Pixel Nostalgia – Desire for Retro Games

Also remember a case where a Nintendo 64 convinced you to visit a party? Or where in a moment of boredom you started browsing your shelves just to find your seemingly antique GameBoy leaving you in a state of sweet indulging in childhood memories? Recently, Pokémon GO triggered a wave of nostalgia a whole society seemed to ride on. Meanwhile, computer engines are capable of producing super-realistic graphical output, which is beyond of what was imaginable when those nowadays so called retro-games first were introduced to society. And although contemporary gaming media constantly improves in size, beauty and color, we always like taking a step back towards titles which once were capable to tie us in front of the screen. This lust for nostalgia is referred to by gamers as retro gaming. Obviously, there is a paradox in the supply of graphically and narratively more and more complex games on developer-side, and the demand of the primitively structured classics of the 70’s till early 2000’s.

As digitalization progresses, so does gaming.  It has now overcome its previous limitation to the parlors. Mobile devices enable us to sink in our own fantasy world on-the-go, not infrequently causing personal delays due to missed train or bus exits. In 2017 worldwide gaming revenues are expected to hit an all-time high of 108.9 billion Dollar out of which 42% arise from mobile devices.

At this point in time, the gaming industry is “the fastest-growing component of the international media sector”. This progression in the speed of light also becomes noticeable when you buy that long-awaited new game in joyful thrill just to feel almost thrown back to your childhood when noticing you have to play on the lowest of low resolutions. John Paul Handrigan (2013), who did a research on the huge success of the Nintendo Wii, describes the development of the gaming industry as one where  “the relentless pursuit of superior technologies became the convention that drove [its] dynamics.” Rapid progress in computer engineering provides the fuel that drives an industry that is characterized by a will for innovation and mutual outdoing. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of the Intel Corporation, finds that CPU computing power doubles approximately every two years (in case you are interested how that comes, google Moore’s Law). Sitting enthroned upon that development is a gaming experience that more and more blurs the borders between the real and virtual world.

This progression however, seems not to be suitable with the interests of all gamers. Four digit bids on classics like Legend of Zelda are just the extreme features of a movement that seems to long for the good old “one-pixel” game.

Young boy playing on the first generation of the Nintendo GameBoy on the Video Games Exhibition 2016

Societal grasping at the past doesn’t go by the gaming industry unrecognized. Lately, Sony released a special 20th anniversary edition PlayStation 4 controller which appears in the style of its first-generation brother. With the introduction of the NES Classic Mini, Nintendo hopped on the “retro train”, acknowledging the fact that to this day its value and recognition is basking in the glory of its games from the early days. There is a whole movement, with blogs, magazines and auctions that is committed to retro-gaming.It is puzzling how some people crave for regression while development costs for games like Destiny surpass the 500 million Dollar level.

Research in this direction suggests that the faster media develops, the more it is able to invoke nostalgia in some people. With the above-mentioned gaming industry progress, the video game as a medium seems to carry a lot of nostalgic potential in it. But what are gamers missing in elaborately produced games compared to ancient ones?

 Abstraction makes the difference

Contemporary games provide holistic impressions of a world that becomes more and more precise in simulating the real world. Earlier games provided little realistic simulation. Rather than providing gamers with an authentic real world representation, it demanded gamers to abstract from on-screen interaction of objects to real-world scenarios. In this way, it allowed for gamer’s individual interpretation of the presented virtual worlds. Thus, the gamer’s own personality and preferences had way more room for being involved in the process of playing a game.

The desire to relive the first time

For many of us, the first contact with video games was a mind-boggling experience. I still remember the despair of friends whose parents refused to get that new gaming PC or console. Retro Nostalgia may be just a desire to recapture that excitement of being in a game for the very first time.

Distinction from the mainstream (or the sociology of social groups)

Browsing through forums with the topic of gaming in the 70’s and 80’s, you get the impression that early adopters of gaming kind of formed an exclusive social group. According to research from Felzmann (2010), prerequisite for a membership to the “social group” of gamers used to be a profound involvement and expertise in computer technology. This status of membership to a social group of “pioneers” vanishes in the eye of an industry that has now become accessible for the masses. Expressing preferences for ancient games can then also be understood as an attempt to dissociate oneself from the mass consumer. Affinity for retro games serves as an affirmation of ones’ social affiliation with the socially exclusive minority the gaming community used to represent.

Playing video games in community

Moreover, in the beginning of video games, gaming was more characterized by a community aspect. Software and hardware were not financially accessible to a broad crowd, such that people tended to meet up to do “e-sports”. This, of course, contributed to the identity formation as being rooted in the belonging to the social group of “gamers”. According to Felzmann (2010) the desire for game classics is also a desire for a mutual basis of identification which arises from the mutual experiences one has made with his gaming peers.


In all the hymn of praise for the good old times, the myriad times of frustration is barely mentioned. It could take days to set up your computer system until you could finally start playing that long-awaited game. Not to mention the countless game bugs that could drive you crazy. Or the feeling of faint of not being able to afford that console while your friend could play all the time. This, however, is the thing with nostalgic reasoning. It rarely comes without glorification. Nostalgia might whitewash your memory such that the old times shine brighter than they actually were. It might select all the good memories you have, intensify them, and leave blank all the negativity.

There is no denial that progress in gaming technology means comfort. However, in the words of Minecraft developer Markus Person: “I think the more realistic you try to make the graphics and the experience, the more you limit yourself to a single vision.”

What is your opinion on the development of gaming? Leave a comment below.



1) Felzmann, Sebastian. “Playing Yesterday: Mediennostalgie und Videospiele.” Böhn/Möser (2010): 197-215.

2) HANDRIGAN, John Paul. “Nintendo’s Disruptive Strategy: Implications for the Video Game Industry.” (2013).

3) Faszination Retro-Gaming – Warum wir alte Spiele lieben

4) https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/the-global-games-market-will-reach-108-9-billion-in-2017-with-mobile-taking-42/

5) http://www.spieleratgeber-nrw.de/site.1188.de.1.html

6) http://vgsales.wikia.com/wiki/Video_game_industry#cite_note-2

7) http://www.gameswelt.de/nintendo/news/verkaufszahlen-der-retro-konsole,274304

8) https://www.welt.de/spiele/article132101140/Destiny-die-teuerste-Parallelwelt-aller-Zeiten.html

9) http://www.4players.de/4players.php/spielinfonews/Allgemein/3933/2137979/Allgemein-Was_kostet_die_Spiele-Entwicklung_Beispiele_Watch_Dogs_Call_of_Duty_Gran_Turismo_und_mehr.html

10) https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/markus_persson.html





4 thoughts on “Pixel Nostalgia – Desire for Retro Games

  1. I am currently dealing with the topic of how identity is impacted for adolescent people. Doing my research I stumbled over this article. I never thought about it that way, it opened my eyes to a whole new field I am really interested


    1. Thank you, I am glad I could provide you with input regarding this topic. Also check out the references for more information.


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