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!

  7. Very thoughtful, although as a knuckle-dragging, xenophobe Brexiteer* I cannot agree with the sentiment of your closing statement. I've actually sold all my Oldhammer stuff as I felt the whole thing was becoming rather prescriptive. I am rebooting, but going back to where you and I first met on LAF (my "Dungeon Crawl" thread, if you recall: you were painting knights and dragons) and am currently eyeing up lots of mostly non-Citadel sources for old-skool miniatures. Like yourself I never actually played any of the eighties games, going HeroQuest>AHG>WHFB4. It was through the artwork/photos adorning AHQ's rules and box and then some early nineties WDs that I first encountered the "Oldhammer" aesthetic (although I was already acquainted with David Day's 'A Tolkien Bestiary' and the Lone Wolf/Fighting Fantasy books) and although I only bought a handful of models from that era (sold in a tobacconist of all places) I always harboured a love for that style, which is why when I started the aforementioned dungeon crawl project about seven years ago I was using lots of Ral Partha and Red Box. I never liked the muscle-bound look that later came to predominate and disliked the uniformity of plastic miniatures. I suppose I always wanted to recreate (no matter how imperfectly) the atmosphere presented in the art of Russ Nicholson, Gary Chalk et al.

    I like Matthew Sullivan's comment about revisiting a childhood hobby with the skill, hindsight and finances of an adult. However, I would add to that although my friends and I were lousy painters and the rest, it didn't seem to bother us: we still really enjoyed ourselves, in that unconscious way that children seem to. I wonder if there's something of what "Marty" from True Detectives soliloquizes about life and the passage of time:

    'You know the good years when you're in them? Or do you just wait for them until you get ass cancer and realize that the good years came and went? Because there's a feeling that - you might notice it sometime - that this feeling that life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you. Like it's always been behind you.'

    Are we are all just trying to reach back to those 'good years'? Or maybe I'm talking out of my rear-end (as usual). I'll shut-up now ;)

    *If you worked with me for a month you'd understand. I do feel the referendum was very much about class, with those more comfortably off/in jobs not threatened by "furriners" a little out of the loop (and oh how we all chuckled at the countless FB memes claiming that those of us not fortunate enough to have attended university should be denied the vote). There's a reason why, for instance, NO British companies are forking out to train young Brits as HGVs drivers! And that's just one out of hundreds of examples I can give. Not everyone can (or should) go to university, but those that don't are finding very little job-place training for OBVIOUS reasons and are stuck in un/semi-skilled positions with sh*t wages. It's rare these days, but sometimes one's politics are based in experience rather than ideological commitment/reading a particular newspaper. Oddly, I am willing to bet that I have way more Romanians and Poles in my social circle than you, too! Oh well, at least there are still proper Lefties like Frank Field out there (and his anti-EU arguments were almost entirely framed around job/resource competition). Please appreciate that I do not intended to be rude: I am just trying to justify myself! I do understand the arguments to Remain - I investigated thoroughly - and if I were a barrister or BBC comedian or whatever I might have voted that way, but NOT as a lowly FLT operative. That would have been like cutting my right hand off. I've found the whole affair deeply depressing really, with the middle class attitude towards us proles not much progressed from 'The Road to Wigan Pier'.

    1. I'm glad you liked my ponderings and am glad to hear that you're dungeon crawling again.

      Nothing you've ever posted has put you even close to the knuckle-dragging or xenophobic category in my eyes, and I hope that nothing I've written has implied that. We obviously have differing political views (on this issue at least), and clearly both hold them strongly, but I hope that we both hold them sincerely as what we see as best for all the people of this beautiful island. Whichever way this all falls out, that "best" is what I'll be putting my efforts towards.

      In the meantime, let's get our geek on and enjoy our shared hobby - perhaps with a decent ale or two?

    2. Reading back that was a bit ranty, for which I apologise. Whatever our disagreements I suppose that if we can all agree to treat each other with the dignity and respect we would like to be shown ourselves then we cannot go far wrong!

      On a gaming note I am experimenting with grey undercoats and heavily thinning down my paints. A complete deviation from my previous method, but one that is producing some startling results!

    3. Amen to that!

      I shall keep my eyes peeled for your painting; I've used a grey undercoat for years and can't see myself changing, but I need to get the hang of thinning my paints more.