Collecting Video Games: Compulsive Neurosis or Delusional Psychosis?

by William Sommerwerck

I clearly remember the moment I decided to systematically collect video games. I’d just read an article about a first-edition Barbie — still sealed in its original cellophane — going for $400, a hundred times its original price. Why shouldn’t that apply to a lowly Atari Haunted House cart?

Any man-made item — even a pyramid — is ephemeral. When it’s damaged, wears out, or becomes obsolete, it’s discarded and becomes rare — and therefore potentially valuable. Video games are no different, so I figured what was common then (ca 1980) would eventually be uncommon.

“Eventually” is an indefinite adverb. It refers to no specific time span. As the evil French (pardon the redundancy) archaeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark points out, one need only bury a cheap pocket watch in the sand and a millennium later it’s a valuable antiquity. I hoped the time required for video games to reach “valuable antiquity” status would be considerably less than 15 times my statistically probable life span.

So, up through 1992, I actively collected video games. I enjoyed playing them, of course, but my main purpose was investment. I tried to put together comprehensive collections that would have value — to future psychologists and sociologists, as well as game players — beyond merely being a pile of cartridges. (I tend to see the worth of a collection in its comprehensiveness and depth, not in the value of individual pieces.) So I included accessories, brochures, premiums, badges, and other such stuff.

Each new system brought a surge of collecting activity. I started with the Atari 2600 and 5200, then moved on to (uck!) ColecoVision, Intellivision and Intellivision Computer, Vectrex, Nintendo NES, Sega Master System, and Atari 7800.

Throughout my “age du collectique,” I was a reviewer for Stereophile and regularly attended the Consumer Electronics Show, where I could keep an eye on new games and gaming systems. It was often possible to buy games directly from manufacturers (such as Zimag) who had only limited distribution.

My fixation on game collecting grew with the size of my collection. It reached a peak in 1984, when trying to find that next rare 2600 cartridge occupied 95% of my thoughts, even when I was working. Realizing that I was about to go off the deep end, I pulled back and stopped collecting for a few months, trying to wrestle my obsessive thoughts into submission.

For the next eight years my addiction remained under better control. I had some lucky experiences, such as calling a Christian bookstore outside Carlisle, PA, where I’d just moved to take a new job, and finding they had a copy of The Music Machine in the window, the edge of the box faded by the sunlight.

The start of the ’90s found me accumulating cut-out NES games at $10 to $20 a pop. But after wandering into the Toys ‘R’ Us video-game aisle and compulsively dropping $200 several times, I decided it was time to quit. I had a huge monetary investment (not to mention the blood, sweat, and tears) and nothing to show for it — outside of the astonished gasps of friends who viewed the collection.

I started trying to sell the collection at a profit. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much interest. For almost anything collectible, it seems a period of about 20 years (ie, one generation) is needed before it appreciates to any significant value.

About six years ago I listed the Atari 2600 collection on eBay for $20K. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Many “serious” (hah!) collectors told me I was ruining the market for cheap games (which they considered themselves “entitled” to). A minority supported me, wishing me luck in getting what I wanted. (Thanks, guys!)

The Smithsonian Institution seemed a likely target — they'll take anything. But the Smithsonian has zero bucks for acquisitions, which must be gifts. Two Smithsonian researchers desperately wanted the collection, but they couldn’t buy it, and I wasn’t about to donate it.

Late in 2002 I started peeking and poking in the Atari ‘net groups. Word got around about a humongous collection whose owner was asking a humongous amount of money for. Unbeknownst to me, the value of the rarer items had appreciated to the point where the nominal market value of the Atari 2600 items had slightly exceeded what I was asking. (That I had clean boxes and instruction sheets for everything didn’t hurt, either.)

So I was approached by Marco Kerstens and Rick Weis, who were willing to pay the $30K I asked (subject to adjustments for missing and defective items that brought the final price to $29,600). To the best of our knowledge, it’s the biggest video-game sale yet.

It went fairly well. There was some confusion and discomfort — hell, paranoia — that had to be overcome. Part of the problem was the difference in our views as to how a collection should be valued.

I see a large collection — with both breadth and depth — as having innate value, regardless of whether you add or delete a few items. Rick and Marco evaluated the collection in terms of what each item was worth. This caused some bickering, but we eventually compromised in a way that I think was more than fair <sniff!> to R & M.

The sale was for all my Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800 stuff. All the other items remain. I intend to keep the Vectrex system (yes, I have the 3D stuff) indefinitely, but everything else is up for grabs. Anyone interested…? Huge offers only, of course!


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Last updated: Saturday, April 23, 2005 07:48 AM