13 February 2017

Nostalgia! Huh! What is it good for?

Aah, the Beatles, the Fab Four themselves, settling down for another backstage session of their long-running Labyrinth Lord campaign as DM'ed by their arranger George Martin.

Except that never happened.

Labyrinth Lord wasn't published until 2007 and that photo of the Beatles (the original, the one with tea cups rather than polydice) was taken on 5th March 1963 at EMI studios. It does feel like it could have happened (maybe even should have) though, and not only because whoever photoshopped it did an impressively seamless job. Memory works in a strange way, and nostalgia (the bedrock of the oldhammer/archaeogamer "movement") messes with our imperfect memories and infuses them with intense feeling. That's a potent mix of self-misinformation, before we even get into the post-truth/alternative-facts bollocks that is infecting current politics and media!

As a Classics teacher, I know that nostalgia comes from the ancient Greek words nostos (roughly = desire for homecoming) and algia (pain). So a good working translation is "pain felt out of desire to return to a perfect ideal of home"; it's what drives Odysseus from the arms of a goddess who offers him an immortality filled with sexual bliss, through great dangers in defiance of Poseidon's animosity, to return to rocky little Ithaca and the complexities of family and island kingship. Because that is what we do when confronted with pain - we do what is needed to prevent or ameliorate it. Fortunately for us gamers, long sea voyages, shipwreck, actual monsters, and the wanton slaughter of all our friends are not obstacles we have to overcome to soothe that feeling. Navigating ebay is as hazardous as it gets!

No, our nostalgia, the idealised homecoming we are striving to achieve, is the recapturing of those moments of our childhood that set us on this slightly nerdy path. Star Wars in the cinema when you didn't know the family tree, an older cousin's White Dwarf or Dragon magazine, the first miniatures purchased, a Games Day, or Talisman taking over an entire floor and the whole of a wet weekend.

And that's where it gets weird.

I feel a great sense of fulfilled nostos when I play a game of 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle, or Rogue Trader, or Confrontation. Which really is weird for two reasons.

Firstly, it's weird because I never played Rogue Trader and only about ten minutes of 3rd edition before I was thirty - I was a 4th edition kid. So how can I feel a sense of "homecoming" when I play them? Why does it ease that yearning? Actually, as an aside, I think "yearning" is perhaps better than "pain" for this draw that we feel towards that essentially 1980s gaming aesthetic. There's a word for that yearning (did I mention I love words?) which is even better than "nostalgia" to my mind - Sehnsucht. It's a fabulous German word that means "yearning" but has all sorts of slightly melancholic overtones that mean it has been seized on by psychologists to describe a state of being that has six core characteristics:

  1. utopian conceptions of ideal development
  2. sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life
  3. conjoint time focus on the past, present, and future
  4. ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions
  5. reflection and evaluation of one's life
  6. symbolic richness
Ok, I'm not suggesting that oldhammer is the fulfillment of a psychological state, although gamer-spouses might disagree. I'll admit to hints of all six creeping in at times in relation to gaming. But back to the problem of feeling nostalgia or Sehnsucht for games I didn't play. It's the same reason why I loved Stranger Things so, so much. Apparently it's to do with the "reminiscence bump" phenomenon. As explained HERE, it's why we often know and love the music, clothes, aesthetic of the time from when our parents were in their twenties (or, I suppose, that our older siblings or cousins did when we hit aged eight). Basically, it's what we were surrounded by as kids but were not of our time. It's nostalgia/Sehnsucht for a time we didn't know.

The second weird thing is that Confrontation never existed. No, really, despite beautifully painted gangs and scenery, even battle reports that you can find across the internet, it never existed.

By Jon Boyce

By Edward George Gladdis

By Jean-Baptiste Garidel
Well, not as a finished and published game, at least. It did see light, sort of, as Necromunda, but that same Sehnsucht has driven the painters above and others to hunt down and piece together the hints, sniffs, and typewritten sheets to accumulate a playable version of this non-existent game. If that doesn't fulfill points 1 and 2 of that psychological list, I don't know what does!

The Confrontation issue brings me neatly back to that faux-photo of the gaming Beatles. An aspect of this whole toy soldier and funny dice enthusiasm of mine (and probably yours if you've read this far), is not just a desire to return to the innocence of childhood gaming, but for an idealised form that never existed. Even that 70s/80s childhood innocence is nonsense, happening as it did against the all-too-real possibility of thermonuclear war. No, neither nostalgia nor Sehnsucht is enough. It needs a more specific word, so I thought to coin one which, although not snappy, sums it up better for me. A portmanteau word from my beloved classical Greek - pseudo (false), mnetis (memory), nostos (desire for homecoming), algia (pain or discomfort). I give you pseudomnestalgia.

Or you could use the Welsh word hiraeth (more about country). Or the Portugese word suadade (actually pretty close to my pseudomnestalgia, but leaning towards the missing of a person). Or the Japanese mono no aware. Or Virgil's Latin phrase lacrimae rerum ("the tears of things"). Or Sehnsucht. Or nostalgia

Either way, I'm glad my expression of this apparently universal aspect of being human finds fulfillment in geeky games, rather than in the wanton severing of a political union that has kept peace across a continent for sixty years. I'll be down in the bomb shelter with pencil, paper, and polydice if you need me.


  1. A search for one's gaming Heimat?
    p.s as one in primary education it is encouraging to hear classics teachers still exist. One hears little of them here in Scotland

    1. "Heimat" - I missed that one, didn't I?

      I'm glad to reassure you with classics; I do know at least one state school classical civilisation teacher in Scotland (I was born in Edinburgh, left, back for university, left again); I think she's near St Andrew's.

    2. I was born and brought up in Edinburgh too,what school did you go to?

    3. We'd moved South of the border by then, but we lived on Dalhousie Terrace until I was three. My parents ran the home for adults with special needs there.

  2. Well said, Mister Rab. Pseudomnestalgia is a wonderful bit of new specie. Frankly, thinking of classicists gives me an odd tinge of the stuff myself as many years ago I much desired friendship with a particular classicist, but he died before I was really able to get to know him. So I suppose when thinking back on that time I somehow seek out a vision of what might have been. Here's to hoping we can all form a new and splendid homeworld of our inch and a half dreamings, and that our caverns of leaded solitude serve as more than bomb shelters and our toys as more than burial goods. It is a better world when all the sacrifices to the blood god are in token.

    1. I can wholeheartedly join you in that toast!

  3. Splendid post Mister Rab, and very interesting semantics lessons as well. Cheers and lets get some games in this year.

    1. Thanks, WP, I can't resist a spot of etymology. I definitely would like to roll dice with you again this year!

  4. I'm a nostalgia junkie, very interesting post. Personnaly I just think the 80s were the best decade ever, which then explains our love for it ;-)

  5. Classical language instruction is something I really have a regret about missing out on in school. I worked briefly with a classics major in college, and he was a most erudite fellow. (and as you might expect from someone taking a major in classics at a state university in this day and age, more than a bit bonkers)

    As for the actual subject of the post, pseudomnestalgia is certainly something I feel for Rogue Trader, having not come into the Warhammer 40k thing until the closing days of second edition. Something about the games done in that period style really appeals to me. No doubt highly influenced by reading the various oldschool blogs, which give a false sense of "in group" membership!

    1. Erudite and bonkers is pretty much the dictionary definition of a classicist!

      I think you're right about the group element, too; the collective memory/false memory reinforced by lovely painting and harebrained schemes

  6. What a lovely, thoughtful post. You said that our nostalgia gaming attempts not to return "to the innocence of childhood gaming, but for an idealised form that never existed." I think that's exactly right. In my case, I grew up with 3rd edition and Rogue Trader -- but lacked the organizational skills to paint all I dreamed up painting (or even a fraction thereof) or even to put together proper games with my friends. We mainly faffed about and speculated on the games we'd like to run or the armies we'd like to paint. A big part of the joy of adult gaming, for me, is that I now have the skills and personal resources to finish the things that I dreamed of as a kid. So for me, there is not much algia in my pseudomnestalgia, because I find this retread of childish things to be quite empowering.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Matthew. That skill/resource jump from childhood to now is an important one in fulfilling those early-years dreams; good point!