Physical Media: A Link to the Past

I have an entire wall in my living room filled with video games from every era of history. All three PlayStations, both Xboxes, most of the Ataris (including the Jaguar CD), nearly every SEGA console, every Nintendo save the Virtual Boy… If you’re in any mood, chances are I have at least one game that you’d like to play, or maybe even something you could discover for the first time. It can be overwhelming, though – sometimes I can’t decide what I feel like doing today and end up aimlessly poring over old instruction manuals for an hour. But have you seen some of these older manuals? They’re like works of art.

Do I want to shoot aliens today? Command a classic civilization? Make music with plastic instruments? It doesn’t matter; I have an abundance of choice, and just looking at this wall of history – this shrine to our digital past and present – I immerse myself in where I was in my life when I first acquired each particular game, what it meant to me, how it felt learning to play it. I think about how pumped I was when I found Shining Force for $2 at a pawn shop in the middle of nowhere, in some 1,000-population town in Northern Minnesota. I remember rediscovering the feeling of being able to reward myself by buying Chrono Trigger off eBay after a particularly low point in my life. These physical things are much more than pieces of plastic filled with thousands upon thousands of lines of code, waiting to be pulled out for a few hours of entertainment once every few years (if that). They are windows to my past, and every single one has a story.

I don’t get this feeling from digital media. My PS3 hard drive is full of free PlayStation+ games – games which, while much appreciated, I will never have a real connection to because they were provided without asking or necessity. I have plenty of self-purchases on my PS3, as well, but even these games I chose myself were based largely on impulse. “Oh, that game sounds fun. I can have it in minutes, without even leaving my house, for only a few bucks? Sold.”

My Steam library is even worse. Besides a few games I was really excited for, many titles haven’t even been installed or booted up for the first time, let alone played long enough to develop a connection with. But they were $2.49 each. How can I afford not to pick it up at that price? (I ask myself this at least once a month.)

But then I look at my PC drive: 100 gigabytes of games that have provided maybe a dozen combined hours of fun. My PS3: 200 GB of games, many never enjoyed to their full potential because they were provided as part of an amazingly gracious PS+ membership. Physical copies of all these games would be fairly impressive; it might fill an entire shelf on my wall, maybe two. But when reduced to download times, file sizes, video assets, character skins… the magic is lost.

Memories fade with time. That’s why we collect souvenirs on vacation, or keep a memory box with our significant others to remind ourselves of the good times we’ve had together, or frame pictures for our bedside tables. The thoughts in our heads slowly disappear, like a game we just don’t have space on our hard drive for anymore and are forced to delete. But with the physicality of discs, cartridges, and game cards – the thoughts and feelings associated with them transcend the bits of data contained within. They are REAL. Like our histories.

The funny part is that maybe you reading this have a completely different experience. Maybe you can see your pages-long Steam library and associate every line of text with a particular moment in your life. Me, I need to be able to pull the game off the shelf, read the back of the box, flip through the manual, smell the dusty scent of cracked, aging plastic. The realness and the weight in my hand reminds me that games are more than just the graphics, sounds, and gameplay contained within. Like a book in your grandmother’s attic, many of these games have lived an entire lifetime before even reaching our hands. Like us, they have dreams and memories, hopes and desires.

A wall of old discs and cartridges is a museum, a window to our past. A hard drive full of today’s biggest, latest releases is just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Physical Media: A Link to the Past

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  2. Manuel

    I haven’t thought about it, but is true for me too. I remember the first CD that I purchased, I remember how I felt listening to it and which friend borrowed it first, but I don’t remember anything about the first that i downloaded. It may just be that I was younger and I had been saving money to get that disc for a long time, but I think that physical media tends to leave a deeper mark.

  3. Mostly, thins does ring true for me aswell, with a notable exception:
    For me, really memorable games have retained their appeal by the virtue of the impression they have left.

    And, frankly, there are game discs I have right now, of games I’ve played and liked, that I cannot really care all that much about. For instance, I have my ME3 disc. I played the game, I have very.. err, strong?… opinions about it, but it all is tied to the memories, or even seeing it’s virtual icon on my origin client (I’ll just remark that for memorability, origin’s big game box icons are way better than steam’s single textline with the game’s name) – taking the disc’s box does more or less nothing, there’s no nostalgia. If anything, the disc is a reminder of how pathetic modern manuals have become, nothing more.

    All in all, I think a large part of what exactly gives that attachment to media is the method and amount of interaction. You are emotionally related to those old-game-boxes because you used them every time you wanted to play the game. Most modern PC games I have, I only had to use the disc to install it, at best.

  4. Baby, we’re never going to agree on digital vs physical. Steam is the forge that made me the gamer I am today and I’ve always hated having THINGS around. I mean what is even the point. In college I lived in basically a closet for four years and only had a crate full of books and movies that I barely looked at anyway.

    The good news is that there’s plenty of room for your junk.

  5. I call dibs on Kirby’s Adventure.

  6. СТАЛКЕР of ЗОНА

    I don’t mind having all my games on Steam, because some games have their own login crap anyway, and Steam comes with screenshot functionality, clock, web browser and chat, so I’m comfortable taking a risk with Steam (and physical discs can fail too). It’s not like I can play games on the physical discs if all computers are destroyed in a whatevercalypse or power plants stop working. Physical discs haven’t come with a proper manual for ages either.
    Also fuck going outside, where all the noxious fumes and deadly radiation emitted by people and sunlight constantly corrode your sanity and Hazmat suit. Also because just the trip back and forth costs disproportionately.

    Now BOOKS I prefer in physical form, because reading on a computer is a bit wank, aside from the availability of music, and they’re a good backup for power failures (fire or batteries for light, if even necessary). Books are also a great excuse to escape from the computer every now and then, and I do almost everything pretty much on excuse.

  7. I lost a majority of my collection to a house fire, so I know how attached one can get to these pieces of plastic.

    I love actually owning physical copies of games. I can especially relate to how you look at all your choices and instead of playing a game you opt to just browse through the instruction manuals. Man, I loved doing that! I remember doing that with my TG-16/PCE collection…

    I’m gonna stop now before I get too emotional…

    Great post!

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