Curation and collection management practices have a long-standing association with archives, museums, and libraries—but now the retro gaming industry is following suit in both the private and public collecting realm.
The 21st century has brought new media and collaborative opportunities to the world of video game play and collecting. The gamer is no longer limited by what they can carry, store, or transport, as the digital modality has become the standard method for releasing and playing games. Additionally, this digital overthrow has left the mom-and-pop retro gaming shops in decline, with larger box stores carrying the newest generation of video games. (Note that these new games often consist of only a case and a download code for digital access.) Game publishers have turned down the digital path due to both cost and the ability to harness a larger audience.
So, what is the pitfall of modern game releases? Simply, as the digital platform grows, the retro game market also forges ahead. It shouldn’t be a secret to anybody that retro collections and collectors are increasing in numbers. However, with this growth comes the need for asset management tools, collection management guidelines, and curated content.
Grumble, Grumble: The Digital Marketplace
The modern gaming market is overwhelmingly digital when it comes to games and subscription-based packages. Even so, retro game collectors, video game enthusiasts, and museums hold the physical assets in high regard. Although the physical cartridges and discs may be on the decline in favor of the modern convenience of digitally born content, the digital marketplace has not quelled the need for physical acquisitions—it just makes it more challenging, with brick-and-mortar stores on their way out. That said, conventions, online marketplaces, flea markets, and estate sales are still viable modes for purchasing games and systems.
The Complexities of Video Game Collecting and Collections
The video game industry transitioned from cartridges (carts) to discs to digital gaming and subscription services, leaving room for some outliers in between. Regardless of how the market changes, there is an increasing underground current of retro game collections and collectors. Digital convenience has not replaced the nostalgic or preservation-driven need to acquire physical copies of games or systems that the collector or collecting body identifies as meaningful. While some individual collectors are looking for rare or highly-sought-after game titles, others are looking to complete the full catalog for any number of systems, which includes the box, strategy guides, or other accessories. The same principles apply to game consoles. The multiple parts and pieces that make a retro game or console “whole” give a greater complexity to collection management. Museums and archives specializing in game-based collections have additional responsibilities as they try to grapple with the preservation and accessibility of digitally born games, which is a topic in and of itself.
Individual and Public Collections
Individual collectors may have started collecting for many reasons (such as nostalgic childhood memories of gaming), first focusing on a particular system and its games, then expanding out to incorporate multiple systems and their full game catalogs. Public collections have additional needs such as documenting video game history and, as mentioned, preservation. A stellar example of a public collection can be found at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y. It has extensive collections, such as the following:
- Arcade games
- Gaming systems (hardware)
- Games (software)
- Video game company collections
Just for reference, the software collection alone holds more than 22,000 assets. The bottom line is that whether it’s an individual or public collection, curation is essential for its sustainability and long-term use. (Note: It is not uncommon for the collecting body to assemble complete systems or games as missing items become available—e.g., acquiring a missing box, manual, or controller).
Developing a Collection Management Strategy
My perspective is that of a curator and novice repairer of games and systems. So, to this end, I’d like to highlight some good collection and curation practices, including metadata creation and options for controlled vocabulary.
Games and consoles have unformalized standards pertaining to their condition and completeness. Since there is not a governing body to define terms, the next section aims to identify potential metadata fields for the industry.
Documenting Completeness and Condition
Whether you’re buying, selling, or cataloging your own collection, recording metadata will support the robustness of the asset. The following vocabulary could be successfully used to describe the completeness and condition of a physical video game or system.
- Loose—The cart/disc or system stands alone without additional materials or accessories.
- Complete in box (game)—A cart/disc comes complete in its original box with the original instructional manual.
- Complete in box (system)—A system comes complete in its original box with instructional materials, advertisements, game(s) (when applicable), and accessories.
- Brand new—The game or system is factory-sealed and complete.
- Box only—There is an original box, but no game or system.
- Manual only—There are original instructions or printed materials, but no box, game, or system.
- Brand new—factory sealed and complete
- Mint—no discernable wear, flaws, or damage; not sealed
- Near Mint—like new with very little wear, flaws, or damage; not sealed
- Excellent—lightly used, some minimal wear, but no flaws or discernable damage
- Very Good—lightly used with some flaws or creasing, but in good working order
- Fair—well-used but functional; may have flaws, wear, or damage
- Poor—well-used item with significant flaws, wear, and/or damage; may or may not be in working condition
Metadata Field Options
Recording the asset details of a retro game collection uses traditional and automated tools for gathering metadata. While physical spreadsheets are still used to document acquisition date, completeness, cost, condition, and so on, there are now websites catering to game and system collecting. These sites allow users to build and even place a value on their virtual collection by pulling from back-end databases of games and systems data.
The following list is a sampling of potential metadata fields to use to manage video game assets:
- Title—title of the game
- Genre—type of game (e.g., sports, action-adventure, puzzle)
- System—parent system name (e.g., Nintendo)
- Subsystem—child or generation of the parent system (e.g., NES, SNES, N64, Wii, Wii U, Switch)
- Console type—how the system is designed to be played (e.g., home console, hybrid, handheld)
- Release date—original date the game or system was launched for public purchase
- Original price—original price of the game or system when released
- Purchase date—date when the collecting body purchased the game or system
- Purchase price—price point when the collecting body purchased the game or system
- ESRB rating*—age and content rating (e.g., E, MA)
- Condition: subjective quality of the game or console
- Completeness—degree to which all parts and materials are present
- Publisher—game publisher (e.g., LJN, Namco, Capcom)
- Player count—number of players the game is designed for
- Media type—game format (e.g., cartridge, CD-ROM, Blu-ray)
- Instruction manual format—game play guide format (physical or electronic)
- Physical manual included—whether the instructional manual is present (yes or no)
- Image(s)—uploaded or links to game/system images
*The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) has been assigning age and content ratings since 1994 and would be a regulated field.
Web-Based Collection Management
For those wanting to digitally manage their collection without creating their own tools or basic metadata, the free version of Price Charting is a comprehensive option. They can build their digital collection by using the stock data provided and by putting additional information into optional fields. This approach also has back-end algorithms that will assess the overall worth of a collection by using data pulled from eBay and the Price Charting marketplace. Conveniently, a collection can be exported as a .csv file at any time.
Given that Price Charting is a plug-and-play option for collection-building, the user is limited to the systems and games available, although this shouldn’t be a problem. From well-known systems such as the Atari 2600, NES, and Sega Genesis to less-commercialized systems such as N-Gage, Vectrex, and WonderSwan, Price Charting claims to have current and historic prices for every video game.
It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!: Take This Knowledge
Video game collecting draws in a diverse community of individuals and organizations looking to manage their changing collections. Enhancing collection management practices and asset metadata will support collection longevity, usability, and sustainability. While the aim here was to address some overarching points in collection management and provide metadata field suggestions, the video game industry is also involved in the preservation and archiving of its assets.