A point about nostalgia

For the last 10 months I have been enjoying the wonderful experience of raising a small human being – my son. Besides all the other joys of fatherhood, raising a child allows me to observe human behaviors at their most basic stage of development. This sometimes allows me to make conclusions about those behaviors that would be difficult to make from observing their complex adult forms. I would like to share with you some of those observations and today in particular I would like to make a point about nostalgia.

Nostalgia? Can a 10 months old baby even feel nostalgia? While he probably cannot feel nostalgia yet one particular thing about the way he plays with his toys allowed me to observe a key element of nostalgia that is often left unnoticed when discussing the phenomenon.

My little boy has a lot of toys and sometimes we accidentally forget about some of them. For example when one of them runs out of batteries and I keep forgetting to buy replacements. An interesting thing happens when after some time such a toy is reintroduced. He is overjoyed, sometimes to the point of not  being able to play with the toy out of excitement. In fact he is more excited about such toys than about new ones – even the particular toy in question was not met with that kind of excitement when it was first bought.

What is really relevant to the discussion of nostalgia is what happens when he starts playing with the toy. For a baby playing with a toy, even very simple, involves discovering what can be done with it and how to do it. This is an integral part of the fun and discovering how to e. g. press a button to make the toy play sounds is something very exciting for him. However, it can also lead to frustration if he cannot figure something out for a long time. When a toy is reintroduced, this process repeats itself, since the few weeks are enough for him to largely forget how it worked. However this time around the process goes much faster and smoother – his memory is not yet as capable as an adult’s but already can provide some tips to guide the discovery process and make it more streamlined.

Here I think lies the reason why my son likes those reintroductions so much – he gets to make the discoveries again, only faster. From this point of view this is literally better than a playing with a new toy – all the fun, half the frustration. Even if we allow for the possibility that a rediscovery is less satisfying than an original discovery this continues to be an attractive emotional package – most of the fun with much less frustration, delivered in a more compressed time frame.

I think this condensed high of rediscovery is a big part of why we enjoy nostalgia in the adult life. When you see someone playing a game they have played as a kid you can clearly see that a large part of the fun is rediscovering various tricks and relearning skills that lay dormant for years. When somebody is visiting a city of their childhood, which they have not seen for years, they act as if they were visiting some exotic location, discovering it anew, only with the help of their foggy memory they can still half consciously discover exactly the parts that used to be the most important to them. Of course for an adult an additional level of emotions comes from associated memories that are also brought back by the process of rediscovery.

So, to conclude, I think an important but often overlooked part of the joy of nostalgia is the process of more or less active rediscovery of the past. Getting to relearn the skills and knowledge we have almost forgotten. Which is enjoyable because of that „almost” – which makes us feel somewhat like we are discovering something new, but at the same time makes that discovery smooth and much less frustrating (hence it makes us feel smart). By the way this rediscovery hypothesis also explains why there has to be something like a 20 year window between something going out of style and it becoming an object of nostalgia – we need those 20 years to almost forget about it.

How does this point pertain to games? Well, maybe it does not directly. But games often do try to invoke a feeling of nostalgia. And many of them do it in a rather passive way, by using art and music style of the period. Now I think there is a way to do this in a more involved and deeper manner – invoking nostalgia not only by going for retro look, but also for retro play style. One example of a game I think made this quite well is Legend of Grimrock, which borrowed a lot of its design ideas directly from the old PC dungeon crawlers, even if it they did not fit modern sensibilities, making it really feel like a game from mid 90’s, despite the modern graphics. Judging from the widespread acclaim for the title this approach does appeal to players, so if you are planning to make a nostalgia based game, do consider going deeper than pixel art and chiptunes.

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