Words of a Gamer Hierarchy: what is ‘Retro’?.

Joe Yang - What words can affect gamer behavior, especially when they form groups? Here, I look at the motherlode: “retro”. By doing so, I attempt to extract underlying connotations and whether this word creates a hierarchy, reinforces it, or reflects it. This short paper is a single case study focused on the power of linguistics in gaming.

This study is important because there is little thorough study on the power of words in gaming culture. Though the attempt of this article is not to fill that hole, it seeks to provide a reason for why gaming at least must critically evaluate the words it uses in its communities. Locutionary and illocutionary acts in gaming are especially crucial considering how much communication occurs online. The effects of body language, in-person interaction, and anonymity give strength to words even moreso compared to other forms of media.

In short, because gaming and its subcultures emerged during an information revolution where access to knowledge is fast, easy, and cheap, there is less incentive for gamers to consider personal interaction. Of course, this does not hold true for all gamers and gaming communities, since various groups depend on highly social activity (consider in-person face-to-face interaction in fighting game communities or vocal-dependent groups in video games such as the Left 4 Dead series). Ultimately, what matters is that the role of words creates additional gravity on the actions and intents of people. In return, it can also provide information on why or how we as gamers can cling to certain ideas or beliefs.

Therefore, why ‘retro’? The word is hardly unique to gaming, and it has been claimed by other commodities such as fashion, collective hobbyists, and design. The image of retro summons up a general visage of ‘old’, ‘vintage’, and ‘antique’, none of which are necessarily unique to video games. Considering the word ‘retro’, we can assume that the word is not unique to gaming culture. Therefore, why is this the case study for the power of words in a gaming community?

The simplest reason is because we have no major alternative. Though other media studies have dissected ‘retro’ into small subgroups, the gaming culture has yet to provide a substantive definition that works past a shallow, cosmetic understanding of the culture. To gamers and gaming subculture, retro is multiple things. Retro can be a selling point (Ackerman), a general label (Wisegeek), or a subculture of its own (McFerran 2012). At the very least, ‘retro’ is a gargantuan subject, consisting of various components, many of which we will have difficulty studying in such a small article.

The focus on ‘retro’, therefore, is not to provide a critical good or bad opinion on the subject; instead, the focus is to have a simplified understanding of how we can figure out the answer to the question ‘What does retro do?’, and what this entails for other words. For this, we have to consider a major point about the word.

Is the word ‘retro’ a reflective or constructive word? In other words, does retro mimic some facet of society, and provide a handy label for what is a large, complex series of transactions, both socially and financially? If we consider vintage collectors, for instance, the use of the term retro is to define a broad and growing industry that is formed on a backbone of nostalgia, gaming priorities, and marginal utility. In this context, the word ‘retro’ has no function other than to act as a tool for labeling a large group of activities that have not been sufficiently studied in gaming subculture. It acts as a substitute for a future word, much as how the term ‘anomie’ or ‘Westphalian’ labels a specific criteria for a subject.

A reflective retro, then, means that this is not necessarily retro in the literal sense of retrospective, but mirrors a collective consumerist behavior that is loosely defined by some semblance of retrospective. Retro is a symbol of behavior with no locutionary alternative, borrowed from other subcultures. If the gaming subcultures continue to use this word, then it will become more amorphous as consoles are released, games age, and the definition of retro changes with the consoles. Though we hardly consider the Xbox 360 to be a retro console today, in the future by the loose criteria we employ, it will certainly become one.

A constructive use of retro is much more difficult to understand. Here, the word is a speech act in creating a social sanctuary between groups. The use of the word retro may not only describe one character, but also define them along such lines. When we adopt the use of the term retro, we implicitly agree to cavorting with those who also use the term. Therefore, it can be used to construct groups that depend on it as a form of identity, with sites such as Retrogamer and Classic Gaming devoting their efforts to constructing this group identity.

Here, the function behind retro is not to describe a preexisting group behavior, but to establish it. Opting into the group of retro simply requires one acknowledging themselves as retro, or adopting the symbolic, imagined components that make one consider themselves retro. The movie Wreck-It-Ralph, for example, is an adoption of a specific retro image by engaging in the social persona of retro. To them, retro was the 8-bit universe that its artists envisioned to be the core of their stylistic choices.

This begs the question: why is this divide important? Can’t retro be both reflective and constructive? The answer is yes, and the result are some ramifications for the notions we as a group assume about the nature of the word ‘retro’. Retro as reflective term outlines a preoccupation with acquiring, playing, and enjoying a certain taste, labeling an unclear insider-outsider relationship. Retro as a constructive term outlines a verbal and cognitive tool used to define a specific group behavior by adopting that term to be the master identity.

Both facets of retro are about group relations, and the lack of devoted research to what ‘retro’ means beyond the shallow, surface analysis of markets, hobbies, and games suggests the primary purpose of retro in gaming subculture is to isolate specific groups from others. Most insidiously, the purpose of the term ‘retro’ is – whether consciously or subconsciously, which is another matter – to establish walls based upon cosmic coincidences. The vague terminology associated with retro and the lack of a clear case for what ‘retro’ means across the board implies that it is useful only to establish a perceived divide.

If you were not born in an era where ‘retro’ games existed, you could adopt into the image of retro, but doing so is an act of involving yourself in an insider-outsider group relationship. In other words, the term is not only inclusive, but also lacks sufficient criteria on what is or is not retro. What accounts for old and new are determined by age of each gamer, and older gamers by extension have a larger library of retro game experience. In one way, retro is used in gaming subculture rather than any other label not because of its gameplay-over-gimmick value, or because of any innovation, or because of simple nostalgia, but because it creates a label which categorizes gamers in specific clusters based upon their age as gamers.

For younger gamers, ‘retro’ is constructive – you opt into the group. For older gamers, retro can be a gamut of reasons, but is usually reflective. Yet, for both players, the idea of retro insinuates divide. The first step to properly reconsidering the word ‘retro’ is to consider what it means, to whom, and for what reason. Because of that major ontological obstacle, I am unable to provide a clear, overarching term that encapsulates the myriad components of retro.

Retro is not alone in terms of words that define gamer hierarchy and insider-outsider groups. Terms such as fanboy, hardcore, and even gamer are constructions created by people both reflecting upon mannerisms that confirm their own perception of relationships, and those choosing to opt into them. Though this has been touched upon in older media, the field of gaming has yet to thoroughly consider precisely what and why the term of ‘retro’ is used. If we take the label literally, then the field of retro can be anything, but gamers are rare to consider Gears of War and Mass Effect retro, yet they would fit the vague, literal definition.

Instead, the value of these words is not because we don’t have better words – gaming subcultures are creating new terminologies all the time as the field advances – but because it serves unique purposes. The amorphous definition of retro allows us to construct groups that isolate other groups, but also reflect underlying groups that have already existed. Conceptually, studying the power of words and how they can create and reflect what they have created is an ouroboros of conceptualization and reconceptualization, with no point of origin in sight. However, as challenging and frustrating as it may be, considering the strength of a single word (or words!) is central to developing a broader understanding of how gaming subcultures work.


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“What is Retro Gaming?.” WiseGeek. N.p.. Web. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-retrogaming.htm>.

McFerran, Damien. “Crippled by Nostalgia: The Fraud of Retro Gaming.” Eurogamer. N.p., 12 Sep 2012. Web. <http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-09-12-crippled-by-nostalgia-the-fraud-of-retro-gaming>.

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