Opinion: In search of 'intelligent nostalgia'

The game industry often struggles under the mantle of nostalgia culture -- but can mining childhood influences sometimes lead to more universal game experiences?
Games have a fascinating relationship with nostalgia culture. We gravitate toward evergreen retro style, canonize designers of decades past, and persistently cling to our memories of the experiences that shaped our childhood. Legions of fans seem more prepared to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII than they would be to list ten games that released last year. Today's successful designers are liable to list their precedents, not their contemporaries, as major influencers. That's not unusual in any discipline, of course. But I've had a hypothesis for a while that an intense focus on recapturing childhood has been among the most significant driving forces in the games industry -- both for good and for ill. It's widely known that timeless ideas about adventure, exploration and childhood play have inspired some of the games that became permanent classics. Everyone's heard the lore about how Miyamoto's work, particularly the Zelda series, was inspired by his childhood explorations into caves. And childhood relationships to games are most often what inspire us to a lifetime of fandom: I also learned as a child to connect the sense of adventure, discovery and inspiration of early gaming to my experience of the world. Stories about memory and sentiment are virtually the spine of non-traditional game writing. When writers want to explore personal feelings in connection with games they often start with their childhood -- or they write about gently welcoming their own children into the world of gaming. Meanwhile, today's adults talk about something lost in that transition to adulthood. Most say we have less time than we once did to spend hours in imaginary worlds. Many of us are too worn by the actual burdens of the real world to take on additional, fictional occupations. Others construct arguments, some of which are actually quite convincing, that games have lost their ability to tease our imaginations in the way that they could when they were simpler, constrained by graphical and technical limitations. zelda.jpgYet as adults we remain fans of games, in part perhaps because there's that flicker of hope that drives us to believe we can recapture that magic-feeling, transcendent personal relationship we once had with the medium. Certainly that's not the solitary driving force, but it's hard to ignore the nagging sensation that it's a significant one. That rear-facing urge exists strongly for developers too, many of whom are most influenced by lifelong favorites, working on teams with colleagues who like the same kind of games and systems they always have. Many I've spoken to say they're driven by the urge to make the kind of games that will touch young people's hearts the way that their memorable games once touched theirs. This childhood-chasing hasn't always had a positive influence on game culture and industry. At worst, it shoulders some of the blame for the mainstream industry's broad adolesent streak, where playing soldiers against a backdrop of nu-metal and gyrating bikini girls is marketed as "cool" "tough" or "adult". At least, it constrains innovation, especially alongside an economic environment that favors proven properties over new ones -- the common ambition is to work on an aged and beloved franchise, not to invent something completely new. The mantle of emotional arrest that overhangs game culture also constrains perception about gaming as a hobby. No matter how the industry expands, and no matter how many people devotedly play all kinds of games without particular comment or emphasis, the wider media still perceives it as the pastime of adult-children, of "wacky" sorts that struggle when made to leave the apartment. There's nothing wrong with making games for kids, teens, even for the kind of young man for which we've always made them. But as the critical discussion around games increasingly shifts toward how to recalibrate our attention in order to also serve and interpret games that could be immersive, impactful experienes for adults, we'll need to find practiced and sophisticated ways to look forward, not just back. Yet there's an interesting caveat: Some of the most timeless games are about childhood. Recently I re-played the classic ICO as part of the year-old HD Collection. Definitely it's the sensitivity toward portraying the character's child-like innocence in a plausible way that gives the game its universality. ICO can be loved by anyone at any age, because of how strong its creator's memory of the details of youth seems to be. Similarly, although Miyamoto may be among the best-known examples of a designer inspired by his own childhood, nearly all Nintendo games are for anyone and everyone because of that pure, ageless feel joined with clean and inspired design. There is something precious and evergreen we may be able to find by reaching into our past. Whether we succeed may depend on what, exactly, we're searching for. There must be such a thing as "intelligent nostalgia," a conscious memory-mining that doesn't just happen because of visual fashion trends or the stubborn refusal to depart the familiar. The creators that are best at curating the influences of their own history selectively stand the best chance of inspiring the creation of games that reach broad audiences in gennuinely meaningful, lasting ways.

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