Tuesday 22 April 2014

Nostalgia: Not What It Used To Be

I doubt retro video game commentators Pat the NES Punk and Luna Ian are household names among readers, but their recent podcast on what defines a retro game raises some interesting questions about nostalgia. So before you switch off, this is going to be more than a video game post.

What does and doesn't constitute a retro game is not something you can pin down with scientific precision, but it doesn't stop Pat and Ian having a go. They suggest the last retro system was Sega's Dreamcast, which debuted in 1999 and bowed out less than two short years later. Anything before that is retro, everything after that isn't - despite being on the third wave of games consoles since. Their argument is a sense of "feel" that attached itself to the Dreamcast and preceding machines, and that it was the last console to have a library partially made up by arcade conversions. They recognise that among younger gamers growing up on the PlayStation 2 some will want to rediscover the games of their youth when they reach a certain age, but because of the vast size of its library (over 10,000 titles) collecting for the PS2 cannot be the same as getting the complete NES game collection.

Allow me a geeky quibble before moving on to the wider point. While their argument may well be the case for the PS2 which, after all, sold over 150 million units; the other main (obsolete) systems from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have much more modest-sized libraries. Last generation's Wii has over 1,200, the PlayStation 3 795, and the Xbox 360 over 1,100. Future completionists won't find tracking titles down for a complete set a superhuman endeavour. The second point Pat and Ian overlook is that Wii U aside, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are not backwards compatible with any preceding console. Hence old systems and their libraries, when replaced, will be bundled into the loft or flogged off on the cheap. This creates the potential for rediscovery after a decade or so, just how previous generations of retro gamers have always done when the next big thing has hit the streets.

Nevertheless, while you can fault the specific argument their essential point is right: nostalgia can never be the same again. Because of the way our culture has rendered impermanence permanent, nostalgia for what once was is ever present. In a life suffused with uncertainty and change, nostalgia is the illusion of a point of fixity, of an anchor hooked in a seabed of old toys, old tunes, old clothes, old trends, and (good) old times. It's bound up with our socialisation too. Nostalgia is less about lost beauty and more irresponsibility, of learning and grasping how the social world works without being bound by its conventions. Throughout childhood and young adulthood the experiences we have are character forming, and the objects tied up with them remind us constantly of a more certain, if not safer, time. And, of course, culture factories are adept at repackaging and selling nostalgia back. For example, thins about Britpop as a conscious retread of 60s guitar rock. Think how that, 20 years on, has been used to flog retrospectives and media lifestyle copy. On and on it goes, nostalgia is as much subject to fashion as anything else.

It's difficult to see how this could ever be otherwise. But this experience has mutated with the internet and the explosion of social media. At the risk of sounding nostalgic for a disappeared mode of nostalgia, it used to be the case that you would hear a song, watch a programme, be into some schoolyard craze, dress in a particular way, or whatever and then you would grow out of it. All that remained, apart from a few childhood mementoes, was memory. You'd seldom if ever hear that great half-remembered soundtrack to your first holiday again, see the cartoons that structured your TV dinners, or play the very first video games you ever saw. But you could talk about them. How many nostalgic conversations have you had about kids' telly, old films, and so on? Too many to count, I'd wager. They were - and remain - topics of conversation. I am sure the student who lives right now in the halls of residence cell I occupied 18 years ago has exactly the same kind of wistful chats as I did back then, as have the other 16 occupants in the time inbetween us. Yet what was different about pre-social media nostalgia was an unavoidable sense of loss. The fashions disappear, the programmes never get repeated, you move on from the scene of your youthful triumphs, people buy different music, and so on. You could not readily access the cultural products and experiences of a particular point in time without being there - and we can never go back.

Now the internet has given us something approaching an eternal present. This isn't to say things aren't changing, they always do. But like never before the cultural artefacts that are the stuff of nostalgia are instantly obtainable. In 2014, if I want to live in the 80s I can endlessly watch the cartoons I liked back then, play the games, listen to the music, and binge on the more obscure films of the period. In the mid 90s, to do that would require crate loads of tapes and vinyl. Personal, subjective forays into nostalgia then were more or less a trip down memory lane. Now it is but a mouse click away. For people growing up in the age of social media (and whatever comes next) the nostalgic past is compressed and folded up in the present. A song, a show? A machine can remember it for you wholesale. Experiences can be live tweeted, instagrammed, filmed on smart phones, and stored as MP4s forever. The huge apparatus of voluntary self-surveillance can turn your experiences into personal artefacts that can be accessed tomorrow or 50 years from now. They are still facsimiles, the eternal present ceaselessly recedes as well, but the powers of digital recall are instantaneous. It provides an experience that bears a greater semblance to what once was, and it can be relived without end.

Nostalgia. Not what it used to be.


Unknown said...

OK, I agree, it's not a video game post. My immediate reaction is that there is a paragraph missing, the last one which might have had a guess at the consequences of what you rightly label a culture of self-surveillance. (French intellectual alert: Foucault, no?) The immediate example which springs to mind is young people recording their opinions / photos / selfies / dress sense (I use the term loosely)/ binge drinking on Facebook. There is chatter about employers accessing Facebook posts to assess candidates. Indeed, one of my relatives was the subject of a disciplinary as a result of a post. The consequences of this might be the construction of fake social media profiles for the consumption of others but a parallel, authentic, life lived outside the remit of such sites.
Another possibility is that Young people are perpetually "on" , in the sense that they are always aware that their behaviour never disappears. The difficulty of weeding all these photographs and posts might lead to more caution in real life, especially now we know that GCHQ / NSA can access anything we have ever put on the internet, apparently even our private sex tapes.

Speedy said...

Oh no! Not our private sex tapes!

I'm not sure I agree with the thrust of the post (fnar) - in principal it seems like a good idea, but the other day i was going through a box of old letters (remember them?) which meant much more to me than emails.

No one sends letters any more, no one reads old emails.

Rather than being continually on, we are perhaps continually off.

Anonymous said...

no, i think in 10 years time, not even 50, some young "entrepreneur" will come along, and, for a nominal price, turn your stored electronic memories into a.) a clever "mash-up" b.) an exciting first-person shooter-style video game or c.) a mock hbo series, either downton abbey, game of thrones, or walking dead style. i mean, really, isn't that merely a logical extension of the commodification of the self?


Ken said...

Can I choose "Breaking Bad" as a digital remake of my life. "Mild mannered teacher deals with his enemies. Government is dissolved in an acid bath."

Anonymous said...

well, ken, i was once told that in the mid 1970s certain top players in the funerary industry in los angeles came up with a scheme whereby the soon to be departed (or, in the case of sudden accident, his or her close relatives) could hire a script writer and several un- or underemployed actors to re-enact a brief biography showing key moments in the loved one's life, the whole thing to be videotaped and shown during the funeral service, or even at graveside, or hell, i suppose even as a continuous tape-loop in perpetuum. i was also told that the reason this plan fell through was simply that those who could afford this service invariably wanted some big name star, like kirk douglas or sean connery to play the lead, which, obviously, just owing to scheduling conflicts, could never be arranged in a timely fashion. but now with digitization and really good cgi effects, who knows?


p.s. need i mention that when a roman emperor died, the senate would hire a comic actor to walk in the funeral procession who would wear a life-like mask of the deceased and imitate his gestures and speeches? i mean, even marshall mcluhan once pointed out that past times become pastimes. anyway, i'm sure you could find a suitable pork pie hat on craigslist or e-bay.

Phil said...

Thanks to living in a media saturated society, those who make it never really die anyway ...