I remember my first all-night gaming marathon. It was 1996 and I was 13 years old. The Nintendo 64 had just come out, and I could barely wrap my head around the incredible 3D polygon-driven graphics. The only problem was that my parents wouldn’t buy one. So I did what any teenager in my situation would do: I biked over to a friend’s house to play. His parents had rented the N64 and a few games from the local Blockbuster. I brought sodas, sour straw candy, and a determination to game all night. And we did. His mom finally shut down the whole operation when the sun was starting to peek through the curtains.
Those days are long gone. But for many of us born between 1980 and 1996, gaming remains a through line along which we can chart our path to adulthood. As children, we immersed ourselves in digital worlds that offered an escape from homework, rules, and general teenage angst. Today, many of the big signifiers of adulthood — home ownership, a retirement account, having kids — still seem daunting or beyond reach for many of us, and gaming is a kind of lifeline to that simpler time.
It’s no coincidence, then, that just as millennials are staring down the barrel of middle age, the gaming industry is reaching a point of maturity, too. It’s one marked by a surge in retro gaming and video game remakes. Developers have pumped millions of dollars into updating and porting classic games onto new systems. Remasters rooted in the halcyon days of millennial youth, such as Final Fantasy VII and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, quickly became best sellers in 2020. My generation’s dimmed economic prospects are lighting up video game consoles everywhere.
In fact, during the past year of COVID lockdowns, video game industry revenues swelled 20 percent, totaling $67 billion in the United States, and my generation helped drive those numbers. We are more likely to pay for a gaming service than we are to subscribe to premium cable channels. Not only do we love to play video games but, according to Nielsen, we even flock to streaming sites to watch others play them. Millennials might be struggling to buy houses, but, as scholar Sean Fenty put it, video games have created “digital homes to which gamers yearn to return.”
Video game nostalgia has become a marker of my generation’s identity. The eldest millennials, a micro-generation wedged into the analog-digital divide that separates Gen Xers from the youngest millennials, have been dubbed the “Oregon Trail Generation.” It’s a fitting moniker because it references a classic video game. I remember playing Oregon Trail on Apple IIs. Harking back to those green, pixelated Conestoga wagons and deaths by dysentery beats having to worry about paying off student loans or feeling like our generation is stuck on level one.
The retro gaming craze is one metric of millennial anxiety, born of a generation coming of age in multiple crises that wants to experience something familiar and steady.
John S. Huntington is a professor of history at Houston Community College in Texas. His first book, “Far-Right Vanguard,” will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @johnshuntington.