Nostalgia: Good. Criticism of Nostalgia: Bad.

Keen and Graev’s blog has been doing a bit of introspection about MMOs – how they are moving backwards in terms of design and how nostalgia is a great thing. It’s a common cry in discussions about MMOs – today’s titles aren’t as good as the previous ones – but the interesting defence here is that nostalgia isn’t somehow a bias but instead supports the argument.

Sorry, but this is just wrong. Nostalgia is a memory bias and serves as a mental defence of what we believe based on past experience. What Keen is doing here is trying to force a cognitive explanation onto an emotional dissonance – he feels that MMOs today don’t give him the same kind of “emotional response” he got from the older games he used to play, so therefore it is the fault of the current MMOs because they lack the same kind of features. It is a subjective argument taken from an emotional place – despite arguing that he isn’t, everything he liked about those previous times and places are locked up in his overall memories of a past time.

People self-justify their memories over time. Modern movies suck – the old ones were better. Old MMOs were more exciting, new ones suck. I like your old stuff better than your new stuff. We base our opinions of new experiences compared to old ones, so the first major experiences, in MMOs or anywhere else, often become disproportionately important. If they don’t, then why the heck do people still talk about Trammel in glowing terms despite the harm it was doing to the Ultima Online player base? Or how great the social scene in Everquest was, despite it often arising from agonising grinds or mob camping?

Nostalgia can chop away at those bad bits until only the good really shines. What Keen is doing is chasing an emotion feeling he probably won’t ever find again – that newness, that OMG, that first time. He had all this fun and great times in those “original” MMOs, but he doesn’t feel that same pull today so he’s rationalising it as a fault of the “modern” MMOs. He looks for “those things [that] factored into the whole” while ignoring that a lot of those factors were happy accidents, bad things players made good or immense barriers to players / gameplay.

Occasionally a developer will think they can grab those features that made those first games exciting, polish them up a bit and release a game, but you can’t unwind the clock. Players are used to a much smoother MMO ride than they were 10 years ago. Pretty much every MMO ever released has come out with substantive bugs / issues (lag in UO, server issues and queues in WoW) on launch but over time players have become less inclined to accept them.  For a game that survives, a poor launch is forgotten or downplayed; for a MMO that collapses, a poor launch is taken as an indication that the game was always going to fail. Once a game fails, it is then available to be used as an example of what every other title is lacking – people defend how great Shadowbane, Tabula Rasa or Matrix Online were while ignoring off the very issues that made them fail. Or how any one particular version of a title is definitively better than the current one.

If you had a great experience in any of those titles / versions, great, but please don’t think that experience speaks for the whole. Nostalgia really doesn’t wipe out all those negatives that existed about the game just because you can’t remember them or overlook them.

The reason that nostalgia is bad is that it locks out perspective and objective evaluation of an issue. “It’s just my opinion” isn’t a shield to stifles all argument against that opinion. Nostalgia doesn’t let you “know” anything – it is only what you think you remember (often minus the big negatives) and that can be very faulty indeed.

(UPDATE: Fixed a few typos, cleared up a point in the 5th paragraph.)

3 thoughts on “Nostalgia: Good. Criticism of Nostalgia: Bad.

  1. Pingback: Killed in a Smiling Accident. » Blog Archive » Perfection would be a fatal flaw for evolution

  2. Yeah, rose-tinted glasses happen a lot. In M59, a lot of people claim that the game was better back in the day when it took “real skill” and the game didn’t have the option to target a specific enemy. The thing they forget is that targeting was added to the game because cheaters had a hack that gave them that feature. The developers at the time decided to give it to everyone instead of getting into an arms race with the cheaters. Going back to the old system means giving the cheaters an upper hand.

    And, as you point out, the old days weren’t better. A lot of games have had rough starts, including the juggernaut WoW. People forget that now, of course.

  3. Pingback: The Video Games of History: Beyond the Ice Palace (C64) « Vicarious Existence

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