On Game Collecting, Part 3: Creating Meaning in a Vacuum

Craig Lupienski

If you haven’t already, you can also read Part 1, Forging an Identity
As well as Part 2, A Shot of Dopamine

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve just finished issue 164 of the British gaming magazine, Retro Gamer. There’s a great article by Kieren Hawken about the development of Todd’s Adventures in Slime World on the Atari Lynx. It’s an informative piece about a game I love on an underrated system I also love. After finishing the piece, I had the strongest desire to make a YouTube video talking about Slime World. But it’s 2017 and even if I had the same clout I did in 2010, it’d still be a niche topic. In short: No one cares.

I decide not to make the video.

As anyone who has watched my floundering YouTube efforts over the last few years knows, this slow slink into irrelevancy has been hard on me. It’s easy to believe, as some critics do, that my grievances are about massaging my bruised ego. Maybe I’ve not been very good at communicating just how much my mental health, rightly or wrongly, hinged on sharing things I loved with people. I genuinely enjoy telling others how great something is (which is why almost all of my videos are about things I like, and not rants and raves about things I don’t).

Passion with no place to go is difficult to accept.

 

Empty Room

My game room, gutted and dark upon moving out

In 2012, after I split with my longtime partner and lost my job and townhouse, I looked at this mountain of games I still had and felt disgust. To be clear, YouTube, video games and collecting played no part in my loss of any of those things. But when every important aspect of your life is in upheaval, it’s hard not to look at something like a massive video game collection and think that, perhaps, you wasted your time.

On a related note: Have you ever moved house with hundreds of pounds of video games? It’s terrible, backbreaking work and I never felt more terrifically stupid for owning all those games.

 

Nintendo DS Collection

Part of the DS collection, packed and ready to move

Not long after moving, I considered selling my collection. All of it. It was a stone tied around my neck, weighing me down. My collection connected me to a life I no longer lived. This was mostly the unchecked depression talking. When it’s burrowed so deep in your brain, it can easily convince you that you hate the things you love. I’ve thankfully learned that acting too impulsively is a recipe for misery later and I didn’t sell my collection then. I sold my a good chunk of it later though.

With some distance and time from my series of significant losses, I approached the idea with a clearer head. I was no longer a 20something with endless income and I no longer had the same draw on YouTube. This was a different era of my life. I individually assessed the 2,400 games and 75 systems in my collection and put together a few questions to determine whether I should keep the item in question:

  1. Do I truly plan on playing this game within the next year?

  2. Does this game hold sentimental value?

  3. Is this a handheld or Nintendo game?

Over a period of about a year, I parted with hundreds games that didn’t meet this criteria and I had to make some hard decisions. Take a game like Panzer Dragoon Saga for the Sega Saturn. An expensive, uncommon game coveted by collectors. I had a copy! I sold my copy. I enjoyed Panzer Dragoon Saga, but I was never going to play it again and I had no emotional attachment to it. It was a trophy rotting and collecting dust in storage. I sold it to my sister at well under market value. If I couldn’t adhere as closely as possible to the criteria I laid out for myself, I’d make all kinds of exceptions and I’d never get anywhere.

 

Panzer Dragoon Saga

I felt triumphant when I first brought Panzer Dragoon Saga home

I’m often asked if I regret selling all those games. Strangely, I’m never asked if I ever regret spending $6,000 a year on video games. It’s the loss that people assume is the painful part, not the acquisition. If anything, selling half my collection was the healthiest aspect of all this! But to answer the question, I don’t actually know if I’ll regret this purge in the future. I might.

What I regret more is the series of events that lead me to make the decision to sell half my collection. Maybe regret isn’t the right word. It’s a lot like a relationship that had a lot of good times, but along the way, something went wrong and now the relationship isn’t healthy. So you split up with your partner. And splitting up was absolutely the right thing to do, but you kind of wish it wasn’t. I miss spending evenings in my game room playing obscure shit no one has ever heard of with a cold Newcastle at my side. I remember spending a sweltering summer, before I installed an air conditioner in my game room, playing Atari 2600 games for hours on end. I didn’t have one growing up and I was amazed by how addictive such a simple console was.

And I loved sharing what I experienced on YouTube.

 

Blood Will Tell PS2

You should totally play Blood Will Tell if you haven’t already

These are great memories, but I no longer live in that era of my life and desperately clinging to it is foolish. As difficult as it was, it was far healthier for me to forge forward instead of trying to find solace in a past already lived.

And it’s not as if I don’t still collect! Number 3 in my criteria left an opening. As someone who loves both handheld games and Nintendo games, I created a path for future collecting based on the tastes I developed over the years of collecting anything and everything. So instead of buying 30 games a month, I have a big month if I buy as many as five. This feels a lot better. And hey, I own every Nokia NGage game ever released now, so there’s that.

What really sets this era in my life apart is that collecting is no longer the entirety of who I am. It’s still a hobby I find pleasure in, but I’ve made time for other things. I read a lot more. I paint and make art (sometimes I’m even good at it). I’ve taken a shine to hiking because it’s good outdoor exercise that doesn’t require much coordination. I’ve had to rebuild meaning in my life.

 

Squid Painting

Still up for debate whether mediocre paintings are a better use of my time

Spreading myself out a little more is probably also a kind of defense mechanism. I’m future-proofing myself against further assaults on my mental health. It probably makes me a little more interesting to talk to as well. Sometimes, though, I miss the bright fiery passion of having a singular obsession, but then I remember the devastating loss of self when there was nothing left of me to burn.

 


Over the past few years, I’ve become more open about my mental health. Although stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions still persist, the climate for discussing these things has become a little friendlier. It’s still difficult for me, not because of shame or guilt, but because I am not prepared to perform in the spotlight it places on me. Speaking about one’s mental health is still novel enough that even off-the-cuff discussions can be enough to capture a rapt audience. I don’t know what I can actually add to the conversation.

To wit, many viewers and readers privately told me that they appreciate the open dialog about my mental illness. Some have even taken the time to tell me their own stories. I’m surprised, and in some ways, heartened, by the response. It’s made me wonder if there is something inherently attractive to nerd culture for those with mental illness, but that’s a different subject and probably difficult to qualify (not to mention well above my pay grade).

I’m embarrassed to admit that there is no real point sharing my history of mental illness. I am telling self-indulgent stories in search of my own catharsis. If you incidentally find comfort or wisdom in this, then that is fantastic and I wish you the best of luck. But beyond that, I have no panacea and for that I am sorry.

 

Playing Together

On Game Collecting, Part 2: A Shot of Dopamine

Craig Lupienski

If you haven’t already, you can also read Part 1, Forging an Identity

I was first diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety and panic attacks in 2000 when I was 16. Looking back, my childhood was littered with warning signs and by age 13, I was keenly aware something was wrong. I had no framework for depression as an illness and my parents seemed unconcerned, dismissing my coded pleas for help as pleas for attention.

To be fair, it was definitely both. I needed help, but I also needed attention. I grew up with a mother that had no desire to provide affirmation, but placed unflinching demands on my own affections. From a young age, I was constantly abused of my emotions and given little in return in a fiendish familial cult of personality. I needed to be helped and to be validated by people who offered neither.

This is not a ploy for sympathy or an attempt to insult my parents. I’m being frank, and it’s important for this story to understand that this is how I entered adulthood: a broken mind with an unquenchable need for recognition and no true sense of self. I had spent years in therapy and on medications, but by the time I started collecting games, I had left that all behind.

 

Craig TV and Lust

Me at 16, a Super Cool Guy

 

In the long run, this was probably not a good idea, but I was in a good place in my life. I was gainfully employed, I was in a long-term relationship, I had pets, I had a nice home. No two sufferers of mental illness experience their symptoms the same way, but for me, these external factors were a distraction from mine; anxiety in particular.

Managing my depression was a little different. I bought video games. Lots of video games.

For a long while, I justified collecting in different ways, but never as a method of therapy. Either I didn’t know it was tied to my mental health, or probably more accurately, I didn’t want to confront that truth.

With a newfound burning passion, and modest income burning a hole in my pocket, I sought to experience all the games I possibly could firsthand. That was my rationale, and while it wasn’t the whole truth, it was, at least, a truth. I was tired of hearing that E.T. on the Atari 2600 was the worst game in the world or that the Zelda games on Philips CD-i were abhorrent nightmares from people online who hadn’t even played the games themselves. So I read up on these games, and I played these games, and I talked about these games with others.

[For the record: It turns out E.T. was produced from conception to manufacture in about 5 weeks and it’s a miracle it’s even as playable as it is, and the Zelda CD-i games, Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon, are admittedly not very good, but I’ve played much worse]

 

Craig Tv and Lust Collection

Part of the cycle: Playing games alone, in black and white

 

Here’s how my therapeutic cycle went:

  • I’d learn about a game, usually from a YouTube personality similar to myself
  • I’d research the game further by reading Wikipedia or watching videos
  • I’d hunt the game down for the best bargain
  • I’d bring the game home, or more often than not, it would arrive in the mail
  • I’d snap a photo for Twitter and Facebook
  • I’d play the game
  • I’d discuss the game in a video, article, forum post and/or tweet
  • I’d find a place for the game in my game room

Each step was a shot of dopamine, and I would always have various games at different steps in the cycle. I often purchased as much as 30 a month, and some were quite old and quite expensive. One year, I spent $6,000 on collecting. My collection swelled to 2,400 games and more than 75 systems.

Make no mistake, I had priorities. I made time for my then-girlfriend. I visited my family often. I hung out with my friends frequently. I occasionally dabbled in other hobbies or pastimes (reading and teaching myself conversation Japanese mostly). I actually worked a lot too, anywhere between 50 and 100 hours a week, which is how I afforded all those games.

But every other waking moment was devoted to collecting and building TV and Lust, my YouTube channel. TV&L was spun out into a website (a prior incarnation of this one, which provided the standard game news, previews and reviews) and a mildly successful podcast.

 

Pax East TV and Lust Media Pass

I have no idea why this photo is so blurry, but I wasn’t there as a photographer

 

It was a lot of hard work, but for me, it felt worthwhile. I’m not one to overstate my celebrity, but I found a modicum of success online. My brand was recognizable in the circles I wanted it to be recognizable in and YouTube’s ad revenue was reasonably generous during that time period.

But this all took a significant toll on me. For years, I barely slept. Dark circles appeared under my eyes and my weight constantly fluctuated. Because maintaining the niche I had carved out for myself required more and more work, video games became the most prominent aspect of my identity. I was overweight, overtired and I don’t think anyone really knew how to talk to me outside the context of video games.

I’m not sure I ever really caught onto problems. I thought I had made it. This was exactly the validation I had craved since I was a child, and more importantly, it wasn’t just handed to me. I felt like I had earned it.

 

Suda 51 Grasshopper

With Suda 51 of Grasshopper Manufacture

 

The truth is though, this was just a flimsy structure propping up my mental health. The endless, rapid fire hustle I had trapped myself in was the only thing holding my unchecked MDD and anxiety at bay.

Then, over the course of about a year in what my psychiatrist called “a series of significant losses,” I split up with my girlfriend of 7 years (we were engaged, actually), lost my job of 8 years, and without a job or financial support, I had to move out of my townhouse into a tiny studio apartment with my two cats.

The flimsy structure collapsed. My “series of significant losses” made it impossible to focus on TV and Lust, which only compounded my depression. I dipped in and out producing content, bleeding viewers and losing ground. For a couple of years, I tried to reclaim the niche I once had, but the audience had moved on to things that I wasn’t interested in emulating or talking much about, like PewDiePie and Gamergate.

 

Pelaaja Magazine

About play for the sake of play in Finnish gaming magazine Pelaaja

 

A lot of good came of all the time I spent on TV&L. I learned and experienced a lot about a hobby I enjoy, I made a lot of friends all over the world, I freelanced for magazines and websites, I guested on podcasts. I remember having a really engaging conversation with Nate Wells, then of Irrational Games, about video game narratives and environmental storytelling at a private after party. For someone who started just wanting to talk about games on YouTube, it felt surreal to have achieved all that, but I also felt like I belonged. This is who I am, I thought.

When it all slipped through my fingers and I couldn’t get it back, I had no idea who I was. I had invested so much of myself into video games and collecting and TV&L that without it, I felt rudderless and hollow.

 

If you’d like, you can also read Part 3, Creating Meaning in a Vacuum

On Game Collecting, Part 1: Forging an Identity

Craig Lupienski

I think it’s fair to say I started collecting in 2008. Before 2008, I certainly owned more games than the average person. Since my mid-teens, I had been steadily building a carefully maintained library of games, and I had become to the go-to guy for purchasing advice. I followed gaming magazines and dabbled in freelance writing (which, back then, was generally compensated with publisher-furnished games and passes to E3). It was a unique position to be in –until the seventh generation of consoles.

Budding video game collectingI started my empire in a tiny bedroom I shared with my brother

Before the seventh generation of consoles, a friend might have pointed to a sad, miserable stack of PlayStation 2 games when asked, “Can I see your games?” Just a few years later, that same friend would proudly display a well manicured shelf of 30 or 40 or more PlayStation 3 games. Your friend’s sad, miserable stack of games had become a collection.

What the hell happened?

1) A Cambrian Explosion of Choice

The seventh generation brought with it an unimaginable trove of variety. Never before had there been so many platforms with real, genuine difference from one and other, and never before had they all been so successful in their own right. All the major publishers supported these platforms not just with AAA heavy-hitters, but also a healthy “mid-tier” of games ranging from decent to pretty good. Indie developers also broke into the mainstream, occasionally finding success on par with their more well known contemporaries. There was just an absolute flood of games to play.

2) Creativity Flourished

It wasn’t just the volume of games, it was that many of them were interesting. Developers leveraged now-standard features such as online multiplayer, motion controls, touch screens and downloadable content to provide new experiences, and there seemed to be a real drive to do unique things.

Xbox 360 collectingThe day I got suckered into buying a bunch of Xbox 360 crap

 

3) Unprecedented Low Game Prices

While many blockbuster new releases retailed for $60 USD, games in the seventh generation actually enjoyed a wide MSRP range. Waiting six months and one could purchase a $60 game for as low as $20. Wait 12 months, and one could purchase the same game with all its bonus features and add-on content for $40 in Game of the Year edition. Sixty dollars on release day for Call of Duty may have been tough to swallow, but on the whole, games were remarkably cheap.

 

An immense range of unique games for pennies on the dollar explains how casual players went from purchasing just a handful of games to several dozen, but how did a guy like me, who owned an above-average but otherwise unremarkable library, come to own 2,400 games and 75 systems?

 

4) The Rise of Social Media

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube came to be powerful social platforms during the seventh generation of games, and with it, a host of personalities using these platforms to showcase their collections. Because, now, the stacks of games were collections. And the players were collectors. The terminology had become vogue.

During the early years of YouTube, existing game collectors (that is, the few people who had been collectors for years before the term or hobby was popular), shared their games in videos. It was an easy way to talk about games and build a following in a time period when fancy editing and game footage capture was expensive and out of reach for most folks.

Videos like these, boasting “100+ Xbox 360 Games!”, unintentionally egged on an audience to match those collections. And it had never been easier to do so!  There had never been such a wealth of cheap, fun games. And with an inexpensive Logitech webcam, these folks could make now videos of their own.

Wii Collection on YouTubeTalking about Wii collecting on YouTube in 2009

I was one of them. I discovered the YouTube collector scene just after I started making my own videos. I wanted to match their collections, so I bought games. Then I made videos about the games I bought, and compelled others into matching me. And on it went, a brand new cottage industry the key players had no real stake in.

And it wasn’t just my little pond on YouTube. According to industry tracking firm the NPD Group (via the Entertainment Software Association), video game spending was 7 billion dollars in 2003, the halcyon days of the sixth generation. By 2010, when the seventh generation was in full swing, spending topped a record breaking 17 billion dollars.

 

Huge game room collectionMy collection grew so large, it had its own room

Game collectors existed before the seventh generation, of course, but their numbers were scant and the hobby fringe. And it’s also fair to say, I’m sure, that a population of the new collectors formed in this time period balanced their other hobbies, their relationships, their wallets and their sense of being just fine. But I was unquestionably, hopelessly sucked into all this. I fed on it, and into it, and I witnessed uncountable others around me doing the same.

At the time, I had a very well paying job, a supportive significant other and a stable home. It was easy to justify my uncontrollable spending because it wasn’t driving me to the poor house or alienating the people around me.

But almost as dangerously, collecting and talking about collecting had become the sum totality of my identity. I had become so inseparable from my YouTube show’s name, TV and Lust (an inscrutable nod to my then-girlfriend), that I began to introduce myself by name in the beginning of every video to curb being called “TV and Lust” myself, and reclaim some semblance of individuality.

Just my name though. The rest of me was lost in a suffocating wave of games and the recognition owning games brought to me. And I enjoyed it.

If you’d like, you also can read Part 2, A Shot of Dopamine

 

Side note:

Retro collecting was a little different. Interest in concurrent collecting during this period probably sparked a desire to look backward once GameStops and flea markets had been depleted and a generation of players who, now into young adulthood, found themselves with wistful memories and a little extra money. The drive to acquire Nintendo, Super Nintendo and Genesis / Mega Drive games caused prices on eBay to skyrocket, closing that avenue off to latecomers without deep pockets. Social media almost certainly played its part here, too.