Why Nostalgia For Video Games Is Uniquely Powerful (2023)

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.


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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.

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Why Nostalgia For Video Games Is Uniquely Powerful (1)

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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.


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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.

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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.

Alyse Knorr is an assistant professor of English at Regis University. She’s the author of Super Mario Bros. 3 from Boss Fight Books, as well as several collections of poetry.

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Why nostalgia for video games is uniquely powerful? ›

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.

Why are video games so nostalgic? ›

People can gravitate towards retro gaming as they are seeking a known trigger for a positive emotional response.” “Nostalgia is also thought to be important in emotional resilience,” says Feldmeier. “By looking at the past, one can sometimes look to the future even when getting bogged down by the pain of the present.

How do you deal with nostalgia video games? ›

After you quit gaming it's common to experience feelings of nostalgia, and this can be a problem because these emotions create cravings to play.
Here are the three steps you can take to deal with gaming nostalgia:
  1. Do a gratitude journal. ...
  2. Stop comparing: then to now. ...
  3. Always be exploring.

Why are video games unique? ›

Video games are a unique form of entertainment because they encourage players to become part of the script. Although video games have been available for more than 30 years, today's sophisticated options require players to pay constant attention to the game.

Why is nostalgia so powerful? ›

Nostalgia by motivating us to remember the past in our own life helps to unite us to that authentic self and remind us of who we have been and then compare that to who we feel we are today. That gives us a sense of who we want to be down the road in the future.

Is nostalgia a powerful emotion? ›

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that can be conjured by events that bear a resemblance to past experiences in a person's life. Familiar music, smells, and other reminders of the past activate nostalgic feelings.

What makes video games memorable? ›

Memorable Characters. Good Balance of Challenge & Reward. An Entertaining Story. Something Different.

Why does playing video games make me feel better? ›

Video games lead to healthy brain stimulation

In other words, playing video games forces gamers to deeply stimulate multiple different areas of his or her brain, which leads to the development of a large handful of various beneficial tasks and dimensions of thinking.

Why do I feel happy when playing video games? ›

These three components – autonomy, competence, and relatedness – are universal and thought to be essential for psychological health and well-being of an individual. Having these needs met, while also having the added element of playfulness, makes us feel good, happy, and satisfied.

Why does nostalgia hit so hard? ›

Nostalgia often surfaces when thinking of loved ones, both those you haven't encountered in some time and those you no longer spend time with. If you lost a friend or loved one and feel like you never got real closure, this nostalgia may feel even more distressing.

How do you make a video feel nostalgic? ›

  1. Vintage Lenses. One of the best things you can do to give your project a vintage look is shoot on a vintage lens. ...
  2. Film Overlays. You've probably noticed how grainy vintage footage is. ...
  3. Decrease Contrast. ...
  4. Bring up the Black Levels. ...
  5. Bring Down the White Levels. ...
  6. Warm up the Highlights. ...
  7. Turn Down Saturation.
Mar 10, 2016

Why do people like old games? ›

His findings reveal that nostalgia is the main motivation for playing old games. It is a way to return the player to older and simpler times. The study identifies two aspects of nostalgia: restorative and reflective nostalgia.

How do you make a video game unique? ›

Top 5 Ways to Come Up With Unique Game Ideas:
  1. Brainstorm For Ideas. Brainstorming is a common method used to come up with not just game ideas, but ideas as a whole. ...
  2. Try to Find Something New In a Familiar Genre. ...
  3. Combine Elements from Two Wildly Different Games. ...
  4. Use the Real-World for Inspiration. ...
  5. Don't Try.
Sep 24, 2021

What is a unique game? ›

A two-prover one-round game is called a unique game if for every question and every answer by the first player, there is exactly one answer by the second player that results in a win for the players, and vice versa. The value of a game is the maximum winning probability for the players over all strategies.

Why video games are meaningful? ›

provide points of common interest and opportunities for socialization. develop skills in reading, math, technology and problem-solving. encourage participation in related offline activities, such as reading or sports. encourage civic participation.

Why are memories so powerful? ›

Memory is powerful because most of the time it serves us well, forming the foundation of our knowledge of the world and of ourselves. In the case of emotionally experiences, memory is a source of tremendous power in our lives.

Why is nostalgia so big now? ›

We ride a wave of nostalgia, seeking solace in those pre-COVID, pre-smart phone times. People and groups often feel nostalgic for the past when current circumstances are deficient, leaving us with a sense that something valuable has been lost, an unsettling discontinuity between past and present.

What is the main message of nostalgia? ›

Nostalgia is associated with a longing for the past, its personalities, possibilities, and events, especially the "good ol' days" or a "warm childhood". There is a predisposition, caused by cognitive biases such as rosy retrospection, for people to view the past more favourably and future more negatively.

What is the most powerful emotion we feel? ›

Generally, people tend to view anger as one of our strongest and most powerful emotions. Anger is a natural and "automatic" human response, and can in fact, serve to help protect us from harm. While angry behavior can be destructive, angry feelings themselves are merely a signal that we may need to do something.

How does nostalgia make us feel? ›

As a result, one typically feels emotional, most often happy but with a sense of loss and longing; other less common feelings include comfort, calm, regret, sadness, pain, or an overall sense of bittersweetness. Nostalgia confers psychological benefits.

Is nostalgia positive or negative? ›

On the one hand, nostalgia can be positive, imbued with a rosy glow of familiarity and belongingness. On the other hand, it can be negative, accompanied by longing, loss, and frustrated desire. Nostalgia often melds both positive and negative experiences.

What are positive facts about video games? ›

  • They speed up response times. ...
  • They encourage teamwork. ...
  • They stimulate creativity, focus and visual memory. ...
  • They improve strategy and leadership. ...
  • They teach languages. ...
  • Critical thinking.

Why are video games relaxing? ›

Most video games are fun and engaging. Gaming produces a release of dopamine (the happy hormone) which will make you feel good and help you cope with the stresses of everyday life.

How do video games affect the brain positively and negatively? ›

Some studies suggest that video games help learning and build skills, while others have found they can make players more violent or aggressive. It is evident that the impact of video games on the brain is not clear-cut; they can have both beneficial and harmful effects.

Why is nostalgia so happy? ›

Nostalgia often creates instant happiness because we all recall memories that make us feel good. Ironically, we can even find ourselves appreciating the past more in the present than we did in the moment it happened. Sometimes hindsight allows us to recognize how much we valued a certain time of our life.

What does nostalgia do to the brain? ›

An integrative data analysis based on 41 experiments showed that nostalgia inductions increase positive rather than negative affect (Leunissen et al., 2021). In addition to positive affect or pleasure, nostalgia is related to motivation and reward seeking.

Why do we chase nostalgia? ›

According to research in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, doctors believed that nostalgic people were preoccupied with bygone events, and that their “doomed state of mind” was a defense mechanism against the demands of the present and an anxiety toward the future.

Why do adults play video games psychology? ›

The popular reasons are that video games bring joy (93%), provide mental stimulation (91%) and stress relief (89%). “One area we were heartened to see is in the area of mental health,” Pierre-Louis says.

Does gaming get harder with age? ›

As we age, we need more time to make the same quality shots. And yes, again, we peak at a young age. “We start to see drop-off in reaction time averages as early as 22 years old or so,” says Mackey. “Once you hit 40 it becomes much more rapid.” Reaction times in the 18-25 groups average at 271-272 milliseconds.

When was the golden age of gaming? ›

The golden age of arcade video games was the period of rapid growth, technological development and cultural influence of arcade video games, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

How many unique video games are there? ›

The very first video game ever invented involved simple table tennis. Today, there are over five million games in existence. From high-speed racing adventures to perilous virtual dueling matches, there's a genre for everyone to enjoy.

How video games can change the world? ›

Video gaming, once seen as an addictive hobby, can actually make the world a better place through science and technology. By inspiring students to pursue careers in STEM fields and helping solve real-world problems, video games have taken on an entirely new light in recent years.

How do you make a video game like real life? ›

4 Tips to Turn Your Life Into a Video Game
  1. Set yourself your own bold quests and missions, in the form of exciting goals.
  2. Think of some attributes that you want to level up in your life, and then get started.
  3. Go travelling and explore.
  4. Create a bucket list of experiences to pursue and tick off.
Apr 2, 2022

What is the most confusing game in the world? ›

New research by the broadband experts at Uswitch has revealed that Elden Ring is the most confusing video game of the year.

What is the best game to ever exist? ›

1. Minecraft. First place goes to Minecraft, a sandbox video game that's sold over 176 million copies.

Are there mental benefits of video games? ›

While excessive use can be harmful, moderate use can have emotional, psychological and social benefits, with games successfully used in treating anxiety and depression.

Why video games make us smarter? ›

They found that gamers outperformed non-gamers in the task they had devised and concluded that playing video games trains the brain to become more flexible in updating and monitoring new information, thus enhancing memory capacity.

Why is childhood nostalgia so strong? ›

It's a universal experience to let out a nostalgic sigh and remember beautiful moments from days gone by. And it's no wonder the past is so appealing sometimes — there's less responsibility and no unknowns lurking around the corner. You've already lived it, so it's a safe and comfortable place to revisit.

Why does nostalgia make things seem better than they were? ›

Leading psychology theories say that gazing back down memory lane helps establish our identity in the present time. Remarkably, we aren't only nostalgic about what we have experienced. The pleasant emotions felt when thinking about the past are the same – even for times before we were born.

How does nostalgia impact how we desire? ›

Nostalgia elicits feelings of social connectedness, making us feel as though we have a social network in which we belong. Interestingly, social connectedness decreases our desire for money by making us feel less reliant on it because we are supported by our network of friends and family.

Does nostalgia make things seem better? ›

It May Boost Mood

Nostalgia can lead to a positive affect, according to a study published April 2021 in Consciousness and Cognition. If you're feeling bogged down by negativity, dipping into nostalgic feelings could help alleviate those emotions temporarily.

Does nostalgia make things better? ›

The researchers found that nostalgia was generally beneficial, leading people to experience more positive emotions, life satisfaction, and well-being, as well as fewer negative emotions—at least three weeks into the program.

Why do people love nostalgic things? ›

As a result of engaging in nostalgic recollections, people often report experiencing a more positive mood, feeling more socially connected, and having a greater sense that their lives are meaningful. This has led some to suggest that nostalgia might even be useful as a psychotherapeutic technique.

What purpose does nostalgia serve? ›

In an interview for the American Psychological Association, she asserts that “nostalgia is an emotional experience that unifies,” that “helps unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time,” and “gives us a sense of who we want to be […] in the future.”

What happens to your brain when you feel nostalgic? ›

Thus, nostalgia involves brain activities implicated in self-reflection processing (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus), autobiographical memory processing (hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and precuneus), emotion regulation processing (anterior cingulate ...


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