Did you pull off a kickflip this past weekend like it was nothing? You shouldn’t be surprised, because games and memory are linked much closer than you think.
If you’re a millennial who had access to a gaming console in the late 90s, chances are you played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. And chances are you were pretty stoked to hear that the first two games in that series, which has had a slow decline in popularity and quality over the past 20 years, were being remade for new consoles. The compilation, awkwardly titled Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, dropped over the weekend to rave reviews from critics and rapturous response from fans. It’s the latest in a long line of video game remakes to invest in nostalgia and reap the dividends.
It’s not surprising that people took to this remake like proverbial ducks to water. Having spent a few hours with it, I found it a great romp that’s hugely faithful to the original, even including the vast majority of the truly legendary soundtrack. What’s perhaps surprising is how quickly, and easily, the memories of the original games returned to people who had logged hundreds of hours into them two decades ago. Tricks and stages that people spent entire afternoons mastering came back to gamers as though they were downloaded straight from the Matrix.
There’s actually ample scientific evidence linking video games and memory. A University of California study found that playing video games boosts memory, and not insignificantly: the memory performance of tested individuals found that memory performance increased by 12%, the same amount it tends to decrease between the ages of 45 and 70. Another study from the University of Illinois found that “expert video game players” would often outperform non-players when measured on basic attention. Remember that when you have difficulty distracting your [insert younger relative here] from Fortnite.
Beyond those studies, there is a truly terrifying amount of guidance online aimed at competitive gamers improving their muscle memory, and another recent study found that when young adults played games, it had a positive impact on their emotional development and cognition. Most interestingly, at least to me, is that 3D games significantly improved the memories of the test group when compared to 2D. So Candy Crush probably isn’t improving your memory.
But the phenomenon you experienced over the weekend is less about the link between games and memory – it’s actually about nostalgia. A lot of why we remember games that we played as a kid, or as a youth, is because they stir up good feelings in us. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and if we associate good memories, like pulling off a 900 in Tony Hawk or finding that last gem in a Spyro level, it’s going to stay with us. The feeling stays and so does the memory. This obviously applies outside of just gaming, and it’s a cute little process of our brain that’s called the fading affect bias. Outside of just remembering how to pull off a kickflip, it’s a function of the brain that helps us process negativity and adapt to changes in our environment.
Personally, I can say that video games occupy a strange, large place in memory and recall. Even when playing Tony Hawk, a game I spent significantly less time on than others, I could remember what button combinations led to specific moves (right + square is heelflip, tattoo it on my arm) without having to be told it. It’s been the same experience for a lot of gamers, but it applies more widely to remembering the maps of complex dungeons in games or solutions to obscure puzzles. To provide a fittingly strange example, I can play my way through Sam & Max: Hit the Road – a game I first played and beat in the early 90s – and remember the solution to pretty much every bizarre puzzle in the game. Take the first puzzle in the game: you, as dog detective Sam, have to use your companion, the hyperactive sociopathic rabbit Max, on a talking cat. Max then shoves his hand in the cat’s mouth to retrieve their orders from their boss. Memory or scarring? Six of one, half a dozen the other, as far as I’m concerned.
Gaming is also a medium that constantly tests your memory, especially if you’re playing a fighting game or a game like Tony Hawk. It’s like a complicated version of Simon Says: can you hit all the buttons in the right order with the right rhythm without looking? Or to make it more complicated: can you remember the many movesets for different characters in fighting games, and figure out what moves to use against what characters and remember those character’s movesets?
It turns memory into an action, much more so than following a difficult TV show or remembering all the characters in a fantasy novel. You’re not just recalling a name and comprehending it – you’re recalling something and acting upon it. So it trains a player in that way. But I genuinely think it’s mostly about nostalgia. We’ve locked the experience of playing these games into our brain so much that as a result, we’ve locked the practice of playing these games too. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how to recruit all 108 characters in Suikoden II, a game I tremendously enjoyed. But I’ll definitely forget the names of most of the people I went to high school with. We remember the happy places, and leave the bad ones behind.
So if you’re wondering why your recent jump back into the digital world of skating came so easily to you, it’s probably because you have a real good memory associated with it. Isn’t that just so damn wholesome? Now go, grind away into the night, and form some more memories, you scamp.
You can play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One now.
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