The word nostalgia was once used to describe the homesickness felt by soldiers deployed abroad in the vast colonial lands of Europe. Nostalgia was treated as a medical condition, an excess of black bile causing an acute melancholy in those who suffered from it. Today, nostalgia refers to a longing for the recent past, a contracting span of time shrinking with each passing year. Decades are reduced to curated pop culture selections and sold back to us as if buying them could somehow take us back in time. We do not long for home anymore but the films, music, and video games of our youth.
When Americans are not arguing about politics or divulging our health issues to strangers, we are talking about pop culture. Film, music, and video games act as the cultural waypoints by which we navigate the desolate wilderness of our own hyperreality. With nothing in common other than a vague, fading sense of national identity, we form friendships and communities around these mutual interests. High school cliques originate in part from one’s preferred media selections: those who watch sports, those who listen to hip hop, those who play World of Warcraft (though the football teams of my day seemed to secretly share an interest in all three).
I spent the better part of middle school in the fictional land of Tyria, the setting for ArenaNet’s 2005 online role-playing game Guild Wars. Guild Wars was structured much in the same way as World of Warcraft and Everquest, though it borrowed the best elements from each and eschewed many of the typical MMORPG norms that made its contemporaries such a chore to play. Gone were the long hours of endlessly grinding for levels and rare items: Guild Wars put its players on relatively equal footing in regards to experience and gear. Success in player-versus-player content, a core component of the game, often came down to team composition and player skill. The game consumed hundreds of hours of my youth, yet eleven years later I find myself without a shred of regret.
Growing up in a southern California exurb leaves you with limited options for entertainment. These towns were built for families working in Los Angeles and function solely as places to sleep at night before beginning another two hour commute the next morning on the 5 Freeway. When you are young and unable to drive a car, your very existence is limited to school and home. There were no kids on my street growing up and my extended family had long since left the state. Outside of school, there wasn’t much to do.
I used to regret spending so much of my childhood immersed in virtual worlds. I was told the days and weeks I put into playing video games were a waste of time. Looking back now, I empathize more with my situation. What else was I supposed to do? My family scarcely went on vacation or took weekend trips. Every vacation I remember was ruined because of some logistical error or grand, week-long argument. It was a relief to return home for the summer, even more of a relief when school started.
Guild Wars was, more than any game I have ever played, an escape from the mundanity of my younger years. I convinced my friends from school to start playing and within a few months we had a functioning guild. After class we would rush home, log on, and put each other on speaker phone while completing quests and missions. MMORPGs have a trope called the “holy trinity” which consists of a tank, a healer, and a DPS. The tank mans the frontlines, absorbing enemy hits while the healer keeps him alive and the DPS does damage. I played Warrior in Guild Wars (the original tank profession) and my two friends played Monk (a healing profession) and Elementalist (a spellcasting DPS profession) respectively. Together we explored and conquered Tyria, from the frigid Shiverpeaks to the dense jungles of Maguuma.
The game was for us the adventure we lacked in our young lives. Boys are supposed to play in the woods, get into fights, and generally cause mischief. In our real world of helicopter parents, bureaucratic school administrations, and overbearing government, we have to increasingly seek virtual means to fulfill that which is innate in our sex. Sports and video games, the two remaining outlets for a boy’s competitive nature, provide some relief. But in a repressive culture without some higher calling, some higher purpose, they are ultimately substitutes for more worthwhile endeavors.
By the time the second expansion Nightfall was released, my friends and I had moved on. The guild that we had started was full of inactive players and the cities and outposts throughout the game world grew empty. Though the servers are still active today, returning to the game leaves you with a vague sense of unease. Hardly anyone still plays these days. The communities that were formed within the game have disbanded and gone their separate ways. The sense of uneasiness I felt was only shared upon returning home from college the first time: the town I grew up in strangely devoid of life, the majority of the people I used to know having left for greener pastures.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Guild Wars would be the start of my interaction with others online. MMORPGs predated social media and were how you used to talk to your friends over the Internet. The barrier to entry kept people who didn’t share your hobby offline watching MTV or whatever it was normal kids did those days. For a while, the Internet was a paradise for those who played video games. Almost everyone who spent their free time on the computer was just like you. We were a part of something that will never be experienced again.
What will happen to these virtual communities when they eventually cease to exist, when the servers are shut down and the worlds we grew up in vanish? We’ll be left with memories of times and places, real in a sense to those who remember them but virtual nonetheless. The Internet once provided us a window to vast, fantastic virtual lands when our own reality wasn’t much to look at. Now all we see are the very reflections of our hideous reality in the social media sites and advertisements that have colonized the Web.
I suppose you really can’t go home again.