On Realizing the 1980s Have Become a Historical Setting

Back in my day we didn't have cell phones or text messages or Snapchat. If you wanted to make plans with someone you called their house, maybe asked their parents or siblings to get them on the phone. And you had to plan out where and when to meet like you were planning an amphibious assault. And we liked it. We loved it!

I've been looking through some old 1980s games, either old ones from my collection or new acquisitions. I've realized if I were to, for example, play a game of 1st edition Chill or Top Secret, my inclination would be to run it as a historical game as opposed to running it in the present. Chill has a modern day 3rd edition and a new, modern day version of Top Secret is being made. But to me, those classic games really feel rooted in the eras in which they were made. That's not to say they couldn't be adapted to modern times - and Chill would also work great as a Victorian-era game.

Not all games from that era scream their time periods as much. For example, Call of Cthulhu with its firm connections to horror of the 1920s and 1930s and Star Wars (D6 version) taking place in a galaxy far, far away, don't have that 80's feel to me.

I encountered a bit of this when we played a brief Ghostbusters mini-campaign about a year or so ago... The 1980s just felt like the right era for it.

So what's different? The technology is a biggie. It's an interesting period - the technology of today is beginning to take shape but it's not there yet. MS-DOS debuted in 1981 - though without hard disk support. Car phones existed but were very, very rarely seen. I remember the vans that took us to high school using a two-way radio to coordinate with its dispatcher. VCRs began emerging in the 1960s and 1970s but they became much more common in the 1980s. There were a variety of music formats - the CD emerged, the vinyl record was still around, and cassette tapes were omnipresent. I also remember how darn difficult it was to get photocopies of character sheets - asking mom or dad to copy something at the office or splurging for the library photocopier...

The global politics were very different. As a kid who graduated high school in 1989, I grew up in the final days of the Cold War - but we didn't know they were the final days. We had maps in our social studies classes showing the spread of communism. There was a nagging fear that a nuclear war could emerge from a conflict spiraling out of control.

It's harder for me to judge society. I remember homophobia being pretty commonplace - "gay" was used as an insult in the schools I attended - as was "gaywad". I remember racism and sexism finding its way into a lot of humor. The Moral Majority rose and fell in the 1980s.

On television and film, it's easy to caricature eras from our past. Obviously shows and movies from that period capture the era well, often in ways they never intended - for example the establishing scenes of Back to the Future scream out 1980s while at the time they were intended to showcase the present day (as opposed to the 1950s that Marty would soon travel to). More recently, shows like Stranger Things and films like It and Let Me In do a nice job of giving a feel for the era without tuning it into a caricature.


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