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.