John Glynn – Psychology and Video Game Nostalgia: From Mario to Mortal Kombat

Back in the 1600s, Swiss physicians and neologism lovers conceived the term nostalgia. The word was used to express a type of deliberation or reminiscence. The boffins observed and questioned Swiss mercenaries who protected foreign kings, combatants who yearned for their simple, domestic life of yesteryears. However, while the researchers must be commended for identifying and coining the condition, they also believed that nostalgia was caused by diminutive demons living inside a person’s head. Yes, I kid you not.

In 2014, luckily, science has evolved considerably since those rather simple times. We aren’t afraid to question and analyze the opinions and findings of certain professionals.

Nostalgia is a fascinating topic of discussion; it influences us all in variable degrees. Wistfulness and melancholy is of major interest to various sectors of society, from psychologists to gaming designers. Basically, nostalgia can be defined as an over-romantic yearning for the past, a reflection on better times. Nostalgia and video games correlate much closer than many people imagine. I am 27 years of age, and I often find myself pensively reflecting back on the days when I used to rush in the door from school and delve into my collection of N64 cartridges.  The simple days of Zelda and Mario Kart 64 never fail to bring a smile to my face.

So, with this being said, the concept of nostalgia is thoroughly embraced by gaming developers and marketing personnel. Just think about it, for every unique, innovative gaming franchise that originates, there seems to be another that is merely re-launching previous properties that were fashionable many years ago. For example, the aforementioned Mario Kart 64 is obviously a major reason for the most recent edition to the amazing franchise, Mario Kart 8. If it ain’t broke…

"The Cathedra" by Vytautas Valius
“The Cathedra” by Vytautas Valius

This begs the question; why exactly do we get so nostalgic about video games from our formative days? Were the good old days really that good, or are we looking at them through rose-tinted, Zeke Dunbar styled glasses? As a qualified psychologist, I have participated in some research involving video game nostalgia and consumer behaviour. The finding were pretty conclusive, my colleagues and I determined that video games do indeed possess the ability to spawn more nostalgia than any other medium of pleasure, from food to cars.

Unsurprisingly, blissful thoughts involving euphoric times spent in the company of family and friends are common examples. Many of these constructive, social experiences were created thanks to games like Final Fantasy VI and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Without getting to technical, nostalgia seems to act as a remedy for unhappiness and wearisome, daily obstacles. Casting our mind back to happier times helps improve our frame of mind.

How can hearing the theme music from Street Fighter improve our mood when we have no way of recapturing that primary, somewhat unique event? Quite simply, it’s not just about the place or the game itself. An emblematic, evocative experience sees a person reflect back on positive experiences in which they were (or contributed to the success of) the protagonist, whether adopting the role of Sonic or Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winning goal on Pro Evolution. In addition, during this experience, the individual was surrounded by or intermingled with close friends or family. Games like Pac-Man and Ratchet and Clank are classic examples; they are classics that encompassed all the previously mentioned ingredients.

In our nostalgic gaming memories, we usually played the starring role. Think back to games on Fifa, one of the greatest sporting games ever. Memories such as beating your best mate on penalties in a “must win” tie can still bring a smile to your face, even if it occurred 15 years ago.  Some of the people we interviewed reminisced about playing GoldenEye 007 or beating their friend in the epic Mortal Kombat arena.  For us gamers, people who truly love video gaming, our most nostalgic memories tend to gyrate around sharing that unique experience with others, forging new friendships through gaming, and enjoying a hard fought, virtual victory.

Though, as important as they are, collective connections aren’t the only significant component of nostalgia. So much of its emotional credence stems from how nostalgia relates to our character. It is vital for us gamers to try and preserve a realistic congruity between our present and preceding personality. So many gamers tend to construct a connection between our existing and idyllic selves.

How do we do this? Well, simply by remembering the extraordinary gaming highlights we helped create or observed with friends. Perhaps you were a diehard World of Warcraft advocate, maybe Everquest was your preferred virtual remedy, whatever the case, you can consider yourself an integral part of helping the multiplayer gaming franchise become so popular.

Perhaps you were an avid follower of pioneering sites like PlanetQuake or Stomped. If you were, then you can justifiably feel good, safe in the knowledge that you helped advocate the now prosperous pastures of gaming journalism. Whatever the nostalgic situation, a gamer can enjoy a cerebral high by linking their existing self to previous endeavours and undertakings.

Nonetheless, in psychology, one must deal with factual recollections and perceptions. We must ask ourselves: how truthful are these reminiscences? (Preferably silently as opposed to aloud in a public place.)

We tend to entertain and encourage a type of defense system. But what do I mean by this statement? Well, we employ a certain gaming nostalgia that will ultimately make us feel happy, and this indicates that we may be mechanically prejudiced, even unconsciously partial towards identifying gaming moments that create feelings of bliss. Logically, who wants to recall the time you lost 14 fights in a row on Tekken?  So, in essence, we are opposed to the idea of recalling the gaming moments that saddened or disheartened us.  This is the much publicized “rose tinted glasses” experience.

Was getting relegated to the Championship on LMA Manager a happy memory? I seriously doubt it, so you bury that event in the metaphorical coffin, the closet located somewhere at the back of your mind.  As humans, undoubtedly, we possess a surprising predisposition towards the illusory. Fear not, this is not necessarily a negative. Essentially, everybody needs a form of escapism. So, please, go ahead and reminisce about the time you were crowned Call of Duty World Champion.

John Glynn

John Glynn is from Cong, Co. Mayo, Ireland and a PhD Psychology graduate from University of London. He is currently a professor in South Korea.


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