This year, Netflix will premiere the third season of its hit documentary series The Toys That Made Us. This series of 45-minute deep dives into the toys we’re most nostalgic for has covered He-Man, Barbie, Hello Kitty, and more. But video games have been noticeably absent from any of the show’s episodes thus far. That’s a peculiar omission, since research has demonstrated that video game nostalgia is the most powerful nostalgia of all.
It’s true that we’re all predisposed to feel sentimentally attached to the toys, movies, and music (even horrible jingles!) associated with products from our childhood. According to psychologists, icons of our past act as symbols of a simpler, more carefree time, and, in some cases, a time when people were beginning to develop their own values and understanding of themselves. And luckily, we’re hard-wired to hold onto good memories longer than bad ones, which in turn implants those memories even more firmly in our minds since the act of remembering them feels so nice.
Games trigger nostalgia even more strongly than toys because we invest more emotions in playing them—heightened feelings of competitiveness, frustration, joy, and pride. Games produce feedback loops that reward players for playing them. This is just as true of the games of kickball you played during recess as it is true for Sorry! or Trouble or Mega Man X, butthe greater immersiveness of Mega Man X makes it have an even more profound effect on the brain. Video game narratives offer players a significant—and highly memorable—chance to feel heroic and experience a sense of mastery, which can be rare in our non-gaming lives.
And while you can’t go back to recess with your fourth-grade buddies, you can pop in an old game cartridge and return to a virtual place from your past. This permanence, too, is key to explaining what’s so special about video game nostalgia.
The etymology of “nostalgia” clues us in to the importance of place. The word comes from the Greek nostos, meaning “returning,” and algos, meaning “suffering.” The term was invented by Swiss doctors in the 17th century to describe a condition afflicting Swiss mercenaries who longed for their home while they fought in wars abroad.
In other words, nostalgia is essentially a kind of homesickness for a specific place, or, in the words of scholar Sean Fenty, a “yearning to return to a place—to a state of being.” In an article called “Why Old School Is ‘Cool’: A Brief Analysis of Classic Video Game Nostalgia,” Fenty argues that “video games are places—they are states of being; and because they are stored, unchanging data, they tease with the hope for a possibility of return, if only we can gain access to them.” Though we grow up and change, video games stay constant; an ever-present time capsule that we can re-enter at will.
Re-entering these virtual playgrounds may even ease some of our anxiety about aging. As gamers grow older and technology changes, their fondness for whatever feels “old school” to them will likely only increase into an even stronger form of nostalgia. Communication theory philosopher Marshall McLuhan argued that with the arrival of a new technology, those born into it will accept it and not even realize it’s new, while those who are rooted in older technologies will feel actual pain, and prefer to go back to the way things were before the new technology. Anyone who lies in the middle of these two states will experience what Fenty calls “the pain of transition.”
Nostalgia provides a way to deal with this pain, and it explains why we can feel nostalgic for even the crappiest games. What’s important is not the game’s quality, but the feeling you get playing it. The right word might be “comfort”—the comfort of the familiar, and the delight in re-experiencing surprises in a safe environment you know.
Of course, it’s fascinating to watch how this nostalgia impacts gaming discourse and game design. When today’s aging gamers (like me) complain that they’ve never played a game they like as much as Super Mario Bros., or that today’s games don’t stack up to the ones from the “good old days,” they’re saying more about themselves than they are about the games.
Although many of today’s indie games are designed out of this nostalgia for “old-school” platformers, nostalgia also played a huge role in the development of the originals they pay homage to. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. series, may not seem to have much in common with his Italian-American plumber Mario on the surface, but Miyamoto’s games reflect so much of his own childhood nostalgia that he’s been called “the closest thing there is to an autobiographical game creator.”
Growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Miyamoto didn’t have a TV and video games didn’t exist. Instead, he created his own fun, inventing games and making model airplanes (which he sometimes destroyed with fireworks), flip-books, and other toys. In middle school, Miyamoto loved drawing comics so much that he would even fantasize about being struck with an illness that allowed him to stay in a hospital all day making up heroes. Even though his father discouraged Miyamoto from pursuing art, Miyamoto’s mother fostered his artistic impulses, and he grew up making puppets and putting on puppet shows for his family members.
But more than anything, Miyamoto loved exploring the outdoors. He rode his bike around the bamboo forests, mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and ancient castle ruins of his small town—environments that would later appear in Super Mario Bros. Other elements of his games were influenced by less happy memories. The Chain Chomp bad guy in Super Mario Bros. 3, for example, was inspired by a scary incident Miyamoto had with a neighbor’s chained-up dog.
One famous and oft-repeated anecdote is that Miyamoto discovered a cave inside of Komugi Mountain near his house and dove inside to explore. This cave, which inspired the underground levels of the Super Mario Bros. series, is now so famous to Miyamoto’s and Mario’s mythologies that tourists have begun flocking to the limestone caves near Sonobe, the village where Miyamoto grow up—so many that the caves now feature stairs and lights. But Miyamoto told The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten that the caves he explored in his youth were smaller, and have been covered up by new houses and roads, their entrances barred off. (For die-hard fans, the best directions to Miyamoto’s old cave might be these, which he provided, through his translator, to Paumgarten in 2010).
In the end, the very fact that the exact location of Miyamoto’s cave remains a mystery is exactly the point. Permeating all of Miyamoto’s games is a pervasive sense of wonder at the world and all of its secrets. In David Sheff’s Nintendo history Game Over, Miyamoto described the world he imagined while creating Mario games in particular:
“What if you walk along and everything that you see is more than what you see—the person in the T-shirt and slacks is a warrior, the space that appears empty is a secret door to an alternate world? What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know be there? You either shake your head and dismiss it or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think. Perhaps it really is a doorway to another place. If you choose to go inside, you might find many unexpected things.”
Perhaps a game inspired by nostalgia has the power to make the player even more nostalgic herself. I found this to be true for myself when it came to Super Mario Bros. 3. It was the first game I ever played, and throughout my childhood I spent hours playing with my father and brother. My nostalgia for the game as an adult was so potent that I ended up writing a book about its development and impact. And while I found the historical research and game analysis fascinating, the most fun part of writing it was simply re-playing each level from start to finish. I felt like a little girl again, cliché and corny though that sounds. But nostalgia is a corny emotion—that’s the whole point of it. And through the power of gaming nostalgia, we’re gifted with a space where we’re free to be corny kids again—to hide away from our grown-up world and commitments and re-enter the magical cave.