Heimweh, Lost Worlds, and First Game Experience

Yes, it’s “learn German words” week in the MMO blogosphere, it seems. At least I’ll just claim that, since Syl started earlier this week with (re-)introducing “Vorfreude” after coming back from a move-induced break (Hi Syl!), and I’m going to continue.

So let’s get the terminology straight first: What is Heimweh? As with Vorfreude, it’s a term that seemingly has an English translation, but one that falls short of the meaning the German term encompasses. The most straightforward translation is “homesickness”, and it certainly also applies to kids going on a summer camp for the first time in their life. But it’s certainly more. It is an intense, inconsolable longing (or “Sensucht”, another hard-to-translate term; C.S. Lewis tried and failed, so I’ll not even try) for a place, but that place doesn’t necessarily have to exist any more. In fact, the most poignant form of Heimweh is “Sehnsucht for a place that never was”. In this respect, it is more related to nostalgia than homesickness. I will stick with Heimweh for this post, though, because it means feelings bound to a place, even if it is unreachable, rather than feelings bound to a time.

Why do I want to talk about this? I’m a quite reactive blogger. Sometimes, I come up with my own ideas from scratch, but most of the time I write because I read about something, and then can’t get stop thinking about it until I write down my thoughts. This time, the trigger was Wilhelm starting to post WoW movies, and a link to an Everquest nostalgia video. When I looked at the EQ video, the Heimweh feeling that was being evoked was obvious to me. Despite the blurry pictures, despite the clipped and sometimes distorted music, and despite the fact that I never even played EQ much. I only very rarely pass through the lands of old Norrath as a tourist, so there is not much connection to these places.

Heimweh for virtual places

It occurred to me that Heimweh for computer games at first sounds silly, but if you look at them in the context of virtual worlds, it is quite a natural thing. We “lived” in many of these places like in a second home, for months or even years, so they grew on us. If these memories and feelings are in our head, does it even matter whether the places we long for exist out in the real world, or in a virtual one? It doesn’t, because we do not only long for a place, but also the feelings, experiences, and memories we tie to it. I think Heimweh is an important factor in the problem of “first game experience”, the fact that many of us can’t find a game to live up to what our first game was like. When we remember those times and places, we remember the awe of doing things for the first time, before they became a daily activity. Other games will have a hard time living up to those memories.

So why don’t people just go back when they feel like it? The problem is, they can’t. They can physically (well, physically as in “with their avatar in the virtual world”), but the places have changed. Bustling trade hubs will be deserted, dungeons overwhelming to enter alone without other people around, cities dead except for a few NPCs. In short, they can’t go back to the place as they remember it. There are two typical outcomes: closure, that is, realizing that things have changed and it is time to move on, or idealized nostalgia for the things that were.

But at least you can go back and see whether that gives you closure? Lucky if you can. If the game closed down, that’s out, too. Or if your game company decides to destroy half a continent and rebuild everything from scratch. Hello Cataclysm! At least for me, that’s one of the reasons I disliked that expansion. The world as I know it is gone, and there is no way to go back. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I think I felt disconnected from the world because it had changed, and I hadn’t.


P.S.: For an MMO company, Heimweh also can drive an interesting business model. Anecdotal evidence has it that EQ’s two time-locked progression servers have the highest population of all servers. And for at least 2 years I’ve heard people asking Blizzard for something similar for WoW. Of course, EQ’s progressions servers are anything but a faithful representation of how things were, but it seems the feelings of nostalgia attracted many many people.

P.P.S.: I just realized I started this post about Heimweh with a mention of a move from an old home to a new one. Oops. Hope that’s not a bad omen…

2 thoughts on “Heimweh, Lost Worlds, and First Game Experience

  1. Heimweh is such a beautiful word – and you’ve woven this into such an insightful post. it rings very true and I think it is precisely this deep, sad longing that drives so many ex-WoW players to go back to Azeroth again (and in some cases again and again). it hardly ever works out, the realization that “those times were those times” creeps up sooner than later, the missing names on the friendlist or guild chart become painfully obvious, and yet….the nostalgia never leaves you.

    but then, in this too MMOs can become a simple analogy for life; I believe it’s called letting go. the thing about progress and growth is sadly, that nothing can be preserved forever, which in the case of good things is a tragedy (I personally think I will never quite manage…).

    I really miss the old WoW days sometimes. I wonder if there will ever be some level of bringing that experience back with a new MMO.

    1. I miss the old WoW days too sometimes. I think if you ever experience something similar again, it will probably be in a game that is unlike WoW enough not to draw the comparisons all the time that make it hard to stick with a game. To find another “first game” experience, first and foremost you’ll need to spend time somewhere, and this probably won’t happen if your previous game experiences always loom around the corner.

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