Working As Intended: Busting up the MMORPG nostalgia party
Last week, a clever Massively OP commenter, SC_Deadline, neatly summed up the ongoing Nostalrius emulator shutdown as Blizzard "bust[ing] up someone's nostalgia party," which stuck with me all weekend as I mulled over how to approach this piece. I sympathize with emulator players, of course; I've been tooling around on emulators since the earliest days of Ultima Online's, and the Star Wars Galaxies emulation community kept me sane after my favorite MMORPG of all time was ripped from the internet and replaced with a themepark. I'll forever champion emulation communities from the angle of historical preservation even as I know that much of what they do falls within the dark shadow of the law.
And you know what? I sleep fine at night. I can accept that part of myself that gives zero fucks whether SWGEmu, for example, infringes on copyrights, as long as I can still have my droid shop on Tatooine.
I can also accept that my fun will come to a halt the day the copyright holder puts its foot down, and while I'm sure it will hurt like hell, I won't proclaim I'm entitled to intellectual property that was never mine to begin with.
What's impossible for me to accept is this ugly and pervasive idea that people who play emulators are hopelessly mired in some irrepressible, unflattering "nostalgia."
Wikipedia defines nostalgia as "a sentimentality for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations." It's a pang, an ache for a time or a home that's been left behind somehow, something that can't be recaptured. It's no wonder many MMORPG players feel nostalgia for games that have passed on or changed over the years, but far too many gamers invoke the term as a slur against anyone who discusses older MMO worlds.
SC_Deadline didn't mean the term as an attack on players himself, but many of our commenters did and do any time we talk about sunsetted games. During the recent threads on Nostalrius, players pining for vanilla servers were told they are suffering from, as one person put it, "Rose-coloured glasses folks. Rose coloured glasses." Another literally called nostalgia a "virus." City of Heroes players celebrating their upcoming anniversary in a thread last week were cruelly told to "let it go" and "get over it" in obnoxious memes by fellow community members who really ought to know better, as it's surely the rare person who's drifted through 20 years of MMORPG history and never experienced the painful loss of a game, character, community, or friend.
The callous implication, of course, is that there's no legitimate reason for anyone to care about or play something old, like an emulator for a long-dead game or a vanilla server for a game with a dozen years of content under its belt. The assumption is that new is better and nothing old is worth playing on its own merit -- that anyone doing so must therefore be suffering from some psychological disturbance or burdened by the Golden Age fallacy.
That insult is absurd on its face if you've ever given a single thought to the influence of old things on our lives. Sure, you probably snicker at old technology like cassette tapes and flip phones, but the art of the music and the desire for communication -- those things never die. Go ahead and snub video game graphics from the last millennium, but don't pretend their best innovations and ideas aren't just as relevant in 2016 as they were back when they were born. If you believe old things have nothing to offer, you aren't paying attention.
Now, I don't mean in any way to excuse old school games or servers their many problems. I am the first person to stand up and opine that an exceptional amount of old-school design was complete garbage, from forced grouping to designed downtime.
But even still, so what? Some people still enjoy even the tedious mechanics of yesteryear, and more power to them: One gamer's meat is another gamer's poison. And others are willing to put up with any amount of irritating cruft if it means they can keep on playing the parts they do love. I'll stand at a starport counting down the minutes again as long as that shuttle takes me to my harvesters on Naboo!
Accusing retro gamers of being blinded by rose-colored glasses is a cheap way of dismissing an "old's" opinion about a game. It's rooted, I think, partly in the misguided fear that classic gamers' preferences or pocketbooks help hold back the march of time when it comes to graphics or mechanics. Or maybe it's grounded in resentment: People who missed out on a supposed "golden age" would rather believe that love for old games is misplaced rather than accept an amazing MMO period or game passed them by with no chance to revisit it. Other people simply hold no regard for history, or they mistake novelty for progress.
But ultimately, it doesn't matter why anyone hurls the word around: The reality is that no one is playing on a vanilla server or emulator out of nostalgia, not for long. No one accidentally continues acting on nostalgia. It is not subliminal in an ongoing way. If you're continuing to devote large amounts of time to an old game, it's highly unlikely you're doing it merely out of some wistful fondness for a distant memory.
Nostalgia might provoke you to go back to an old game. It's true it might trick you into taking a peek for old times' sake. And that desire might fade for you; you might decide it wasn't as you remembered and that you were happy having moved on. That might just be the case for Nostalrius' 650,000 inactive accounts.
But if you're one of the 150,000 people who actively played WoW's vanilla emu, decided they liked it, and stayed... nostalgia sure as heck wasn't why.