Nostalgia in game design has been an increasingly common phenomenon in recent years, and so it's a fair to question why that might be, and what function that might have in gaming today. However, in order to answer that, we first need to examine what "nostalgia" really means. Of course we all know the dictionary answer, but I'd like to go a little deeper; in fact, I think the dictionary answer ("a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations") is wrong. Rather than the desire to return to a better time, I believe that nostalgia is the desire to return to a better you. A you that was younger, stronger, or safer. And it's in this personal light that I think we can start to see some answers to our initial question about its recent increase in popularity.
It is, in fact, deeply personal, and by definition, exclusive. No two generations share the same past, and games that appeal to one group will by necessity fail to address the other. So, a game preoccupied with nostalgia is going to estrange segments of the potential market. Negotiating that terrain requires a delicate touch. Sheree Thrasher, a public affairs manager for Coca Cola North America, agrees, stating, "There is not a one-size-fits-all concept — but with the right product, strategy and audience, using a nostalgia-based campaign can be a success." And what we're seeing now does seem to reflect a very targeted approach - late 80s and early 90s stylistic choices dominate the market. Despite quite striking visual elements for say, early pixel art from the 70s, there appears to be a limited market for such choices. And even though a great many contemporary adult gamers would have come up in the hobby in the 2000s, polygon-style quasi-realism is currently lacking in the marketplace. And while it seems inevitable that the focus of nostalgia efforts in the marketplace will someday shift (as they certainly have in both film and fashion), for now the focus on 80s and 90s may well be an attempt to "split the difference," as it were.
While video gaming undoubtedly has its roots in the arcades of the 1970s, it was the home console boom of the 1980s that made the cultural phenomenon a lasting technology market success. And although the heights reached by that market in the 2000s eclipse those from the 80s and 90s, that quasi-realism has not aged particularly well, to this point. Many of those polygon games verge on the uncanny valley, and I'm not sure that the average consumer of today is specifically desiring a return to that aesthetic. So, what we are left with are the popular games of the 80s and 90s that retain a distinct artistic style born of their limitations, but also elevated by both smart design choices as well as the fond memories of youth. Furthermore, there's a genuine pleasure in some of these simpler graphical applications. Less realism and more abstraction invites imaginative play, and can provide a different kind of experience.
So, that explains some of the style choices and the approach the industry is taking, but returning to the question of nostalgia's actual draw, we must ask where the appeal lies. Part of it, I think, is in the above definition of "a better you," especially for folks of a certain age. It does, in fact, make me remember being less old, less responsible, and less jaded. On the other hand, there are other reasons, and not all of them are positive. One of the big ones is anxiety. When you're nervous, especially about the future, you look for comfort in the past. Interestingly, that means any past, not just your own, which is why the approach focusing on the 80s and 90s has worked so well to this point. It's a longing for a more optimistic time, before we knew what we know now. In fact, that's the etymology: "nostos" (returning) and "algos" (suffering). In a way, nostalgia is an antidote to sadness. So, is there a way to reconcile the ideas of the “better self” and the “escape from suffering?”
I believe so. The truth is, video gamers are getting older. A 2018 survey of video game players found that an overwhelming 72% of their respondents were over the age of 18, and surprisingly, 23% of those were over the age of 50. That's quite the change from when video games were exclusively "kid's stuff." As we gamers age, and begin to have families of our own and other demands on our limited free time, it alters perceptions of what gaming means. A hobby that was once used as something to pass rainy afternoons or to spend time with our friends becomes a tool to bond with our own children, or to reconnect with the friends in our lives that adult responsibilities have gotten in the way of. Quite recently, an advertisement for classic home arcade cabinets has been airing on television, and the sting for the ad is an adult father being brought out of his daydreams about his youth spent in arcades and into his present living room with his present family, teaching his son how to play. It's a reflection on how both what games meant to us in our youth, as well as what they have come to mean to us now.
In fact, this ad represents the theory of "social connectedness." This measures how people come together and interact, which involves the quality and number of connections one has with other people. Jamie Madigan, in his article "The Psychology of Video Game Nostalgia" has a particularly good observation on this point: "For gamers, our most nostalgic memories often revolve around sharing the hobby with others, making new friends through gaming, and enjoying a good couch co op experience." After all, games are innately quite social, and getting more so over time. MMOs and app-based communities rely on that premise to operate. One can easily imagine how the comforting idea of a better self can be extended through a community, even to those who might have a much different sense of what a better self would entail. While one group may feel comforted by a sense of nostalgia, the nature of a community suggests that others may feel better simply because those around them do.
The question isn't really if nostalgia is good or bad, but rather simply what it means to the individual and those around them. Nostalgia gaming reminds us of better times, true, and better selves as well, but it is also a way for us to reconnect with each other, and bridge those memories of who we were with the people who will define who we are going to be. Gaming is a hobby that, at its best, brings people together and reinforces a sense of community. In the end, it is those connections, more than anything else, that truly define the draw of nostalgia, in gaming as much as in anything else.
Dr. Daniel Gronsky is a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Science, focusing on media studies in film and video games.