Patches v1.3

By Eric Barrett

“Games used to be better”

Have you ever heard the phrase, “games used to be better when I was growing up”? Or “I liked games better back X number of years ago.” Next to the word “Noob” these are probably the most common things that gamers say.

And I’d bet that if you’ve spent any significant time playing video games, you’ve probably had those thoughts as well. All gamers have these thoughts – especially after you’ve played your 23rd consecutive crappy game. It’s hard not to remember the “good old days”, even if you’re only 17.

Heck it’s difficult to not say those things when you’re a grizzled gaming veteran like myself. Why I remember the good old days of playing on the Atari 2600. Back when controllers only came with one button. There was none of this, “dual shock” mumbo jumbo. And we liked it that way! Of course, some people are more grizzled than myself – to them I grew up in the “spoiled” times of gaming, where I played games that didn’t require a paper and pen. When they wanted to play computer games they had to get out two chunks of wood and bat a golf ball around. Or something.

By complaining unnecessarily about the mythical “past”, I think we do ourselves, our memories, and our games a disservice. In many ways, games are vastly superior to what they used to be. Graphics, audio, writing, stories, complexity, almost all of those are always better in today’s games than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Heck, even 5 years ago. Remember those “revolutionary” graphics of Final Fantasy VII? Have you played the game recently? They aren’t so revolutionary anymore. That’s the fundamental nature of technology – it is always improving. Always.

So why do people make these statements? Well I think there are several reasons behind it.

First, it’s easier to remember the past fondly. We tend to gloss over the crummy games (ET for the Atari) and remember the great games (Asteroids for the Atari). Who wants to waste time remembering the bad games? If I think about all the games I’ve played the first games to pop into my head are almost always the “Great” games. Pac-Man, Metroid, Zelda, Final Fantasy (basically all of them), Half Life, and the list goes on.

So at first glance it really does feel like all the good games were in the past. But if I spend a little bit of time thinking about games, I start thinking about all the crummy games I’ve wasted hours of my life on. Ghostbusters, Klingon Honor Guard, Anachronox, etc… It becomes pretty obvious that for every good game in the past, there were bad games.

Secondly, we tend to remember games fondly that were a novelty when we first played them. The reason I think Civilization was WAY better than Civilization 2 or 3 is because Civilization marked the first time I was exposed to that style of gameplay. I had no idea you could play a game like that until Sid Meier brought me (although not personally) the game Civilization.

Tying into the concept of novelty the concept of distinctiveness. The first time you are exposed to something is typically a very distinctive experience. Research has shown that the more distinctive an experience the easier it is to remember. Sure Civ 2 and Civ 3 were good games, but I had already “done that before.” So the experience is less distinctive, and therefore harder for me to recall.

Playing Civilization was a revolutionary experience that I’ll never be able to have again. Sure I might experience revolutionary gameplay again, but to me there will never be a command and conquer-style game that will be as enjoyable as Civilization. So with each passing game in that genre, I am less likely to think a new game is as great as the “original”.

Third, memory is affected by the “depth” of the processing. In other words, the more you play something – the more you experience something – the more you think about something – the more “deeply” you process that experience. For video games, this means that the more you’ve played a game the more you’ve processed it. And thus, the more it’s remembered.

This is why it’s often easier to remember those great games. We’ve spent a lot of time playing them and thinking about them. In contrast, we probably turn off the bad games in the first few hours, if not the first few minutes.

One thing to remember is that each of these reasons I’ve outlined can be overpowered by one another. Just because something is a novelty doesn’t mean you’ll remember it as “better” if it wasn’t very distinctive. Similarly, if something was distinctive, but you only played it for a few hours – 10 years ago, it probably wasn’t too “deeply” processesed. As you can see, there is a lot of wiggle room in how we remember things. And that’s partially what allows people to constantly say, “games were better” in the past. They are rarely challenged on that assertion, because at first glance it appears they are right!

So the next time you start to say that phrase, think about it for a second. And ask yourself, “is it really better?” I think you’ll be surprised by your answer.

Having finally settled upon a name, the “Gaming Column” will henceforth be known as “Patches”. Well, until I can think of something better at any rate. In closing I would like to say that games really were better back in the 90’s.