My roommate stood at the back of a walk-in closet in our new apartment. It was positively cavernous.
“What do you wanna use this closet for?” he asked.
I knew the answer to the question before he even asked it.
“Dude, we can put all of our video games in here! We'll, like, get shelves to line the walls, one side for you, one side for me! And I can put all my movies in here and it will be like our media vault!”
My roommate stroked his chin at the prospect. “I like it.”
So before unpacking the majority of my essential personal belongings, I set about arranging Vault 101 — a shrine to our mutual hobbies. In short order we packed the room with video games, systems and related peripherals.
As I stood back and gazed upon my works like an NES-nurtured Ozymandias, pinpricks filled my belly. I knew this feeling well: regret.
When I was a young lad growing up in the suburban sprawl of southern Pennsylvania, things were simple. Life was boring, and video games were not. I begged my parents for systems they could not afford. I spent the majority of the year reading magazines weighing out what I would ask for come Christmas. All loose change was hidden away in a novelty-sized Coke bottle for the day yard-sale season began — the day I could snag games for the systems of yesterday. Anything to perpetuate my hobby.
As a misanthropic teenager, video games were a badge of honor. Instead of taking a pretty girl to the prom, I chose to stay at home, leveling up my Final Fantasy 7 characters far past necessity. I and my handful of equally socially awkward friends had turned our childhood gaming into something of a game itself. You could find classic video games everywhere and mostly on the cheap as most stores were in decline. Sega CD titles for under 10 dollars new. Dump bins of NES cartridges, with sleeves and boxes, for a dollar. My collection continued to grow.
Things took a turn post-high school. Community college and the two jobs I worked to support it assured I had little time for active video gaming. But the few of us that hadn’t scattered to the winds gathered in at local diners, tossing away valuable studying time to compile lists. The Top 100 games of all time. The Top 10 RPGs. The Top 10 characters, stories, and so on. Paper diner placemats with lists soon populated my folders and textbooks between assignments.
In a personally infamous moment of capricious behavior, I decided to say fuck it all and stopped showing up for classes altogether. I finally had the time to catch up on the pile of shame that had been growing next to my television.
Regret followed predictably.
Weeks and months after the move I frequented Vault 101. I was 28 years old, single, with no family and few personal accomplishments. But I had plenty to distract me from the trappings of an adult life here. I pulled games down from the shelf and pondered playing them. But I didn’t. I never do.
Sometimes I would sit crossed-legged on the floor, my back to my roommate's shelf, and I stared at the titles that line my wall. Ninja Gaiden 3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Resident Evil. Doom. Castlevania. Kirby’s Adventure. My memories of them are indistinct at best — I can remember playing them, but I can’t remember where or when. It’s like looking at photographs of yourself as a child and listening to someone else tell you the stories behind the photos. They become half-memories, and you aren’t sure if they are really yours as well or a story you’ve convinced yourself is your own.
Each item I added to the collection was valuable to someone, somewhere. This was simply how the collectors culture operated. Say you played a Colecovision game once, at a friend's house, when you were six. You don’t know what the game is called, but you remember it being awesome, and as an adult you desire to obtain it.
It’s nesting for the nerd set.
I tried to dig down and find a sense of accomplishment inside myself for my massive collection of plastic and wires. Part of me felt the shame I should feel. The rest of me tried to compensate. No one knew how close I was to the breaking point.
I experienced sad revelations as I continued to unpack and settle in my new apartment. I had more video games than pictures of my ex-girlfriend. I owned more Final Fantasy titles than I'd visited U.S. states. Everything that had felt so important up until that day seemed illusory. I prepared myself for what I knew I had to do.
Obviously, I was causing my roommate some concern. He stood astride the doorway to Vault 101, his brow furrowed as I sat surrounded by Rubbermaid storage containers and liquor boxes, most half-packed with my video games.
“What are you doing? Reorganizing?”
Sweat ran dusty rivulets down my face. Despite caring so deeply for my collection, everything was surprisingly dirty. My Dreamcast had aged from bright white to grayish-yellow.
“It’s time," I said. "Everything has to go. Starting now, tonight. You can pick whatever you want for yourself. Everything else is being eBayed."
He eyed me warily for a moment.
“Are you OK, man? Is everything all right?”
He politely waited until I left the room unattended before he went in to have his pick. He shortly decided on three items, telling me which, continuing to gauge my expression. It was out of respect he took these and no more. To a fellow collector, I’d practically offered him the keys to the kingdom. I respected his decency, even if it meant I had an even bigger job ahead of me.
I’d let a pastime become "all the time." Most people use personal accomplishments — a high-school diploma, a college degree, a deed to a home — as stepping stones across life’s pond of uncertainty. I'd been using save files for Symphony of the Night that with nothing equipped lets me drop-kick Dracula to death in under 15 seconds.
It took years of self-destruction, taking relationships for granted, and thoughtless living to realize how emotionally sickening video-game collecting had become to me — not because of some innate quality they possess to corrupt the human spirit but because I had allowed them to take the place of things that could have been important to me. For once, “It’s not you, it’s me,” was precisely on point.
Getting rid of them quickly would bring swift release. I categorized everything and listed them on eBay and Craigslist in the span of one evening. I packed boxes frantically and sold huge lots of my games and systems at prices I knew were criminally low. With patience I could have accrued a small fortune for my inventory. But I traded away personal monetary gain for a sense of well-being; I felt it a worthy swap.
Some of my most personally precious items went to a good friend who I knew would on some level cherish them. It took the sting out of practically giving away a near-mint copy of Chrono Trigger, a game in my adolescence I had spent two years lusting over and hundreds of hours perfecting. The exchange went down in a parking lot, like a drug deal from a gangster flick. A stuffed envelope was slipped over, words exchanged, and items went from one vehicle to another.
My free time soon was split between running carloads of boxes to the post office and meeting local people to cash in on Craigslist deals. My desire for release overwhelmed the part of my brain that was convinced someone was going to come to a meet up with a gun in my face and demand my carful of expensive games.
A local texted me, interested in my Dreamcast and everything related. When he finally met me at a nearby gas station an hour late, I was fuming. But my anger dissipated at his reaction.
“Holy shit, Sword of the Berserk? Code Veronica? I love these games!”
His teenage face could hardly contain his elation. He quickly recovered, realizing the price I had asked for this lot was absurdly low and put on a mean game face.
“Seventy bucks, just like you said, and I’ll take it. No more than that.”
“Sold. Enjoy it, friend.”
As I was pulling out of the parking lot I caught a glimpse of him inside his beat-up Volkswagon Rabbit, excitedly gesticulating to someone else about his new treasures. I couldn’t help but smile a little. I was nearly free by now, only five days into what some might describe as a manic episode.
My last lot sold as I was hundreds of miles away from home, on a weekend trip to Massachusetts with an ex-girlfriend to visit an old buddy and his wife and child. I received a confirmation email from eBay on my phone. I giggled and smiled to myself. My ex-girlfriend noticed and asked what I was so happy about.
“It’s gone. The last of it just sold.”
She smiled politely and congratulated me, aware of the context. Of my circle of contemporaries she probably knew best the kind of freedom I was searching for — the kind of emotional and mental lightness found in giving up the things that tether you to the past.
We made good time on our trip, and I left an ugly piece of myself behind somewhere on a highway in upstate New York.
Video games continue to have a place in my life. I own a PlayStation 3 that works triple duty as a gaming platform/DVD player/Netflix-streaming device. I still have a few games for it and will probably buy more before the system has run its course. The culture still fascinates me and I revel in news that emerges from trade expos and exclusive magazine articles. I trade PS3 trophy-hunting stories with co-workers daily.
This part of me will always exist. The desire to escape into a digital world that sucked me wholesale into