It can be difficult to determine whether or not you are a “collector” of something. Just
having a large quantity of something doesn’t automatically make you a collector; most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves collectors of TV dinners even though we may have dozens
of them in our freezers. By contrast, you can be a collector of something even if you only have a few of that thing. Not only do you have to start somewhere, but sometimes the thing you are collecting doesn’t lend itself to bulk collecting. Anyone who has even two original Picasso paintings in their home can assuredly call themselves “collectors” of Picasso paintings without much argument from anyone else. For me, what separates the things I just own a lot of versus what I collect comes down to how I amass them. When I take just as much pleasure in gathering something as I do in using it, I consider myself a collector of said thing. As such, I am most definitely a collector of video games, almost as much as I am a player of them. The 1,000+ video games I own and the dozen consoles I own to play them on might also play a tiny part in me identifying myself as a video game collector.
Before the internet, video game collecting may have been more difficult but it was also far less complicated. For the most part, physically going to a store that sold video games and buying video games from that store was the only way to go. There were mail order businesses that sold games, sure, but few people went that route. The only reason to ever deal with buying a game long-distance was if you were importing games from other countries. I didn’t get into importing until the internet, mostly because I just didn’t trust ordering games via a phone number from a cheap-looking black and white order form in the back of a game magazine. So all of my game collecting throughout the 1990s was done the old fashioned way: getting out there and looking. Being forced to look for games in this way was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it taught me patience, persistence, and all the invaluable little tricks that can only be picked up from years of experience. But it was a curse because it gave me the taste for the “thrill of the hunt,” a feeling which is completely lost when you shop for games online. It is true that it’s far easier to just look up what I want, buy it, and be done with it. It is also far less satisfying than finally happening across some game I’ve been searching months for, if not years, by simply being patient and searching for it. On demand online game buying also has the side effect of only looking for the specific games I want and not having to browse past dozens of other games to find them, which often leads to stumbling across games I had forgotten about or games I’ve never even heard of and then deciding to take a chance on them. All of that is lost when I buy online. There are also a number of caveats to buying online, which I will get to later. Unfortunately though, in-person shopping can be severely limited as well, now more so than ever.
Gamestop (formerly FuncoLand and Electronic’s Boutique) has always been the only major national U.S. chain to sell used games, and with most malls and shopping centers having one by the end of the 90s, they were always a frequently visited location for game collectors. Most collectors—and many gamers in general—have a lot of issues with Gamestop, primarily the way they’ll only give someone 5 bucks for a game trade-in and then turn around and sell it for $25, but with how many of them are around it has always been something of a necessary evil to count Gamestop among the regular stops that a collector makes, especially now that they have begun dabbling in retro game sales. If I go into a Gamestop, unless I’m there to buy a brand new game chances are I’m only going to check out the bargain bin(s). I have found some pretty good deals on games from a few years ago that I missed out on, sometimes for just a couple of bucks. The tricky part there is finding the game in decent condition with the case and the manual all intact. Of course, that’s two thirds of the battle with all game collecting.
Independent used game stores are extremely difficult to come by anymore, especially in smaller cities and towns. Gamestop (and the internet) drove most of them out of business. Still, even being surrounded by them isn’t necessarily an automatic route to easily amassing all of the games you are looking for. Indie game stores are very frequently overpriced, which is understandable as it isn’t free to have store space. There’s also the matter of being able to actually trust what you buy at a specialty game shop, so that’s another justifiable reason for the higher prices. They also know how tempting it is to just pick up and buy a game and have it right now rather than search and search online, find the game, and wait for it to be shipped. So stores know they can mark up their product a bit as a sort of “convenience fee.” In addition, stores are only so big and can only carry so
many titles, and they largely depend on what patrons trade in as far as what they can then stock and sell. If people aren’t bringing them much, they aren’t going to have much to sell—or they are going to have to settle for selling the games that nobody else wanted to begin with. Beware of any game store with a racks and racks of old sports games on their shelves as it communicates two truths: They aren’t picky about what they take, and the people in that neighborhood don’t have much to offer them. I don’t mean to rag on all indie game stores, as I love the fact that so many do still exist, and plenty of them are well-run and can be treasure troves of amazing stuff. It is just important to be aware of the options, and to always know what games are generally worth before you walk into a game store and pay whatever they are charging for the game(s) that you want.
Of course, other stores and places sell games besides dedicated video game stores. Thrift stores are an invaluable source for game collecting, but only for the extremely patient. I can say without hesitation that for every 50 times I’ve looked for a game in a thrift store, I’ve left empty-handed 49 of those times. There was either nothing of value (monetary or personal), or just literally no games there at all. With the ease at which someone can sell their games online, most people with even the slightest sense of what they can get for a game will go that route. Which leaves either the clueless or the just plain lazy that actually give anything of value gaming-wise to a thrift store. Not that I’m disparaging the act of donating, but realistically, most people only donate things that they probably can’t sell or give to a friend or relative. So it’s quite rare that something truly valuable ends up at a thrift store. I generally collect games I want to actually play regardless of what they are actually worth, so it’s not impossible that I would stumble upon some game that wouldn’t fetch more than a quarter at a thrift store that I genuinely want to play. That is the main reason I look there, though it certainly wouldn’t break my heart to be one of these people that stumbles across some $10,000 item that I only paid 20 bucks for at a Goodwill. The key thing to looking for games at a thrift store is not to only look at where the other games are and be done with it. Not all thrift store employees can tell a game from a music CD (or they are in too much of a rush to notice), so a lot of times I see disc-based video games mixed among music CDs. Thrift stores often have a ton of CDs, so poring over each and every one in order to pick out a stray video game is not a task for the impatient or time-challenged. Even though I’m pretty good at picking out the spine of a PlayStation game in a sea of CD spines, I can’t always rely on that as sometimes discs are put in sideways or a game might be missing its label and just be in a generic jewel case (but still be a game I’d want). So in order to truly “look” for a game, I need to slowly scan each and every case on the shelf, making absolute certain that there isn’t some game I might want, stuck in a sea of crappy one-hit wonders and Christmas albums. The other thing I always do is check the VHS tapes. A collector friend of mine tipped me off to this tactic as he said he’s found boxed Nintendo games among VHS tapes, since they are similar in size and the little old ladies who run some of these church-based thrift stores literally don’t know what they are and just put them with the VHS movies because that’s the closest thing they could come up with. I have yet to be so fortunate myself, but I’m certainly not going to risk missing a boxed Nintendo game because I didn’t take two minutes to scan the VHS tapes carefully. Second-hand music stores can also be a great untapped resource for used video games, though they are usually much better at organizing their shelves and I can just check only their game sections and move on.
When it comes to online game collecting, I have a motto: Trust eBay half the time and Amazon none of the time. Amazon is almost always overpriced, and more often than not when a game is affordable it is because it’s in awful condition. Amazon sellers also like to try and trick you with a super cheap game only to drill you on shipping later, so sometimes you’ll see a game that looks like it is priced just right only to click through and see that that’s without the added $3.99 shipping (which can literally double the price of games that are under 10 bucks). Amazon is excellent for buying brand new, just-released stuff, there’s no disputing that; for used, at least when it comes to games, I avoid them as much as I can. I also tread lightly when it comes to eBay, as it requires a lot of tedious time and effort and I really have to do my homework and see what a game is typically worth before I overbid on a game. I like to use the VGPC (Video Game Price Chart) app on my phone (available on both iTunes and Google Play) which is good for getting a quick idea as to the ballpark of a game’s value (though you should only use it as a reference/starting out point as it’s known to sometimes be wildly off-base). Beyond that, I check the completed listings for that game on eBay to see what it has sold for in other auctions. A common mistake is to just search for that game on eBay without filtering completed auctions specifically and looking at auctions where someone was trying to sell it for five times what it’s worth and was unsuccessful. Sellers often use those unsuccessful auctions as proof of what a game is supposedly worth, but it only takes a minute to prove them wrong and not get ripped off. Basically, buying off of eBay is a lot of work and unless I am looking for something specific and have been unlucky in finding it elsewhere, I usually avoid it.
So what’s left? The best kept secret of online game collecting, at least to anyone who isn’t already in the know, are buy/sell/trade groups on Facebook. A number of them are devoted to video games, with some even specifically focusing on a specific game company or platform. People either put up what they are selling (and whether or not they are open for trades) or what they are in search of, and then potential buyers/sellers comment and things go from there. It may sound iffy, but it is actually just as safe as eBay or Amazon. All interactions go through PayPal so you are protected that way, and even beyond that, scammers are typically reported and weeded out from the group immediately so there’s no danger of them getting someone else. Some groups have literally thousands of members, and those have both the greatest potential to find what you are looking for and the higher possibility of scamming as it is more difficult to regulate that many users. I have found a few groups with just a few hundred members, and that is often the best option as I’ve developed a friendship with the users in those groups and they are just warmer and more tight-knit communities. Best of all, in those types of groups it is more likely that you’ll get good deals as transactions are often treated as deals among friends rather than transactions between strangers.
I try to be a purist and do as little online game buying as possible, and for the most part I stick to that unless I am looking for a specific game that I want as soon as possible. When that happens, I prefer to look for what I need in one of my trusted Facebook gaming groups. Failing that, I may turn to eBay in a pinch, but as of yet I haven’t had to do that since discovering those Facebook groups. I also make a point to pop into every Gamestop and thrift store I drive past and apply my usual methods to those places. Securing that next game, whether it is a specific game I have in mind or I’m just hoping to stumble across anything decent, is a goal that is never far from my mind and I plan much of my free time around how I’m going to get it. That’s what I define as a collector—beyond my large quantities of the thing I collect—and what makes me good at being one.