Can you remember your most treasured memory of playing a video game? I will tell you mine. It was on a warm summer day in 1991. My siblings and I were visiting with our grandmother for the weekend. One thing that almost always came hand in hand with visiting grandma was her marvelous habit of buying us a new game. In this case it was a Sega Genesis game called “Toejam and Earl.” A classic in today’s world, but still fresh and unexplored back in 1991. Once we popped the game into our 16-bit “High Definition” console, we were hit almost immediately by a funky groove, followed by a sneeze and a spaceship with a snowboard. We were then assaulted by colors, psychedelic and gyrating. Two crazy looking dudes, looking like a hotdog with legs and a seal with sunglasses, greeted us at the home screen. Wow, I thought. This is next gen gaming!
Once we got over our initial shock and awe of launching this crazy adventure, the business of playing had begun. My favorite moment in a game, ever, came seconds later. My brother and I almost instinctively started walking in different directions. As soon as we did, the screen instantly “split in half.” It blew my mind. We can go in different directions and explore different areas? At the same time? Head explodes! That moment in gaming was monumental for me. It’s a memory that has always stayed in my conscience all these years. To this day when I start a fresh, new game I look for that “Toejam and Earl moment.” When I find it, I know I’m playing the right game.
The idea of nostalgia in video games is nothing new. And it tends to apply to a lot of things in life other than just games. But there is a fundamental difference here. What’s special about video game nostalgia as opposed to say, nostalgia about a city you grew up in, is that a city is an ever growing, changing hodgepodge of ideas that is in a state of constant flux. That favorite restaurant you ate at as a kid may not be there in 30 years for you to go back to. My father was always sentimental about the island he grew up on. But 50 years later the island is a wall of condos and a shadow of the paradise it used to be. My father can never experience that island as it was all those years ago, because it changes. A game on the other hand, stays the same. You can relive that experience over and over and get those same feelings that made you feel so great. Nostalgia can be one of the greatest and most therapeutic feelings in the world. For many of us these emotions craft who we are as human beings. For gamers, it makes us want to have that first mind blowing experience with a game come back to us. Every time we play.
Another beautiful thing about nostalgia is that we tend not to remember the bad, only the good. Sure, we’ve all played bad games. We’ll lament the horrible mechanics or glitchy graphics, but who remembers them in the end? We only remember the good. Those fantastic sleepover nights with your friends staying up past your bed time for that one last level. Just one more! The sight of your father storming out in his underwear at 2 AM is enough to make you leap for your bed! Getting up early in the morning before school to get an hour of gaming in before being sent straight to hell. Getting the crew together on the weekends to crowd around the TV and play MarioKart 64 till our thumbs blister and bleed. Having LAN parties all night long in college and waking up at 3 PM. Only to skip class, order a pizza and start over again. Playing a video game that you enjoyed as a child with your wife, and having her enjoy it just as much as you did on your first time. There are no feelings in life more precious than these. They are my memories, but could well be any gamers.
Because of Nostalgia, I truly believe that gaming brings out the best in people. Opportunistic politicians can blame the violence in society on gaming or any media. And there might be some truth to it. But how can we say that when games bring so much joy to so many people? What about the lives gaming has changed and saved? Gaming has certainly changed, shaped and saved my life in more ways than my memory can process. The horrors of a middle school purgatory made durable by my electronic friends at home. They were reliable narratives and exciting escapes from the unfortunate reality of my life at the time. Gaming helped me make living, REAL life friends. Gamer friends, best friends. Real people I could share these triumphs with. The triumphs that create that warm, nostalgic bubble that help bring my spirits up on a bad day. To this day!
It may sound silly to some, but Toejam and Earl was an awakening for me. My brother and I still play it regularly. It’s our sweet little escape. To another gamer, it’s a different game. I see this happening everywhere I look. Parents sharing that special “mind blowing” game with their kids. Bringing that wonderful, genuine feeling out into the world for a new, younger audience to experience. It warms my heart to see this generational gap being bridged. It once again re-affirms my belief that games are a positive statement on this increasingly negative globe. I doubt that video games will solve all of the insane problems this earth poses, but I do know one thing. If everyone could carry throughout their lives the positive energy we as gamers experience, the world would undoubtedly be a better, happier place.