Essays

Digital Nostalgia

by Kyle Chayka on February 25, 2011

Title screen from Great Gatsby NES (image from greatgatsbygame.com)

Sometime around February 14, an internet phenomenon erupted as Charles Hoey and Pete Smith announced they had found a lost game cartridge for the original Nintendo video game system (NES). This cartridge was an unlabeled video game version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famed novel The Great Gatsby. Depicted in chunky 8-bit pixels, a boomerang-hatted Nick Carraway dashes through a game world of flappers, bellhops and gangsters. It even came with a vintage advertisement and a game manual that looked straight out of the 80s. The trick? This game wasn’t found; it was made in 2010. Thus we are rushed into an era of digital nostalgia.

Digital aesthetics are old and established enough by now that artists, musicians and cultural producers are starting to appropriate the old digital vanguard as a new form of nostalgia, a fetishizing of a past version of high-tech. From adopting the fuzzy visual quality of early monitor displays to copying the faults of static-ridden computer speakers, these digital semiotic tropes have become a new vocabulary for cultural producers.

Take The Great Gatsby’s NES version, for example. The initial appeal of the digital artifact was its exoticism—a holdover from an earlier era of multimedia entertainment, lost to time and stuck in someone’s closet. There’s a thrill to uncovering something hidden, an artifact. But why the piece remains interesting after acknowledging that it was actually created today is because of the visceral, emotional and aesthetic relationship we have to its original source material, the true artifacts.

For me, playing The Great Gatsby game is so great because of all the parallels it has to classic NES games like Mario Brothers and Mega Man. There is art to how the game walks the line of appropriation and originality, and the work wouldn’t make sense without the existence of these sources of nostalgia. Without the shared history of video games, the fake NES Great Gatsby is just a simplistic platforming game.

The Great Gatsby NES in action (image from greatgatsbygame.com)

Artists in other media are going through the same process, recycling a new era of the past. Visual artists are adopting the aesthetics of the early web, Geocities pages and glitch graphics, in surf clubs and mash-up image tumblelogs. In music, artists like James Blake and How to Dress Well are looking back to 90s R+B but reinterpreting it through a haze of static and artificially tinny sounds that echo bad computer equipment. Ian Bogost, a video game designer, has created graphic engines meant to precisely copy the fuzzy, backlit and noisy images of Atari games.

A recent event at Hyperallergic, called Nostalgia for the Net (hosted by Joanne McNeil and Melissa Gira Grant), celebrated the memorializing of the early digital age. Speakers recalled their experiences with outdated technology, early vestiges of things we now take for granted, and talked about how it made them who they are today. The talk became an attempt to historicize this digital experience, to make sense of it in retrospect, in the same way that art digests its own fascination with the early digital.

These pieces of art, visual, musical and written, depend on their relationships with their source material for impact, just as they depend on their viewers or listeners or readers to understand their references. It doesn’t matter that the Gatsby NES game is faked; it only matters that we can approach it appropriately, understanding the piece in terms of its own nostalgia. As another generation of artists and creators comes to prominence, more and more we will see mainstream art making use of digital nostalgia as a potent wellspring of artistic vocabulary.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.

Previous post:

Next post: