Whenever my video game collection comes up in conversation with non-collectors, one of the questions I get asked the most is the simplest question one could ask and yet the most difficult to answer – why? I usually pop off some perfunctory comment about the development of technology over time and preserving the history of the industry, but I rarely spend very long giving the question any real thought. Why do we collect, though? Once upon a time, it made more sense; having dozens of cartridges and discs on a shelf was the only way to have access to those games. It’s the 21st Century, though, and that’s not the case anymore. With modern games, they’re all available digitally. That’s an objectively more convenient way to play given the elimination of disc drives prone to failure and the need to change discs. With older games, a lot are available on modern systems, and those that aren’t can be played via emulation. Again, no need to change physical media and no aging hardware or software storage to fall prey to the unstoppable marching of time that is slowly guiding them all towards inevitable death.
Why, then, do so many of us still collect games? My collection has been undergoing some pretty major changes since the start of 2019, so I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on the hobby lately. My collection has undergone considerable downsizings and curating as I’ve liquidated huge swaths of my holding in order to pay down some irresponsibly accrued debt. As such, I felt it would be good to dabble in some introspective writing about game collecting starting with that most fundamental of questions – why do we collect video games? It is my hope that any collectors – or aspiring collectors – who may read this will consider my thoughts on the matter and, ideally, delve deeper into their own reasons for pursuing this glorious yet financially crippling hobby.
When I started collecting, I was in 8th grade inspired by the early Angry Video Game Nerd videos. Being in middle school with just a small allowance to provide gaming money, my collection had a naturally modest beginning; it was largely games that I’d had since my early childhood with the occasional trip to the flea market where I’d pick up random interesting-looking NES games for $5 each. When I got to high school and started doing some extra chores around the house for a little extra money (my mom was adamant that “School is your job” and wouldn’t let me get a real job), I started trying to branch out into systems I’d never owned and, in many cases, never even seen in real life. Over the course of high school, I bought all four of Sega’s consoles (plus Genesis’s two add-ons), Atari’s first three consoles, an Xbox, and a PS2.
From there, things just kind of spiraled. When I got to college and finally got a job, my collecting exploded with the bigger names – Panzer Dragoon Saga, Xenosaga, Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, MUSHA, etc. Never did I sit and ask myself why, though. The pursuit and endless acquisition of more and more and more were enough for me. When I broke 1000 games, I remember the feeling of accomplishment. Then I broke 2000. Then 3000. Somewhere along the way, while it never stopped being gratifying to collect, it stopped feeling AS gratifying. The law of diminishing returns and whatnot. Between that and my quickly increasing credit card debt, I started to ask myself – for the first time, REALLY ask myself – why I collect. Thus began my quest to find a real answer to that question beyond the dismissive answers I’d given friends in the past.
To explore the “other side” of gaming, I built a PC and got back into PC gaming, a realm that is almost exclusively digital-only. This naturally led to experimenting with emulation. What I found was that while emulation is undeniably more convenient, it often felt…off. Colors would be just a little bit off. Music would sound just a little bit wrong. Inputs would feel just a little bit mistimed. Textures and sprites would just look a little bit misshapen. These imperfections would be, to most gamers, impossible to notice, but having spent so much time with authentic hardware, even when I was unable to pinpoint exactly WHAT was wrong, I could usually tell that SOMETHING was wrong. I then started to experiment with clone systems – still emulation but at a hardware level rather than emulating via software. I tried the shitty Yobo famiclones, the higher end Retron 5, and one of those Chinese knock-off Game Boy Advance systems. These certainly appealed to me more on a base tactile level, but with the exception of the Retron 5, they never felt any more accurate in their emulation than the PC software-based solutions.
Just in the past 12 months have I started experimenting with the last “frontier,” so to speak, of retro gaming without hoarding original cartridges – flash cartridges. Since the Autumn of 2018, I’ve bought Everdrives for my NES, N64, GBA, Master System, Genesis, and PC-Engine; Terraonion flash cartridges for my SNES, TurboGrafx-16, and NeoGeo MVS; and flash cartridges for my Atari 2600 and Atari 5200. This seemed to me to be the ideal solution as it avoids having to buy and store and swap out all of those thousands of games but still uses real hardware and thus technically isn’t emulation.
So what does all of this have to do with the “why” of collecting? Why am I rambling on about my array of flash cartridges when I’m supposed to be exploring my reasons for collecting? Because what I’ve found is that to get the bottom of why we collect, we have to ascertain what part of collecting brings us the most joy, and that’s going to be a very different answer for each person. What I found for me is that it varies. For the most part, what brings me the most fulfillment is having access to games in their most authentic form feasible. That starts to shift once we get to 2000s gaming, though. What I also found was that systems for which I have a truly special affinity – mainly Wii U, Vita, PS4, and Switch – are the systems for which I truly enjoy collecting for the sake of collecting. The others, though? I still generally prefer physical releases over digital for modern games, but as long as I can play on real hardware, the acquisition of games just doesn’t do it for like it used to because the reason I enjoyed collecting was to play games on original hardware. With systems like Wii U and Vita, however, actually having the games on my shelf still brings me a lot of happiness. Figuring out why I collect for each system, however, has allowed me to focus my game buying and curate my collection.