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Nowadays, video games offer unparred beauty, top-notch refined images and design, and utmost gameplay. Newer generation, 21st century born teenage gamers can experience what is generally referred to as “Virtual Reality” (VR). Nevertheless, a glance at today’s most successful games on the market will show Fortnite in pole position, and not so long ago it still was Minecraft. Those two games are emblematic of “gameplay games”, in which visual finesse is not the most important aspect! Indeed, a game may well not be visually jawdropping (labeled as “beautiful”) yet remain simply attractive, thanks to its gameplay, its appeal, its ability to draw people together.
Retro video games (please note that I mainly use PlayStation One late 90s games in my practice) open a wide range of opportunities to explore various aspects of players’s mental life. The reason Retro Gaming is so appealing is that games from before this century deliver a gameplay and give access to a whole universe that is perceived by some youngsters as outdated, almost timeless, but extremely inviting. This is just based on the desire that they spur, what the English call “Playing”, related to a primary basic drive: “Pleasure”.
This literal meaning of Playing is the ability to enjoy, to gain pleasure from the behavior one engages into. “Gamers”, as people who play video games are commonly called, are thus redefined “Players”, because they derive pleasure from it, through the exploration of a universe they may think they know well and master, but that will lead them to take distance with some of their up-to-date knowings. Many PSOne games (used is my office) involve the use of directional arrows – some old-time controllers didn’t even have a joystick. The kids and teens have to go through a phase of guidance and training to realize the purport of the game, and then experience thorough pleasure as they progress across the game. The reassuring first impression they’d had, with a game console named similarly to the one they owned, had summoned the familiar feeling of being a Gamer – a posture they would rapidly part with. The soothing effect of feeling “savvy” transforms into that of an “explorer”, a voyager riding through a kind of time/space rift, linked with the past time of the release of the game, that leads them to an unknown world that they will soon revel in.
Retro Playing opens to children and teenagers a specific domain in which they can enjoyably discover and exercise their own feeling of Self over a defined time, then come back to their well-known and well-owned reality. In the consulting room, the numerous technical and visual glitches in 90s games become incentive and set up a context that encourages free wording, while looking into the inconsistencies in the game.
Some will appreciate getting acquainted with a console that their parents might have owned in their time. As the game unrolls, along with trans-generational transferance, issues unfold such as “Did they like this? And how far did they go?”.
By far most of the people who will encounter the console are young teenagers who will grab a vintage controller the same way as they would a modern one, feeling skillful. Those quickly end up trapped in their belief of “know-how”, that goes by the “Gamer” status : a Gamer masters the game, can be efficient and overcome others – in this case, unconsciously, their former generation, father, or sibling). But this Gamer positioning will soon wear off, and leave place for the role of a joyful explorer, savoring the unveiling of a not-that-well-known universe. That is where the “Player” takes over. The genuine pleasure is obvious, through the smiles on the youngsters’s faces as they undig the bugs and glitches throughout the discovery of the game and its bends and curves. The design and visuals downgrade in importance, as the very essence of the game as “an act of creating, a figment (…) that allows for infinite variations, whereas board or educational games are much more limited” (D. W. Winicott), becomes priority for the young Player.
When nowaday’s youth examine and play video games from the 90s-2000s they uncover unexpected resources and an almost forgotten notion : adaptability. The game doesn’t involve aesthetics any more, rather solely the drive to discover and play (think, try, win, lose but also enjoy). Clarapède used to say “playing is the promised land of “as if…”. Young players, facing graphics and virtualness they can’t relate to, will do as they are used to, with their console or generally onscreen: let go of their references and revert to fun and fantasy to apprehend a game. They have no choice than to adapt to the (very) obvious flaws of their avatars, and enter a universe only “Playful fun” can draw them into. Progressing and explorating override the drive to win! The sense of reality (as in VR) is no more a requirement, but a secondary aspect, thrusting the primary motivation at its full range : PLAYING. The Gamer becomes a Player, as Winicott says, connected with both his internal and external realities, able to feel pleasure while interacting with a digital media.
Retro gaming leads to working with children or teenagers on their sense of being, their persona, their wholeness. Rediscovering handles and controls (without joysticks) allows to forget what is already known, to learn something new/old. It also involves defining aims and goals, without instant saving, and the sense of perspective and distance is challenged with vision from above. Young clients will discover, and therapists rediscover, games like Alone in the Dark (2001), Medal Of Honor (1999), Bloody Roar (1997), Metal Gear Solid (1998), Tekken 3 (1997), Fifa 98 (1998), Need for Speed (1998), Duke Nukem (1998). At the crossroads of the two universes, the young client is led back to a posture of discovering and learning player.
Something fascinating about implementing a game such as Duke Nukem 3D (released in 1998 for PSOne) is to observe the way today’s kids hold the seemingly familiar controller, positioning their fingers on the joystick and the R1-R2 and L1-L2 buttons. They are prompted to let go of their previous habits, and get acquainted with the use of arrow buttons, scarcely used in nowaday’s games. The game offers a reality young players don’t master, as they must cope with issues around self-preservation, without being able to save and recall and with limited ammunition. They get to thoroughly search throughout the game’s universe to find armor and armory, shotguns, bazookas and whatnot. They repeatedly fail and start over from the beginning before they overcome levels. They learn from their mistakes, and understand they need to adapt and change to prove their abilities to themselves. Realizing their own, self-obtained accomplishment brings the teenagers a high level of satisfaction.
With games like Spyro the Dragon (1998), kid players must restlessly modify the looks of their avatar, in order to progress and reach goals. Gameplay becomes a real motive, as proven by the way the youth will embrace the visually (highly) outdated game.They thrive on the Playing aspect, by leaving aside the graphics they are used to, and revel in the game without feeling immersed in it. The fantasy universe, the need to protect their little dragonfly (whose color wears off with each attack from Spyro), the desire to save other dragons, become the main motivations to embark on the game as they definitely enjoy passing levels.
Videogaming is universal, whether the game is visually perfect or totally graphically out of date, and what leads Players to grab the controller is their desire for fun and discovering (or rediscovering, in a cross-generation process) a world they THINK is familiar. Retro gaming then acts as a limitless supply of playful opportunities for fun-thirsty children and teenagers, as well as work avenues in my practice. Discovery, letting go of previous knowledge and developing a “different gameplay” (through controllers, playability, avatar looks and also the purpose of the game), setting goals, achieving them and setting new ones, all are particularly tasty for young ones : the flavor is that of Playing, fun and pleasure.
Videogaming, especially Retro, helps part with “play-to-win” and “top-notch”, and revert to “fun-to-play”. Implementing retro gaming was both intuitive and the result of numerous attempts, with young people who could at first glance suspiciously or negatively at the console they were confronting, then would swiftly become players, eager to progress and prone to ask for help. This “new/old” media offers a number of “possibilities” for the purpose of Therapy, opening to young clients a playspace they can undertake.
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