nostalgia trap, most of them don't follow me in places like this. And not every zoomer is some super media literate history hunter either. Most aren't. Most people aren't. But my interactions with these groups and how they contrast each other keeps rattling in my head. I'd much rather talk to a 20something about the SNES than someone of my age group. Because if a 20something is playing old games, they probably have a cool attitude and curiosity while... many of my peers cling to past like a childhood blanket they've long outgrown. They don't need to throw the blanket away -- it's a precious memory. But they also need something to actually cover them. They don't realize they're freezing to death.

I said on twitter (those threads are... here, here, and here) that if your favorite NES games now were the same as they were 30 years ago then I don't want to talk to you about old games. Not that you're hurting anyone, not that you're taste must be bad, but... 30 years is a long time. The games might not change, but you will. If your opinions haven't changed in any major ways (even if it's as simple as 'I played mother 10 years ago and it's in my top 5 now!') that implies that... you haven't had any active growth in your tastes and opinions. At least in this area.

Which is fine! We can talk about something else! Not everyone should care about old games, but too many people who say they care have let their emotions stagnant for decades. They say they care because gaming became their identity and now they're stuck. Stuck regurgitating the same canon they are too incurious to stray from and that they themselves can barely manage to replay. You have to let the relationship you have with these games change. You don't have to throw out your blanket, but you can't rely on it to keep you warm. You've grown too much.

The biggest issue with those twitter threads was... accidentally implying that the change was the point. That you need to cast away everything you loved, painfully, to grow and to find the 'correct opinions'. Instead what I'm saying is... the change should be unavoidable. The relationship you have with your long term friends, the family you still have in your life, changes, year to year, decade to decade. You both change, and the context of your relationship changes. You feel like nothings changed, but the vibe now vs 10 years ago has shifted. You can't stay the same. At best things are similar. Heck, if it hasn't changed at all, something is probably wrong. Every interaction is a chance for tiny changes that enrich and build upon what was there before.

I always hated the notion of "wishing you could experience something again for the first time". To me, it always felt like wishing you could start a friendship again from scratch. My relationship with media is active. Each time I replay a game my experience with it grows. Our relationship grows. People say you only get to do something for the first time once, treating your first time like this precious, ephemeral experience that must be protected at all cost. But how can that compare to an experience developed over years or decades? Like sex, the first time has all the memories, but it's also usually some of the worst you'll ever have.

Every game you play, every movie you watch, every book you read is context and experience that changes, even if only minutely, how you feel about everything else. You don't have to replay something a million times, you can think about it after new experiences, wondering about how it re-contextualizes what you felt the last time you played. As you understand the history surrounding things, as you get better at judging, appreciating and naturally enjoying things with their context and historic place in mind... your opinions on other things will change. It's not that 8 year old you liked dogshit and now you like The Good Stuff -- you will probably like some good things less while developing an appreciation for things you used to hate. Hell, you might end up loving a few things that are objectively bad. But you'll be somewhere new, emotionally, exploring, and developing deeper, richer relationships with the things that are important to you. Nothing gets thrown away, it simply changes. Just because an old top 5 favorite game is now in your top 50 doesn't mean that relationship is gone or that you hate it. Things simply change. People change.

I make games that draw from old games... but I can't say I really feel nostalgia for these titles because to miss something, it has to go away. IWBTG isn't about games I loved in my childhood, IWBTG is about games I love. I didn't like NES Castlevania games until I was almost 30 and now I'm 40 making the same quasi-fan game I've been making for over a decade.

(If you think an opinion on a game can change a lot in 10 years, imagine how you feel about a game you started 10 years ago)

I still feel nostalgia. When I go to upstate New York, to my grandma's house I barely see, laying in the moss I barely get to touch, looking at the sights I barely get to see, I feel something. When I hear a pop punk song that meant the world to me in 95' that I haven't thought about in 20 years... hearing the opening notes when I'm not expecting it hits something deep inside me. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia. But if I love something enough to make it an active part of my personality, to make it a part of my whole life... I owe it a real, active relationship.

tags: Games , Classic