The Soapbox: MMO 'nostalgia' isn't nostalgia

Elizabeth Montgomery

Here's the Merriam-Webster online dictionary definition of the word nostalgia.

\nä-ˈstal-jə, nə- also nȯ-, nō-; nə-ˈstäl-\
: pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again
1 : the state of being homesick : homesickness
2 : a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia

And here's where I tell you that nostalgia is the most misused, overused, and overly simplistic word in modern MMO discourse.

Jackie Robinson

The problem with applying the word nostalgia to old school MMORPGs, or more accurately, to the people who prefer them, is that MMORPGs are digital constructs and therefore malleable, infinitely changeable, and most importantly for my purposes today, recreatable. That last one's probably not a word, but I'm sure you get my meaning.

Look back at the definition of nostalgia. It mentions "experiencing something again," and some "irrecoverable condition." But see, there is no irrecoverable condition when it comes to MMOs. Preferring EverQuest or Star Wars: Galaxies or group-centric gameplay or sandbox crafting isn't the same as pining for the days of horse-drawn carriages and gentlemanly fedoras.

SWG and its contemporaries are imminently recoverable, at least in mechanical terms. Sure, we'll probably never see the game again as an SOE-produced Star Wars MMO, but all of its functioning ideas and systems can and should be revisited by present and future MMO devs.

Corsairs over Maui, 1945

MMO players, and really humanity in general, are prone to the notion that all progress is forward progress. This is provably false as history often shows us, but I guess the notion persists because it's a psychological crutch that allows for hope in the face of negative change.

The "progress" of the MMO genre away from virtual worlds like Ultima Online and SWG certainly made lots of money for a small handful of investors, and so it can therefore be labeled a success from a certain point of view. But it also co-opted an entire genre that was different and homogenized it into the same old video game paradigm that we've been grinding at for 40-odd years.

In other words, it wasn't artistically progressive at all. It was regression, a rollback, or at best, a decade-long detour that we're just now starting to outgrow.

And look, I know why modern MMO fans and SWG detractors use the word nostalgia. It's quick, it's easy, and it's a label that both (incorrectly) defines an other and allows the labeler to get over the fact that he missed out on something that a significant number of his peers found fun.

Pink Floyd

Fortunately, though, SWG isn't some ancient, unknowable game. Recall that it was closed on December 15, 2011, just over two years ago at the time of this writing. As Massively's Bree pointed out in a related comment thread, that's very recent history, and there's nothing even remotely nostalgic about recalling something that happened yesterday.

Now, the statute of limitations on nostalgia is certainly subjective, but to me it's silly and illogical to dismiss SWG-related carousing as nostalgia in 2014. If we're having this same discussion in 2024 -- and we probably will be since modern MMO devs thus far can't be bothered to make much beyond a combat lobby -- then I might entertain the notion of nostalgia and misremembered greatness.

But then again maybe I won't because I'll always be able to look at a list of features and see that SWG had this, this, this, and this while most of the post-2004 MMO pretenders had this. That's objective fact, unless and until another MMO comes along that's similarly ambitious and functional. I hear what some of you are saying, and you're right: Change is a fact of life. I'm not disputing that so much as I'm disputing naive platitudes like "change is good" and "you can never go back."

Model T Ford

You can and should go back. This is in fact why people take photographs. They're in love with a particular moment, and they want to keep it forever. This is in fact why people listen to certain albums and watch certain films over and over again throughout their lives. And this is in fact why several sizable fan groups have dedicated years of their free time to preserving SWG and other old school MMOs in various forms that I can't legally discuss.

Sure, newer can be subjectively good in its own way, but some things mark you. And if you're able, you seek to keep those things in that particular moment in time so that you can continue to enjoy them. This is natural. It's human, and it's certainly not deserving of mockery or the sort of ignorantly juvenile dismissal that the word "nostalgia" has come to signify in MMO circles. And as I said earlier, we're lucky to have a purely digital hobby where hop-skotching back and forth along the historical timeline is not only possible but easily doable. There's simply no reason for a loaded word like nostalgia to ever surface in an informed MMO discussion.

Seven Samurai

Right now, though, someone's leaving me a comment about big band swing or a similarly unsubtle dig at old-schoolers. And that's OK because I can at least understand some people's desire to "embrace change" as a way to feel young even if the change in question isn't worth embracing.

But here's the thing: When you blacklist old schoolers with a thoughtlessly inadequate word like nostalgia, it just outs you as yet another bandwagoneer looking to deify the new and demonize the traditional. There's nothing wrong with new school, but there's also nothing wrong with old school. There is something wrong with hijacking a word like nostalgia and using it incorrectly over and over again until its actual meaning is distorted by popular interpretation.

With that in mind, do us all a favor and stop with the MMO nostalgia logic fail. It doesn't make an iota of sense, and you're smarter than that.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!