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

6 Comments

  1. I know how you feel. While I never actually ever introduced myself as anyone but Holly sometimes I felt like Doginmylense was a real life avatar or myself. It sounds funny to say but a lot of the time when I go back and think about youtube I feel like I was chasing a real life narrative of a mario game. Here I was trying to collect all of those large gold coins sometimes hard to get to complete something.

    I also found that the same rush of playing a video game was no different then collecting them. For me it was the gameboy light Famitsu edition that I found on ebay for $125 used in box. Here I had this awesome item I ordered to up my gameboy gameplay and make my collection more enjoyable but because the system was in such good condition I found myself scared to play it. I was afraid of scratching the lens of the system or something terrible happing to it. I actually kept it in a ziplock bag wrapped in bubble wrap in a box I wasn’t using it at all. One day in what seemed a bit like fate a guy from just outside Toronto PM’d me on youtube and ask if I would be willing to part with it. He showed me photos of his Gameboy lite collection and it was the one system he was missing. I happily let it go feeling like it was a better place for it to be because I wasn’t enjoying it at all afraid to use it.

    I decided that day I needed to buy only things I would actually use and beat around not things I felt I needed to preserve. I am a video game player not a museum. Not that their is anything wrong with someone wanting to do that and collect it just wasn’t for me.

    I let go of a ton of other stuff too keeping the items I enjoyed the most. My retro stuff is down to my original retro games for nostalgia and one or two others I discovered and loved during those youtube days but I no longer buy retro games just new release ones which I play and enjoy and then make a decision to keep or to sell. It makes me happier.

    I know that while back during my youtube days I was getting rushes of dopamine too everyone does that is what feeds to compulsive behaviour but it doesn’t make you happy or at peace. That is where I am now I am happy and a peace I don’t live in fear that I will miss some new release game or some sale or some deal on something. I still pre order stuff but for the last 3 years now I limit myself to 12 games a year or less. I just can’t play more then that.

    While is seems silly to think as an adult I restrict myself I do not deny the hobby for some is a bit like an addiction so it’s a gentle reminded I just don’t want to go there again. I want to be Holly who loves playing video games not Doginmylense a character feeling like she is stuck in a video game trying to unlock every hidden easter egg and achievement.

    Thank you for this honest and personal article talking about this feels a bit like a taboo but I think it really will help a lot of people.

  2. Dylan

    Really hits home for me personally, I still buy a lot of things to distract me, even though I know I shouldn’t. Can’t wait for the last piece.

  3. SilverMongoose

    Damned, Craig. It takes a lot of maturity and emotional intelligence to be so self analytical and concise. As someone who “followed your career” since roughly… Summer 2009, it is very interesting (though admittedly a bit heartbreaking) to read what was going on in the background. You were certainly one of my favourite people in the gaming community and always felt genuine. You were also quite kind to a stranger like me from the get go. I don’t have a similar story, really, but I do understand it a bit. I understand the dopamine cycle and, for me, I suppose it was all a bit of a coping mechanism for University. There I was at the busiest time of my life and I was spending huge amounts of the little free time I had left in that cycle you described. It made me happy to focus on something, to slowly climb, to get results, to meet new people, to find a great old game for a good price.

    Another great read.

  4. Andrew

    I find this article strange, not because it was unexpected, but because of the profound similarities that I felt when watching your videos. I did the same thing. I amassed a decently large collection of games, not comparable to yours of course, prior to heading off to college. Only then did I find that when I lugged these games from apartment to apartment every semester or so, I was dragging these “Shots of dopamine” that, in retrospect, represented my own isolation. These were not good memories to be physically and emotionally dragging. I’ve been there since the very beginning of your channel when your recommendation of TWEWY led me into a rabbit-hole of games I didn’t even know existed. I clicked with everything you said. Perhaps it’s only fitting that I did, as my diagnoses is not too dissimilar to your own.

    Perhaps it’s only fitting that games like Majoras’s Mask, and TWEWY are among some of my favorites, and yours too. They feature characters who are deeply disconnected from the world around them. The games are fragmented, disconnected, dark, and hopeless, and perhaps these triggered the feelings I hold, subconsciously. I can only assume that these games hit you in the same way.

    Anyway, its sad to see your content gone, but I appreciate the ride you brought me on. It would have been nice to have known you face to face. The materialism that we hid behind is rooted in a cultural problem, a nihilistic outlook of the world. we have failed to really develop a sense of purpose and video games become the medium by which many, not just ourselves, hide from the harsh truth that we feel empty and lost. if you ever want to talk, I believe I am friend with you on PSN.

    Hang in there man. Here’s hoping you come back vlogging. You don’t have to talk about games though. Carve a new identity!

    Best wishes,

    -Tacklegib

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