"After a life spent collecting video games I decide to sell off my entire collection."
If that were the opening sentence of a novel - and I sort of wish it was - it would be one of the big ones. Big in terms of scope, big in terms of character, with a quirky theme that's used to cut through to some kind of irreducible truth about mankind and our need to impose order on reality. As things go, it's the opening sentence of a truly epic eBay auction, instead: a vast selection of video games - a history of games, really - that can be yours for just half a million dollars.
The seller wishes to remain anonymous. Let's call him M. On eBay, he's referring to himself as *videogames.museum*: an apt name, given the scope of the collection he's just put on sale. He's conscious, I think, of the creaky old social stereotype of the collector, a stereotype that lives somewhere between the brittle pedantry of the Simpsons' comic book guy and the dark taxidermists lurking within the pages of a cheap serial killer novel. M wants me to know he's normal: he's in his 40s, he's married with children and, according to a glorious factoid culled from his listing, he's the owner of a pet that "isn't interested in video games." "I'm very reserved, and for me just the idea of being interviewed is almost surreal," he says when I contact him to hear more. Maybe he's right. Maybe there's nothing so very unusual about his collection in the first place?
But... just look at it. Scroll through the introductory text, pick over the endless pictures, and marvel at the PDF which breaks things down over the course of 135 pages. The photos are what get to me personally: I'm stuck on them, really, ceaselessly roving through the listings, peering at one delight after another. Is that a collection of themed Neo Geo Pocket Colors in their original boxes? (Yes.) Is that every game in the Mother series? (Yes.) Is that Elite for the NES? (Yes, yes, yes.) This is an autobiography in cartridges, consoles, and special edition slip-cases, the fruits of a three decades of hoarding, of preserving, of arranging things on shelves. Almost 7000 games, over 300 consoles: the scale of the thing is daunting. It begs questions. Questions like, how did this all start?
"It was a Space Invaders arcade machine placed in a pizzeria near my home," says M, when asked about the moment that games entered his life. "That's easy to say. It was love at first sight." Scroll forward a few years and games escaped from the pizzeria, too. That's because one day his father came home from work with something special. "He had a brand new Atari VCS 2600 in his hands. I was about seven and didn't even know there was something like that.
"To me it was pure magic!" the collector continues. "It is difficult to say more. I was just a kid, but I think that the special thing about my early video games experience was the fact that it was something really new. A new form of entertainment was born and I consider myself a lucky guy to have witnessed the story of video games since the beginning. You have to think that in the 1970s, just the possibility to move a dot that resembled a spaceship on a screen was amazing. The modern kids are not so lucky; of course they have much better games but for sure the magic is long gone."
I ask M if there was a specific point at which he went from simply buying video games to collecting them. "One after another, the shelves soon were full of coloured boxes, perfectly arranged," he says. "I discovered that they were a joy for my eyes as well as a joy to play." It's not hard to understand what he means. Just glance over his eBay photos and the strange pleasure of completeness, of seeing something complex laid out and categorised in full, is easy to see. This might explain why, when asked to come up with a favourite individual item from his collection, M can't do it. It's the thing in its entirety that matters. Many of his games and consoles haven't even been opened: what makes them special is their place within a wider context.
That said, even a collection as broad as this betrays the inevitable biases of its curator. M's is the collection of a console fanatic, and of a man in love with the great Japanese creators. "The collection is so wide and I have a lot of different kind of games: some of them reflect my tastes and other less," he muses. "And about my tastes I have to say that I'm really ashamed about the trends of today's video games. It's really sad to me that the most purchased video games are all serialised war simulation and similar s**t. I know they are good games with nice graphics and all, but where's the magic?"
Collecting stuff exacts a price, inevitably, and not just in terms of the money it costs to win yourself three or four different copies of Steel Battalion, complete with its huge fold-out controller. (Yes.) M's collection lives down in his basement where it's stacked on shelves "in multiple layers so you can see only a fraction of the total." Imagine it down there: the sheer weight of it. Has it become a burden as much as a hobby? "With a collection like this you can't simply stop feeding it," he replies. "Every new game you add increases the value of all the other games. Also if you stop, someone could say, "Oh you have a very nice collection, but why have you missed this or that game?"
I wonder if that's part of why M's chosen to put his collection up for sale. The truth, it turns out, is a lot less complex. "Last year another collector auctioned a collection similar to mine, at least in terms of size, and it seems that the guy has made quite some cash with it," says M. "So why not to try? Sadly in these difficult times I have to think about my kids' futures."
That makes a lot of sense, but how will M feel to see his collection finally heading out the door? Will he admit to a sense of responsibility towards it? He is, after all, eager that it stays together.
"I'll probably have mixed feelings: sadness, emptiness, relief. I'll certainly feel lighter. I never thought about it, but after I put the auction up I received hundreds of messages from enthusiast gamers all over the world. So many people wrote to me just to say thanks for the opportunity to see my collection. Because I'm not the kind of guy who goes around bragging that I have this and I have that, this is the first time I'm sharing my passion. So after witnessing so much enthusiasm I'm starting to worry about a possible demise of my collection."
At the time of writing, the eBay bids counter reads zero, but the auction has two days left to run. Anything could happen. As for M, he still buys games, and plans to continue buying them after his collection is gone. "Hell yes!" he says, " I just bought two yesterday - and of course, they are still sealed."
More importantly, M still plays games and spends his time thinking about them. "I'm still a video game enthusiast and I like to be aware about everything concerned with video games. Every day I'm checking for news, reviews, and all that," he says. "If I want to buy a game I buy it always on the day it comes out. Last November I was the first to reach my local games shop to have the new Wii U. So the enthusiasm is still there but the family and the other commitments of life at the moment leave me only a little time to play. Nothing special, about three or four hours a week."
Three or four hours? Sounds entirely reasonable to me. "Even when I was a child I never spent too much time playing video games," he concludes. "It was a sane passion and not an obsession."