thoughts, opinions and responses to random occurrences

Friday, June 13, 2008

Retro No-No

That buzzing sound you can hear is the bee in Alex Kierkegaard's bonnet over at Insomniac. It would seem he's quite incensed about the use of the word retro within the context of video gaming.

He makes a good point regarding the abuse of retro when employed as an adjective. He quite correctly observes that, in this context, it describes a contemporary concept affected by stylistic leanings to the past — not merely something that actually is old. E.g., an old Atari 2600 game isn't a "retro game", but a contemporary remake of that same game on the Nintendo DS most certainly is.

However, Kierkegaard is overlooking the myriad ways retro can be applied as a prefix, wherein the meaning subtly changes to something more akin to the perceived meaning amongst classic gaming enthusiasts. The retro– prefix, in this context, can mean "backward" or "situated behind".

Not only that, but the word retro also functions as an informal contraction of the words retrograde ("to turn back", "to go back" or "to go back over or recapitulate something") and retrospect ("reference to or regard of a precedent or authority" or "a review of or a meditation on past events"), amongst others.

We currently live in an era where people develop a nostalgic ache for last Wednesday rather than merely yesterdecade, thus the word retro is bandied around like it's going out of fashion. Some misguided folk even use it as a synonym for kitsch. I think we can forgive classic video game fans for their appropriation of the word, which wormed its way into gaming parlance some time in the mid-90s when emulators of 8-bit gaming machines began to surface. In fact, the first instances of the phrase "retro-gaming", according to Google's archive of Usenet, correctly used the hyphenated prefix.

While the hyphen may have wandered off during the intervening years, the phrase "retro gaming" (and each derivative thereof) at least shows some evidence of being born of sturdier grammatical stock than the lonesome adjective may suggest.

tl;dr: The phrase "retro game" can refer to an old game if you don't constrain yourself to a single, rigid definition of how the word retro can be used. All hail the English language's elasticity.

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