The amount of time that’s passed between the wood-effect veneered beginnings of gaming at home and today’s enormous consoles and computers is only about 40 years, yet in that short period the hobby’s managed to accumulate an entire epoch’s worth of backwards-looking worries. Is gaming’s past something we should all be keeping packed away in plastic boxes for future generations to look at but not touch, or is it OK to pin those bonus posters to the wall and shiny badges to our shirts? What if something’s damaged or missing? What if we don’t get around to a game when it’s new, is that bad? Should we just not own anything we might not use the same month we buy it? How much is an old game supposed to cost anyway, and is it worth more because it’s out of print, or less because it’s an outdated relic made for ancient hardware?
Most importantly of all: how can we ever hope to have meaningful perspective on any of this when everything’s happening so fast and the entire industry’s foundations seem to have been built on sand?
It’s time to call in some outside help. Not from other people in the same boat, people we’d think would understand us best: the fact that we all tend to think of the ’90s as an eternity ago is in many ways part of the problem. No, it’s time to turn to your grandparents favourite TV show: the long running and much respected BBC weekend fixture, Antiques Roadshow.
If you’re unfamiliar with the programme, the format (virtually unchanged since its 1979 debut) goes something like this: ordinary people bring an old item—maybe something they’ve loved since they were a child, maybe something they hate but a long-deceased relative always had on their mantlepiece, maybe even something found while digging in the garden or clearing out a shed—along to some beautiful castle or hall the show has borrowed for the day and then an expert casts their eye over it, providing general insight, personal admiration and enthusiasm for the object in question, and more often than not gives us all some idea of what it’s worth at the end.
What makes it relevant to us is that for all the obvious differences between the show’s endless parade of walnut dressing tables and art deco lamps and our own passions, the experts consistently approach the unhelpfully broad subject of “owning fun things you don’t actually need” with a level of experience and awareness we can currently only dream of.
Or to put it another way: they already know how to handle this “problem” because enjoying old things is nothing new.
More often than not these people have spent their entire lives going down their chosen specialism’s rabbit hole, whether that’s in jewellery, ceramics, paintings, or whatever else, writing numerous well-regarded books on the topic and gaining respect in their field from their peers… and then they’re paired up with a woman called Doris who has a bit of a thing for novelty pin cushions, or someone who’s brought in a tatty box of slightly chipped lead painted farm animals they used to play with as a kid, or another person with a “weird” vase they bought on holiday because it caught their eye. However stunning it may be, however rare (or not) the item is, the one question the experts always seem to ask with utmost sincerity and genuine interest is this:
“Do you like it?”
Or if that’s already obvious:
“Why do you like it?”
Quality, history, and market values are fascinating, but in the mind of a trained professional love not only cuts through the divide between the “casual” and the “hardcore” (as we would identify it) collector, it’s also the only thing that really matters. You don’t need a “good” reason to take pleasure in an object or to have a strong justification for keeping it around. You don’t need to know anything about how a game was made, or its history, or to have used it “properly” to justify a purchase (even if that purchase cost hundreds of pounds, as some of the decorative fruit bowls and other intricate yet “useless” items Antiques Roadshow’s put before viewers over the years have), the only thing that really matters is that having whatever it is close by brings you joy.
And if it does then these same experts will almost always hope that the object in question, regardless of its monetary value or historical importance, is displayed, used, or even played with, and if it already is, then the hope is that it will eventually be passed on to someone who continues to do the same. People with sparkling brooches and bracelets are asked if they wear them—because the show’s expert definitely would if they were lucky enough to own such a beautiful item—and art lovers honestly wish for beautiful paintings to be hung up in the light, so everyone coming into their owner’s home can see them. The prevailing thought is that controlled storage and meticulous archiving is for museums: if something belongs to you, and it was made to be used in some way, then why wouldn’t you use it?
Of course this sort of treatment is going to result in visible wear and tear, maybe even a tasteful patina. These clear signs of use are more than inevitable—they’re desirable. It’s completely normal for something to look as old as it really is, for the wooden armrests of chairs to be smoothed from all the people that have sat in it, for a manual to have passwords or cheat codes written on the back pages, for a disc to have light scratches through normal use, for a cart label to show hideous sunfading, like my Famicom copy of Hoshi no Kirby displayed at the top of this article.
The damage (and dirt) is undeniable. The front label shows two definite tan lines, with the strongest sitting exactly at cart-insertion level. The back is no better. The sticker there is noticeably worn on one side, the reason why only becoming obvious when I picked it up to pop this brilliant game in my Famicom for one more go: that’s where your fingers naturally rest when holding the cartridge when you’re inserting/removing it from the console. So this cart has been used a lot, and not only that, it was probably left in someone’s Famicom all summer long. It’s been loved so much that someone’s feelings and behaviour have brought about a permanent physical change to this mass produced item.
What a beautiful thought.
It would be to our hobby’s benefit to take these common ideas and perspectives from collectors and enthusiasts outside of gaming and treat them as our own. If people can blow their savings on an old plate they hang on their wall or keep an expensive collection of solid silver spoons in a satin-lined case just because they look pretty, then maybe buying an “expensive” retro game or modern limited edition in its own enormous box isn’t such a shameful or irresponsible purchase—in terms of either the raw quantity of money spent or alignment with general human behaviour—after all. Maybe it isn’t the end of the world if a manual’s creased, or you find a name written on the back of a cart, or see the silhouette left by an absent sticker. All this means is someone flipped through that booklet every chance they got (the way so many of us did when instruction books were as close as we could get to official art of our favourite characters), cared enough about a game to visibly claim it as their own (think of the deep significance Toy Story places on Andy’s name being scrawled on Woody’s boot—it’s an act of love, not vandalism), or liked whatever art was on that sticker enough to want to decorate something else with it.
Maybe the highest honour we can give a thirty year old game is to make sure it looks like it’s been enjoyed for thirty years straight.
Antique Roadshow’s a lot of things: a very old fashioned TV show that has somehow survived in an increasingly cutthroat entertainment landscape for one, but it’s also a reminder to be kinder to ourselves about our chosen field of interest, to embrace it with open arms and say “I know this stuff’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.” People have always enjoyed having old things they don’t really need around, even if they’re not making “good” use of them. People adore weird objects, collecting trinkets that serve no real purpose, and spending lots of money on things they find interesting, not “worthy”. So why not relax a little, and allow ourselves to love our games the way other people love their collections of ancient postcards sent from places they’ve never been to people they’ve never met?