Games Don't Just Let You Escape. They Also Help You Remember | WIRED

Jun 20, 2021 7:51 AM
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06.19.2021 07:00 AM

Games Don't Just Let You Escape. They Also Help You Remember

Video games aren't unique in the way they make us nostalgic, but those memories do seem to persist more than other forms of entertainment. Here's why.

Through the magic of a shared game, we could stay connected, distant at our desks and couches but side by side slinging spells.


I can close my eyes and still hear the sounds of the mouse clicking, the grunts of the hero, the swing of a sword. I can feel the sweet anticipation of what loot was about to drop, the creeping fear of more monsters closing in. But more than that, I can place myself in my childhood room, the computer on my desk, my brother waiting his turn to play. There is a vividness to this memory; thinking about Diablo whisks me far away, even more than hearing a song of a lost summer.

Anyone who has played games for even a little bit of time can relate to this feeling, and maybe conjure it by replaying that classic title (or finding a YouTube video of it). But it wasn't until recently that I really put my finger on this and tried to understand the deep link between memories and games. The pandemic has given me more time to reflect and play—and start to appreciate this part of our hobby.

I've come to realize that, much as we use games to escape, games also help us remember; games are memory.

The power of our gaming memories is perhaps most clearly seen as nostalgia: in the rise of retro-style games and actual retro games, in the numerous remakes and remasters, and in game design elements like pixel graphics and a return to simplicity. The goal is to re-create that which is gone, for better or worse. Many of us yearn for our youth and those carefree days of playing a game, unblinking, until our eyes felt stuck open. Sure, there are the endless Hollywood remakes to cash in on our favorite old movies, and we can go back to photos, songs, and other media too. But I don't keep and wear that shirt from 8th grade or expect music to endlessly mimic pop-rock favorites from the ’90s (I wouldn't mind, though). We don't expect from other media the almost time-capsule-like quality that we find with old games.

Why is that?

Some research has explored how games affect our memory, and I don't just mean those "memory" or "brain" games, which often aren't very compelling and might not help your memory either. However, video games more broadly could improve your memory, and they generally affect your brain in different ways, from coordination to empathy. The power of nostalgia and video games is very much at the heart of the retro movement. There is an urge to relive those experiences, to feel connected to the past, to combat loneliness, to help find meaning in life. In short, to experience the benefits of nostalgia.

It makes sense, given how games can become so ingrained in our memories. Games combine sights, sounds, interactivity, and story-telling, and demand attention when you play. We have all experienced how a song can be tied so strongly to memories, which research suggests is due to how music stimulates different areas of our brain at once. And games demand even more of our attention, bringing us closer to that elusive past. While we can utterly escape into a game, invariably we come back to the moment, or the moment becomes consumed with that experience. A summer wasn't lost playing Starcraft, but became the summer of Starcraft. If a song can conjure strong memories, and telling stories helps reinforce an experience, and a familiar sight can bring us back to a time and place, can it be surprising how powerful gaming memories are?

Games, of course, are not just solitary experiences. While I'm a big fan of single-player games, and my early gaming memories are dominated by a single-player experience (thank you, slow internet connection), the social aspect of gaming adds yet another dimension to our experiences and memories of them. Whether it is the competition of an intense shooter (I have fond memories of nights of Unreal Tournament 2003 in a dorm), a cooperative puzzle game, or just chatting with friends in a shared world across many miles, we further deepen gaming memories by sharing them with others.

This is something I came to especially appreciate during this past year of gaming during the pandemic. Looking back a year ago— through the anxiety, the uncertainty, the fear of the early lockdowns—it is a gaming memory that stands strong, hopeful, and joyous.

My once-a-week game time with friends from grad school on the other side of the country, which had been dominated by loud matches of Rocket League, had turned to the epic RPG Divinity: Original Sin 2. Fortunate to all be working remotely, and safely inside, we suddenly had more time than ever to play together. A game I thought might take us easily more than a year started flying by.

In the game, we could be the (often bumbling and inadvertently dangerous to innocent townsfolk) heroes, in control of our destiny, saving the world and taking action. We had an entire world to explore and learn the history of, magic and combat to learn and perfect, and many new characters to speak to. Time passed, visits were canceled, but we still had our several-times-a-week gaming sessions.

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Original Sin 2 will forever be associated in my memory with a tragic and deadly pandemic. Thinking of it will remind me of being inside, learning about Rt values, worrying about my parents, counting my blessings to be safe. But it will also remind me of everything constantly bursting into flames in the game world, laughing at my character's complete failure at any persuasion conversations, turning enemies into hapless chickens, planning elaborate battle tactics, and (eventually) succeeding.

Through the magic of a shared game, we could stay connected, distant at our desks and couches but side by side slinging spells. Games have always been a way to connect, and this has been highlighted during a pandemic, when physical distance is needed and social closeness is craved. As time has worn on, there has been a clear benefit in being able to feel not alone while safely being alone. We can make good memories to help weather the long storm.

More recently, my gaming escape has turned to virtual reality. I thought it would be years before I would be playing games in VR; it always seemed like the future. After spending nearly all my time inside, other than for essential things like grocery shopping, it was a revelation to put on the VR headset. I was transported to an open world, my ceiling gone and replaced by a clear sky far away. I was no longer in my small living room, and the sense of new space made me a believer in the tech instantly.

Once again, there is this odd mismatch of a novel and enjoyable experience with the horrors of the larger circumstances of the world. And perhaps nothing better embodies the privileges I have in this time. I'll never forget my first (literal) steps into VR, just as I'll never forget why that became suddenly so appealing. While VR is an escape, maybe as much as anything can be, it doesn't erase the other memories.

Rather, it weaves them together in a new way. This memory doesn't render all the time I spent inside during the pandemic just a blur, doesn't let it be packaged neatly away in an attempt to forget. Instead it has given me unexpected joys in a dark time. Gaming has helped me stay healthy and present, in a way that seems like the complete antithesis of trying to use it for escape. Games don't make me forget but, rather, help me remember.

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