After five or six months of living in Japan, I came down with an overwhelming case of nostalgia. Seemingly out of the blue, I developed a powerful urge to dust off my old Gameboy Color, slot in a cartridge… and play Pokémon.
I ended up sating my desire by buying a used Nintendo DS and a copy of Pokémon White. Though the graphics on the new system left my childhood copy of Yellow in the dust, my sweaty palms and rapt attention confirmed what I had hoped. Pokémon was still as fun to play as ever, and I still wanted to be a Pokémon Master.
Shortly after springboarding off of my nostalgia and diving back into this world, however, I realized something. When I was a kid, Pokémon was about finding a bunch of cool monsters, leveling them up to do lots of damage, and fighting away. At that point in my life, I didn’t see the systems beneath the game. Traits like attack, defense, and accuracy were all just meaningless numbers that popped up every time my Snorlax[ref]who, I believe, was named “THE WALL” and knew Surf[/ref] gained a level. But when I came back to the game at 21, I suddenly saw just how much depth there was. I pored over move lists and team rosters on Smogon University, a site dedicated to competitive Pokémon strategy. I considered the role of each Pokémon on my team and the significance of every stat. Not only did playing Pokémon as a twenty-something allow me to experience the familiarity of an old favorite, it opened up worlds of complexity I’d never noticed as a kid.
This isn’t the only childhood favorite that I’ve developed newfound appreciation for upon revisiting as an adult. Last year, I reread the Series of Unfortunate Events books, by Lemony Snicket, and the first two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. Both of these series were at the top of my favorites list as a kid, but I appreciated them for their surface-level details. I loved the plot of ASOUE, loved Snicket’s voice, loved imagining the secret society of V. F. D. with all its codes and ciphers. His Dark Materials gripped me with its plot as well and tickled my imagination with its depictions of dimension-splitting blades and the truth-telling golden compass. But upon rereading them, I was struck–struck by how, for instance, the world of the Baudelaire orphans becomes less black-and-white as the books progress and the children age; or the theological intricacy of the plot of Pullman’s novels. Like I did with Pokémon, I gained a deeper appreciation for these books, seeing beyond the surface and engaging with them on an intellectual as well as emotional level.
One more example. Rachel and I just finished rewatching Star Wars, which I hadn’t seen since I was 14, sitting in the dusty cinemas of Oak Grove 8 with my family and watching Episode III. When I was a kid, Star Wars was about good and bad. I couldn’t explain why, but I just knew that the Rebels were good, the Empire was bad, and there was going to be a lot of lasers and explosions as the good guys tried to win. But having now rewatched the series at 23, I’m amazed how much I missed. More than the lasers and the explosions, I’m fascinated today by the politics and the character arcs. How did the Galactic Republic become the Galactic Empire? Who is Palpatine, and how does corrupting Anakin and Luke play into his schemes? And, heck, how does Star Wars play with common storytelling tropes and monomyths? Asking questions like this makes the series far more than
six five[ref]We refused to watch Episode I, and nothing of value was lost.[/ref] movies about lightsaber battles.
I love having these critical lenses. Engaging with works on multiple levels allows me to appreciate–and critique–their content from a variety of perspectives. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I’m glad I see things with these “X-ray specs”.
But every once in a while, I wish with all my heart I could take them off and return to the simplicity of childhood.
My generation is a nostalgic one, as I’m sure some New York Times trend piece has triumphantly reported. We love the culture of the late 80’s and 90’s, and are regularly looking for ways to return. Look at the recent Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, or the surging trend of indie video games with 8- or 16-bit graphics. I’m sure this is in part because of what I’ve discovered myself–that revisiting childhood favorites as an adult is often a doubly satisfying experience–but I suspect it also has to do with a return to those simpler times.
After all, we were in high school or college when the Great Recession began. After 10 or so years of being told we ought to go to college, we were strapping on our shoes and preparing to do so–or working on our degrees–when the economy began decaying. We inhabit an increasingly corporate world and a country with a withering middle class. My generation watched the promises of a charismatic, visionary young politician turn to campaign trail litter; we saw the specter of “terrorism” used to erode our constitutional rights. The economic and political power of massive corporations is at an all-time high. The threat of climate change hangs over every thought of our future lives. And that’s to say nothing of the forms of oppression like racism or sexism that permeate our culture.
This is our shit. We see the complex systems at play in the world, but knowledge isn’t power to us. After all, what more can we do to stop the forces of a power-hungry surveillance state? What more can we do to arrest corporate control of our government? It’s not that we’re ignorant of these problems, it’s that we see the distant limits of their shadows and realize we’re facing juggernaut behemoths.
For us, knowledge isn’t power. It’s a reminder of our own powerlessness.[ref]Self-aware footnote here: I actually don’t think we’re all as habitually downtrodden as I make us out to be in this post. I think it’s less of a “God, everything in the world is awful” conscious thought, and far more of a nagging, persistent tune that erodes your fundamental faith in the world. Y’know, like elevator music.[/ref]
So if by slotting in that cartridge and flicking the switch, or by checking out books from the library’s kids’ section, we can return, even temporarily, to a world less complicated, where we don’t see the various interlocking systems and can instead enjoy the simple thrills… I think it’s no surprise that so many of us seek that link to our simpler pasts.