When I read Jorge Albor’s recent post “True and False Memories” over at Experience Points, I was genuinely touched by the experience he earnestly articulated. He describes the intense feeling of familiarity and comfort that we have when we play certain games; I can think of no better term to describe that feeling than what Jorge calls “homecoming”. In Jorge’s case, that feeling of homecoming appeared when he inhabited the familiar space, the sights and sounds, of Aperture Labs in Portal 2. Like picking up a new pair of shoes and finding out that they fit just like a pair in childhood did. Jorge rightly distinguishes homecoming from recollection – the latter being a specific memory tied to a specific past, while the former being a feeling tied to an imagined past. In this post I try to work out what homecoming means, and show that it is neither a case of false memory or nostalgia, but rather a different kind of true memory: one that discloses a personal past that should-have-been.
Homecoming: False Memory or Truth?
How is it that we can experience homecoming in a completely new game? Conventional psychological theory tells us that memories are like photographic images stored somewhere in the brain, and when we have a memory of something that we could not have possibly experienced in our lifetime, that it is a “false memory”. Similarly, when someone hearkens back to a childhood that seems altogether rose-tinted, we accuse them of nostalgia for a past that never really existed. In both cases there is heavy emphasis upon the idea that what is “true” or “real” about our memories is that they correctly represent what “actually” happened in the past. When we let sentimental/romantic feelings like comfort and familiarity take us over, the memories we have are distorted by those feelings.
An Imagined Childhood
But that does not help to explain how and why homecoming feels real to us, and how a brand new game can send our hearts back to a past that we may not have even experienced for ourselves. Most recently, I had that feeling playing Mount & Blade: Warband. The first hour of Warband was like being sent back to the early 1990′s, playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! I am not the first person to comment on the many similarities between Warband and Pirates! (some even sneer ‘It is just Pirates! with horses and castles’). But it wasn’t just the gameplay that reminded me of Sid Meier’s original creation, it was the entire expressive style of Warband that made me feel like I was back home, huddled around an old 286 with a couple of my buddies, doing our damndest to haul ass back to Antigua with a frigate full of illicit booty.
The thing is, I never owned Pirates! back in the 1990′s. But a couple of my friends did own the game, and they would regale me with tales of buccaneering and swashbuckling on the high seas. They would hang out together in a bedroom during those balmy junior high school summers, glued to the computer and taking turns in the hot seat until the wee hours of the morning. At least, that is how I imagine it. And for all intents and purposes, that’s what growing up on a farm in western Canada was all about in the 90′s: weeks of boredom punctuated by days of intense gaming with your closest friend. (Or, in my case, with my sister).
So: I have this feeling of homecoming when I play Mount & Blade: Warband that hearkens back to a childhood that I did not “actually” live, but I feel like I should have lived. If we listen to the average social psychologist, I sound like an irreparably damaged person who can’t distinguish between their imagination and their recollections.
But if we take a much different approach to memory, what appears to be childish nostalgia is instead a powerful disclosure of the essence of gaming. Phenomenologist and philosopher Gaston Bachelard, thinking about our encounters with bird nests, writes that homecoming “takes us back to our childhood or, rather, to a childhood; to the childhoods we should have had. For not many of us have been endowed by life with the full measure of its cosmic implications.”
Homecoming as Re-inhabiting the Past
Let’s face it: most of us, in actuality, squandered youthhood on terrible console games and even worse TV shows and music. But the youthhood of the adult, the one that I experience now as I play games in a way that I should have when I was a teenager, creates new memories and new experiences. When I feel homecoming in a great game, I do not fabricate my childhood (as the social psychologist thinks), but I re-imagine what being-at-home felt like as a boy, and lend my childhood over to the experience that I am making with the game.
If that is true – that my childhood is changing and revealing new truths about me as I play games – then we do not interpret games: games interpret us.