The Nostalgia Trap

I used to maintain a site about 8-bit game programmers and the games they created. To be fair, I still update the "database" now and then, but changes are few and far between, and I stopped posting news blurbs five years ago.

There's a huge amount of information on that site. Clearly I was passionate--or at least obsessive--about it, and for a long time, too. When I learned to program in the 1980s, I saw game design as a new outlet for creativity, a new art form. Here were these people without artistic backgrounds, who weren't professional developers, buying home computers and making these new experiences out of essentially nothing. I wanted to document that period. I wanted to communicate with those people and find out what drove them.

(In 2002, D.B. Weiss wrote a novel called Lucky Wander Boy. It followed the story of someone who attempted to catalog every video game ever made. Amusingly, I received a promotional copy.)

That's why I started the site. A better question is "Why did I stop?"

Partly it was because I answered the questions that I had. I was in contact with a hundred or more designers of 8-bit computer games, and I learned their stories. But mostly I needed to move on, to not be spending so much time looking to the past.

Nostalgia is is intensely personal. I was a teenage game designer seeing hundreds of previously unimagined new creations for the Apple II and Atari 800 and Commodore 64 come into existence, and I have fond memories of those years. Other people wax nostalgic about VAX system administration, about summer afternoons with cartridges for the Nintendo Entertainment System, about early mainframe games like Rogue or Hack played on a clunky green terminal, or of the glory days of shareware in the early 1990s. Some people pine for the heyday of MS-DOS development--of cycling the power after every crash--or writing programs in QBASIC.

But don't mistake wistful nostalgia for "how things ought to be."

Just because you used to love the endless string of platformers for a long-dead game system doesn't mean that recreating them for the iPhone is a worthy endeavor. Just because you get a warm and fuzzy feeling when recalling thirty year-old UNIX command-line programs is different than putting them on a pedestal as model for how to design tools. That doesn't mean you shouldn't learn from the past and avoid repeating expensive mistakes. Just don't get trapped by thinking that older software or technologies are superior because they happened to be entangled with more carefree periods in your life.

The future is much more interesting.