Let’s just start with the premise out of the gate. World of Warcraft launched to sales of 240,000 units on its first day. The best sources I can find gave it 84 servers on launch day. If you assume that every server had the same number of people on it, that everyone who bought the game started playing on launch day, and that the factions were equally split, that means that on day one any given server had 1,400 people on it. And if you’re going to tell me that you knew 1,400 people by name and reputation, well… I’m not going to believe you. There was never a time when you actually knew everyone on your server because those numbers only went up.
Obviously, I’m using quick-and-dirty math here, but the fact is that you need that number to be an order of magnitude smaller before it’s plausible. It is, factually, something that did not happen. Just like it is factually not true that back in the day there were no guides out there and people figured things out for themselves without relying on any in-game guidance. I know this because I was there. I can look up the guides that were floating around for Final Fantasy XI when I started playing, and if I ever start to think that I’m crazy, I have friends who were also there and also remember this as a fact.
So why do people remember this not being true?
First and foremost, I want to make an important distinction between people who claim this is not true and people who remember this not being true. People claim things that aren’t true all the time because the untrue version directly serves their narrative and it takes more work to debunk a claim than to just make it. So yes, people will glibly claim things like “cross-server queues have no place in WoW” despite that demonstrably being a part of the game since the early experience, or even “back then everyone knew everyone else” which… you know, basic math just shattered.
These facts are all false. But there are also people who genuinely seem to remember things a certain way. I had a friend once bemoaning to me that he made lifelong friends in FFXI and no MMO since then has let him do that. But when we kept talking about it, he realized that he didn’t even remember the character names of most people he knew in FFXI. He had one lifelong friend he met there. That’s a good thing, but he acknowledged that it didn’t really match his memories.
So why is that? Why do we remember an MMO past that didn’t actually exist?
Fortunately for me, this is a question I can at least start to answer with Transformers. Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me; it’s been weeks since I mentioned Transformers, and you clearly have nothing better to do right now.
See, Transformers is something a lot of people remember from their childhoods. A lot of those memories are, well… wrong. Those memories include things like characters dying in Transformers: The Movie in ways they did not, or toys being available when they weren’t, and so forth. That’s not even getting into the decade-long fan whisper game like talking about how the Japanese-only series The Headmasters featured an epic and super-violent duel between Soundwave and Blaster where both of them die.
The reality of that scene is that both of them stood in place and shot at each other for a few seconds until they both blew up. Simply amazing.
So why do people remember it that way? Well… it’s kind of like this. Remember the scene from the first Michael Bay movie in 2007 when Brawl introduces himself to his fellow Decepticons? Remember seeing a tank break through a fence while a robotic voice says, “Brawl reporting, ready for destruction”?
You shouldn’t. Because that isn’t what happens.
The character is given two words in made-up garbled speak and isn’t even given the correct name, introducing himself as Devastator. He does kind of break through a fence, although it’s more like “gently nudging an already mostly broken fence.” But if you haven’t seen the movie in years but faintly remember it, odds aren’t terrible that you probably started to remember the scene I was describing.
It’s not because I painted an evocative image there. It’s because human brains just index stuff badly. We remember a lot, but the fact of the matter is that most of us are not constantly going back and re-exposing ourselves to older media, even stuff that we liked. There’s a lot of new stuff, after all. It’s honestly really easy to remember some details and just assume that whoever is telling you what happened remembers it accurately. “Yeah, I remember a tank and a fence and a robot voice. Eliot talks about this stuff a lot, he probably remembers it. Who cares. That movie was awful, right?”
And you are right! That movie was awful!
But here’s where our memories can form a… well, not dangerous feedback loop, most of the time, but a not terribly helpful one. Because the person remembering and the person who is saying how things used to be might be the same person. “Gosh, I miss when things weren’t like this,” you mutter as you tab over to your second monitor and enter a quest name into your browser and instantly get results that tell you exactly where to go and what to do. “They didn’t used to be like this.
They used to be more inconvenient, yes, you had a few dozen sites with different information run by different people. But the core loop hasn’t actually changed.
If you were playing these games back in the day, you did not actually know everyone. However… you were playing in an environment where there was no social media with wide adoption, Discord didn’t exist, and so forth. Your game community was mostly in-game, apart from things like forums and IRC. And if you had a wide enough network, you heard about people second-hand. It could feel like you knew everybody. You don’t live in that environment any longer because that’s not how time works, and you kinda remember how things felt back then.
Bang, you’ve created a synthetic memory. Not because you wanted to cite stuff that didn’t actually exist, but because you just… weren’t worried about religiously marking every experience you had. You drew on fuzzy nostalgia and what felt right and wound up at the wrong conclusion, but it feels emotionally right, so what’s the harm? Anyway, how could I know differently? Maybe you did know everyone – can I prove otherwise?
The answer is technically no, but… again, I was there too, and I have actually been checking on these things pretty consistently over the course of my career and life (it’s part of my job!). And we can all do a bit of math that definitely points in that direction. But it does make sense that you might remember that, even if it’s not true.
And the reason I made that distinction in the start of the article is that while claiming something that isn’t true is just plain a bad-faith move, remembering something wrong is just… well, a mistake. It’s all right to remember something, be confronted with the reality that you were wrong, and then admit that your memory was wrong. There’s a nobility in that. Just the other day I mentioned to a commenter here that being able to admit when we’re wrong is far more noble a quality than happening to be right the first time. It’s not a big deal if you remembered something wrong, and it doesn’t invalidate what your emotional want might be just because your memory was off.
Unless, of course, you start insisting that your memory must be true because you want it to be. That’s a different discussion altogether.