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Why do we return to games?

The pot of spaghetti my grandma put on the stove last night is simmering slowly. She stands next to it, chopping up the last of the ingredients to slide into the bubbling mass as its deep and tomato-filled aroma wafts around the house. My dog, still in his gangly yearling stage, careens around the corner as my grandfather once again throws his favorite raggedy toy. My dad is out front in the snow futilely shoveling the walk, my mom is hanging ornaments on the tree. My older brother is curled up on the couch watching the christmas special on TV, and I’m in the chair next to him. In my hands is my new Game boy Advance SP with Fire Emblem is sticking out the bottom. I am cozy in the old and baggy sweatshirt that finally became too small for my brother, the Frank Sinatra Christmas album is playing (and will be for this entire Christmas Season) in the background, and my entire universe is invested in helping Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector complete their mission.

I replay that game regularly, and every time I pick it up it takes me back to one of the best memories of my life, Christmas 2003. It’s not like back then I was playing it with the intent of ingraining a faction of my life into a game, but for some reason it happened. Why? Because, as I’ve come to understand through entrenching my life in this industry, video games are an escapist medium. We enter their worlds for something that we cannot obtain in ours, because they are a different universe entirely from our actual existence. We want to feel empowered, we want to feel important, we want to let off steam, we want to know what it’s like being perceived as someone we’re not: so we go in, play the game, poke our heads out to go about life, then go back into the game. Rinse and repeat until your two lives interweave to the point where you’re not sure which one is affecting which.

When I was in 5th grade my mom had a pretty invasive surgery. Instead of facing the reality of what might happen alone, I stuck my head into Tales of Symphonia and focused all my attention into that game until she was better. In the world of the game there were problems that were solved simply, issues were easily fixed through friendship, and I as a young boy still had agency and power. Yes Marble’s storyline made me cry a lot harder than it should've, but dammit if that game wasn’t the best form of therapy I could have gotten.  And now that’s exactly what I think of when I play that game: a difficult time in my life. It’s as if I had worked out that painful time through that game, the two were inseparable to me because they had become the same experience. In fact,  I have this with a lot of games. Advanced Wars reminds me of summers on Hilton Head Island, Phantasy Star Online reminds me of Catholic school and lumpia made by the mom of my best friend Pito. It’s always surprising when I dig up an old game and instantly get teleported to another time in my life.

Funnily, this article started out as a quippy statement from a fellow editor here at GamesRadar: “When I’m playing FFXIV,” Lucas said one day, “all I was thinking was, man, I wish I were playing WoW.” We laughed and chalked it up to WoW being more of a “popcorn MMO.” But after a few more minutes of talking we realized it was about something else: World of Warcraft was comfortable for him. Every day for two years in high school he would come back home and hop on the computer with his Horde friends. He would get on knowing what to expect, he would enact that self-fulfilling prophecy and achieve that expectation, and he would leave satisfied. WoW was comfortable for him, it was broken in. Old games are like a well worn pair of shoes: you slip into them and are relieved by memories and a history together. They fit you emotionally tighter than anything new physically could.

And that I think could be one of the major problems facing new games, and the issue that Lucas had with FFXIV. New games are soulless, they’re waiting to be filled by the player’s life as they play through them. Video games are an interactive artistic medium, you need to give as much as you get from them. It takes an investment by a gamer to like a game, we don’t throw our investment around lightly. That’s the power and curse of video games, and I think, truly, something that takes a while to understand. When we defend a game to the grave, we’re not only defending the game, we’re defending our own feelings and the life we put into that game. It makes everything intensely personal doesn’t it? We’re saying, “I liked this game and had a good connection with it,” so then when someone disagrees they not only are condemning the game but also that connection we had.

I wrote this editorial to work out for myself why we go back to games that we’ve played, and I think it comes to a word in the last paragraph: comfort. Old games are comfortable, they are old friends. And what’s better than after a long day, getting home, changing into comfy clothes, wrapping up in a blanket, and settling down with an old friend? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

If you have a video game memory you feel like sharing I'd love to hear it. Just leave it in the comments below so we can all wallow in nostalgia together.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic,ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well,that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it. 

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30 comments

  • supaMcnugget - October 6, 2013 5:37 a.m.

    One of my best gaming memories was the Christmas of 2006. I had pre-ordered the Wii and had already bought Excite Trucks and Rayman Rabbids in advance, but a serious blizzard was heading for my city. My Mom decided to go out into the storm, go all the way to the post office and back to procure my Wii. Once she got back we were stuck in the house for about 3 days. All the while, I enjoyed gaming goodness. Playing Smash Bros. Melee with friends in my teen years is also a good memory. I think the Smash series is one of the only collection of games that I actually go back to play often.
  • GR_ZachBetka - October 2, 2013 1:50 p.m.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your stories and comments, it's truly warming my heart to be reading all of them.
  • winner2 - October 2, 2013 8:33 a.m.

    I remember sitting on the floor in front of the tv with my dad showing me how to play a genesis, we had the sonic games, primal rage, vector man, sonic spinball (fuck the naysayers!), and Greendog. I don't even remember when or how got the genesis, because I wasn't even fully aware of the concept that my parents spent money to get things much less things for me. That was my introduction to games, and I remember having so much fun in Greendog, I thought the backgrounds were so cool and colorful, especially the beach level and the underwater level. And then I liked games so much that my dad saw it as an excuse to get a play station for Christmas when I was 5-6 I think, with Spyro year of the dragon ( I even had the strategy guide that I'd bring to school and argued that spyro was better than paper Mario with my best friend who had THAT guide, but I love paper Mario just as much if not more) and Digimon world. I remember trying to collect all the gems and being so happy to stumble upon the hidden dragon eggs and see their animations. To this day I never collected all the eggs and gems so I couldn't beat the empress in the "final" level. I think I'm going to have to fix that one of these days. Great article Zach, this really took me back.
  • taskun56 - October 1, 2013 8:50 p.m.

    Christmas, 1997. I was so eager to get a Playstation because someone I knew had Final Fantasy VII and he wouldn't let me play it. (scowl) At the time I owned a SNES. When I asked my Mother for FFVII she told me that we couldn't afford to get the console so she wouldn't be able to get me the game. On Christmas Eve my Mother allowed a friend and I to open one present, because my friend wouldn't be with us in the morning to open her gifts. As any child who was eager for his presents I spent the last few days poking, shaking, even SMELLING my gifts to discern what they were. The only one I had the slightest idea of: a small rectangular shaped package with a line of, what felt like, metal on its underside. Of course, I chose this gift and tore it open like a kid at ... well.. Christmas! I was instantly excited and disappointed at the same time. Staring back at me was a copy of Final Fantasy III for the SNES. I was disappointed it wasn't Final Fantasy VII, but immediately overjoyed to see it was a Final Fantasy game. I popped it in the SNES right then and there and began playing. To this day, everytime I hear the organ piping in the intro I think back to my days as a kid playing FF3. Memories of trying all too hard to beat specific (no spoilers) bosses and do things way before the time I should always remind me what a great game it is. I still thank my Mother for introducing me to it. I play through the entire game every few years and remember the days when everything was simpler. :-)
  • Outofmanyone - October 1, 2013 7:44 p.m.

    Instead of typing my own comment, I almost feel like replying to all of the other great comments, heh. I just wanted to commend you on a great article, you made some touching points regarding gaming nostalgia. It's important to have all of these good memories, especially when times get a little tough. As I enjoy watching my youngest brother play games with all of his friends; I think to myself, "Memories being made".
  • crestof - October 1, 2013 7:21 p.m.

    I can relate to this so heavily. Sitting in my older cousins house, watching him play crash bandicoot while i eat frosted covered animal crackers until I threw up. But the real game that always stands out to me is Metroid Fusion. I saw the advertisement about hunting yourself in Nintendo Power and it just triggered every childish emotion in me at the time. I didn't even have a GBA and I was still borrowing strategy guides for Oracle of Ages at that point, and I still wanted it. So then, come Christmas Eve, I got to my uncle's house, who just happens to have the game for me, and a GBA. I immediately plug the cartridge in and run to where a viable light source is, and watch the intro...three times. The game was broken. Actually, that was only what kid me thought, so used to using up to move in games like Army Men that I didn't realize that, for the first frame of the game, the only buttons you could press were left and right. When I figured that out, it was like finding an Indiana Jones temple and escaping with the treasure. Metroid Fusion is linked to so many of my memories: Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, reading the strategy guide in awe at Best Buy, beating the game three years later at my relative's (that I didn't even know I had) mansion party; hell, I even made my first love play it to show she loved me. But there's so many other games, too. Hamtaro: Ham-Ham Heartbreak at Communion with the scary ghost level (at the time), the Kingdom Hearts commercial pumping me up whenever I heard the "Squeenix" logo chime, Luigi's Mansion on my birthday after coming home from t-ball, Survival Kids at the beach, Oracle of Seasons under the beach's real estate agency's building, Sword of Mana actually in the beach house for the first time. Portrait of Ruin on another visit, Final Fantasy Tactics: A-2 and House of the Dead at Lake George, Pokemon Snap when I was putting my feety-pajamas on at a family party. Xevious in the middle of 9th grade history class, Black Ops for 400 hours during a summer where every friend was on vacation. Fallout 3 the following summer (to the dismay of my ex-girlfriend). Other M two days before 10th grade started. NES Classic Series: Metroid when we had to stay at home on Thanksgiving because of my mother's leg. Star Wars: Battlefront while I playfought my best friend as a kid. World at War zombies with my other best friend, glitching into the wall to use the flamethrower cheat. Games can even have major impacts on someone's life. Sure, there's life lessons in many games, but sometimes the games that don't intend to make an impact make the most difference. No More Heroes literally turned me around. At first, I saw the advertisement in Nintendo Power, a cool guy with a lazer sword. It was awesome. Flashforward to me finding it a year later in Gamestop, I had to have it right away. I didn't know anything about it except that it had a beam sword. I had my dad drop me at home, ran straight to my basement so my mom wouldn't see me playing an M-rated game, and laughed the whole game through. Travis Touchdown turned me from a down-trodden, depressed, left-out school kid into a confident, happy, and bold one. Travis Touchdown ironically gave me a role model, to accept what my life was and to change into a better person. I started exercising, eating better, became thinner and better looking, grew out my hair instead of the average buzzcut. People started to like me, hell, love me just for walking into a room or saying four words. Of course, they were pretty shallow, simple-minded people, but anything was better than who I was. Then Far Cry 3 came out after I got into a bad time because of a downward spiral in my ex-girlfriend and I's relationship. It took two years of constant arguing, lies, and deceit from her before, after putting everything into her and wanting to make our relationship better regardless of her lies, she ended it. I lost my friends, my love, my passions, my sleep, and even had to go to therapy. Then I got Far Cry 3. Blew through it in a weekend, and at the end, given the choice, well, I did the better thing, in my opinion. And the final monologue, as short as it was, was enough to make me believe I truly could be better. That if what happened at the end of it happened, and I was strong enough to make the choice I did, then why couldn't I be like that in real life, too? Why couldn't I just forget her and my past and move on, and be stronger from it? Sure, it'd be hard, and deep down inside I'd still have that anger of losing everything; but I could still move forward. So yeah, video games definitely are amazing. They link memories, lives, tell stories real and fake. They share emotions and words, challenges and tricks. Forget people saying video games that are violent cause violence: any video game I listed that was violent clearly had more of a positive impact than a negative one to the right minds. I'm sure that, maybe not to us, games these days can make the same great memories.
  • DeadSpy2 - October 1, 2013 6:58 p.m.

    Kingdom Hearts was the first game to make me cry. As a kid, it was hard for me to make friends and it was hard for me to see (SPOILERS) Sora get pulled away from his at the end. That damn song at the end didn't help either.
  • supaMcnugget - October 6, 2013 5:40 a.m.

    Actually, Kingdom Hearts was also the first game to make me cry too. Seeing (SPOILER~) Sora and Kaira get separate to the tune of Utada Hikaru was too much for my little brain to handle.
  • pinoklin - October 1, 2013 6:33 p.m.

    well, in my case i'd say the top 3 most important games to me are. 1) secret of monkey island. 2) WoW 3) FF VIII each has represented a different aspect of my life, i remember playing FF VIII on my eldest brother's PS, i had no idea how to play it right yet i managed to get to Adel, i remember a time when i was young and had no worries. Nowadays i am a huge FF music fan, and everytime i listen to some VIII tracks like Balamb Garden, Blue Fields or eyes on me and it's different iterations i tear up. Monkey island represented my childhood as well, but it was more focused back when my PS broke down. i only had my pc to game on and my brothers had Monkey island 1 and 2. god how i loved the first one. i used to play it all day and then at school i'd play insult swordfighting with my friends who had no idea what it was. WoW was my teenage years, plain and simple. i spent 6 years of my life glued to that game, and 5 of those 6 years in the same guild. I remember coming back home from a long day at school and logging on, these people were like a second family to me, we used to laugh, troll, fight and all sorts of stuff. Like any guild we had tons of drama and many good friends left, but i remained. Up until now i have yet to find a better feeling than raiding with my guildmates, purposely pulling off a leeroy jenkins and having hilarity break out on ventrilo, or beating a boss and rolling for the loot while cursing at each other for it. games as you said it are more than games, they each store a little part of our lives, of our memories into them, this might be just why so many people love pokemon gen 1 or ff vii over newer games. because these ones have memories, big memories of joy and discovery, of laughter and tears.
  • jedisamurai - October 1, 2013 6:26 p.m.

    Let's see... my earliest and happiest memory of gaming was holding an NES in my lap on the way home from Toys 'R' Us as kid... I remember playing Gradius and 1942 with my dad, and Thunder Force III being the first Genesis game that he bought for me. No wonder I love top-down and side-scrolling shooters.... When I was a young teen I started playing RPGs. I never beat them but I named the characters after people that i knew. To this day, Aeris is Becca, Ayla is Sarah, and Robo is Robby the Robot! Now, when I take one more lap of Wipeout for playstation, when I play a race of Rage Racer, when play Alpha Centauri deep into the night, when play the original Gran Turismo and The XBLA Daytona USA, I'm reminded of my favorite moments in the arcades and at home playing marathon hours till the sun came up and long into the evening with my best friends and a stack of pizzas. And now I'm married and making new memories. Street Fighter will forever make me think of my wife and how proud she was to jump over my ultra combo and K.O. me!
  • plabbe - October 1, 2013 4:02 p.m.

    I loved this article! It truly captures the nature of why we play and replay and replay games. I can totally relate with Phantasy Star Online and being immersed in that world for years on end (and killing 2 gamecubes in the process!) . It most certainly is an escape and it was wonderful this past summer introducing my fiance to it and being able to relive those past memories. Thanks for the truly wonderful article!
  • GR_ZachBetka - October 2, 2013 1:48 p.m.

    I really appreciate it! Thanks for commenting. I think sharing your gaming memories with someone is one of the best things about creating them in the first place, and so it warms my heart that you're able to do that with your fiance!
  • THETHINGABOUT - October 1, 2013 2:31 p.m.

    Holy fuck. This was a great article. I compliment articles from time to time but really, this is expressive, personal and organic. I love this. BUT, there are two minor errors in the beginning. Sorry to do this, these are inconsequential, but I have to. First paragraph, the "is after "Fire Emblem" is unnecessary: In my hands is my new Game boy Advance SP with Fire Emblem is sticking out the bottom. Second Paragraph: "Faction" should probably read "fraction". It’s not like back then I was playing it with the intent of ingraining a faction of my life into a game
  • GR_TomMagrino - October 2, 2013 12:21 p.m.

    I'd hug you every day if I could. Mostly because it feels like it'd be the right thing to do.
  • runner - October 1, 2013 8:19 a.m.

    The third from the bottom paragraph is wonderful. A lot of people dismiss video game as a medium entirely and this is somewhat understandable. Because game is a medium that if one want to take it seriously, one must ready to invest a lot, emotionally and time. For some people, it's too much but for some, it's just seemed too much and ignore it, let alone even trying to understand it.
  • duffer00 - September 30, 2013 9:49 p.m.

    Excellently written article Zach. You did a fantastic job at really capturing that essence of nostalgia. Especially with that opening Christmas story. I'm so happy you joined the GR team.
  • profile0000 - September 30, 2013 8:58 p.m.

    That was a powerful read. Well done. You really nailed nostalgic gaming.
  • PlainLikeVanilla - September 30, 2013 7:23 p.m.

    You captured it perfectly. Great article Zach I expect more good things from you.
  • J-Fid - September 30, 2013 6:56 p.m.

    This is exactly how I feel with my games. Why try something new when you can enjoy something you know you love. Although, this thought process is what stops me from trying new games, and when I do try something new, I don't play it for long. Very good article.
  • g1rldraco7 - September 30, 2013 5:26 p.m.

    I love this article so much and it's nice to see someone who's just like me :)

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