I saw an interesting perspective this week on the hobby of collecting retro games, from another retro enthusiast. Prices on retro games, he observes, are increasing. That’s making him ask a tough question: Is collecting retro games worth it?
Any hobby seems like a waste of time to the right (or wrong) person. If a hobby, such as collecting retro games, helps you to unwind and get focused, and you can get some of your money back out of it as you lose interest or approach end of life, then I have to argue that hobby is worth it.
Don’t look at your hobby as an investment
While a collecting hobby can be profitable if you time everything right, it’s a mistake to look at your hobby as an investment. My 1980s baseball cards, with a few exceptions, are nearly worthless today. Collecting electric trains was one popular hobby among the Silent generation and Boomers. There isn’t a ton of interest in that hobby among Gen X and younger generations. Most of the collectors who sold out in the 1990s probably made money. Collectors who are selling out today aren’t doing as well, judging from the overflowing inventory at the two train stores closest to me.
From a pure dollars and cents standpoint, I bought the majority of my electric trains at the worst possible time. I was buying from 2003 to 2007, when prices were near their peak. If I went to sell them now, I would lose money.
Then again, there’s more to it than dollars and cents. I needed the distraction. I was in the phase of my professional career that could be described as hazing or as paying my dues. The trains were good for my mental health.
And there’s a hidden perspective there too. It was a rare weekend that I wasn’t hitting the garage sale and estate sale circuits. Guess what I found when I wasn’t finding trains? Retro games. I flipped anything that had immediate value, but a lot of it was more trouble than it’s worth. Eventually I decided I liked the stuff I couldn’t sell. That stuff is now worth much more than I paid. And the stuff I didn’t buy would be worth an absolute fortune today, but I didn’t have the space for it. I did the best I could, which is all you can ask.
Why retro games are increasing in value
There are a few things driving the increase in value in retro games and anything related to retro games. No one noticed, maybe including us, but Gen X has grown up. We have decent jobs. Some of us are old enough that our kids have graduated college. Or we’ve paid off our mortgages. Some of us have even done both.
This combination of factors means that Gen Xers finally have disposable income. And what do middle-aged men with disposable income do? They relive their youth. And that doesn’t necessarily mean buying a sports car. While boomers turned to their Lionel trains, Gen Xers turned to their Nintendo NESes, Commodore 64s, and Apple IIs.
I keep some old computers hanging on my wall behind me in my office. Gen Xers routinely comment, “Yeah, I wish I still had my Commodore 64,” when they see them.
Millennials are in on the game too. It’s just slightly newer systems that are important to them, in most cases.
And COVID-19 certainly is affecting values of retro games. The 80s and 90s sure weren’t perfect, but at least we didn’t have COVID-19 trying to kill us all. I saw the interest skyrocket starting in April 2020. Prior to COVID, my electric train content was what kept the lights on around here. My retro gaming/retro computing content came out of nowhere and started getting huge traffic in April 2020, and proved to be my only content that seemed immune to Google’s constant rule changes that drive traffic.
Is collecting retro games worth it?
So let me make a contrarian argument over whether collecting retro games is worth it.
Sometime around April 2019, my boss asked me to learn Python. I struggled with that request. I had some baggage that made the shift in mentality difficult. Finally it dawned on me that I didn’t struggle all that much to program my Commodore. While I owned several C-64s, I found that none of them worked anymore and I couldn’t mix and match parts between them to get one working. So I bought a working C-64 from a friend and set it up. Then I started doing what I did in the 80s and 90s. I started reverse engineering old games, figuring out how they worked, and how to cheat. Emulators make some of those tasks easier, but sometimes I needed the old system to get into the right mindset.
After a few months, I found myself. The guy who hadn’t written more than about 100 lines of code in the previous decade started writing code again. While there are certainly tons of differences between Commodore Basic and modern Python, revisiting something familiar helped me figure out where to start. I then set about writing Python scripts that automated my job as a security analyst.
To say it was transformative is an understatement.
While I can’t guarantee retro gaming will transform anyone else’s career, I tell the other members of my team that they all need a non-technical hobby. It’s good for sanity. I even bring it up in job interviews sometimes. What the hobby is doesn’t matter. I just want to make sure the candidate has one. A teammate who has a hobby is much less likely to burn out.
Is collecting retro games sane?
Any hobby sounds insane if you describe it to the right person. It’s not important whether someone else will enjoy it. It’s important whether you enjoy it and are getting recreational benefit out of it. Any hobby, if you enjoy it, will sound insane to someone else but contribute to your own sanity. What the other person thinks doesn’t matter all that much. That person’s hobbies probably don’t sound like fun to you either.
So what about the money?
Buying up all the games you remember playing as a kid certainly can be expensive. Sometimes it’s more expensive than it was when the games were new. So is retro gaming worth it?
The key is budgeting. Money isn’t the only thing. There’s also the question of space, and the question of time. You have to decide how you’re going to balance those three things. The right answer for someone else probably isn’t the right answer for you, and that’s OK. I’ve passed on some items in the last year that I could afford and seemed like a good deal, because I didn’t have the space, and they didn’t mean enough to me for me to be motivated to make space for them.
If you’re having fun and you’re able to pay your bills and maintain the relationships that are important to you, you’re doing it right. Period.
Making collecting retro games affordable
I once met a train collector who would buy items, keep them for a few months, then sell them. He had a photo album full of the items that had passed through his hands. It seemed weird to me at the time. He was collecting memories more than he was collecting trains. But if the memories were the most important thing to him, he was totally doing it right. He didn’t need a lot of space or money to enjoy his hobby that way. When he ran short of one, the other, or both, all he had to to was sell a train to free up resources for the next one.
If you enjoy fixing systems and you run short of space, passing them on when you’re done and keeping photos of each system you saved is certainly one approach. The same approach could work for software too, if collecting the software matters to you. Buy beat-up examples, fix the boxes, and enjoy having restored something. You can also skip the software too. I have solid state solutions or multicarts on most of my retro systems now, with hundreds of titles installed on them. It lets me cram a lot of retro gaming into a 10×10 space.
So I’d argue that collecting retro games is worth it. You just have to figure out how to make it fit what you have to work with.
Cashing out on retro gaming
And while none of us like to think about cashing out, there are two reasons we may have to do that. Sometimes life happens. My wife had a health scare a couple of years back that could have ended up being very expensive. I didn’t have to liquidate any of my collections, but having the option was certainly a good thing.
Whether I could get all my money back out of it wasn’t as important as being able to get some of it back out. There are lots of expensive hobbies that don’t give you that option. If I spend next Saturday chasing down old video games and spend $100, I probably won’t get all of my $100 back out of it if I have to sell it. But I can probably get $30 selling them back to the place where I got it. I can get $50-$75 selling them to another hobbyist. If I spend $100 at a shooting range, I can’t get a dime of that back.
I also think we can learn a lot from the experience of previous generations. The Silents and Boomers who cashed out their train collections in the 1990s did well. Those who are trying to sell their collections now aren’t doing so well. Based on that experience, once I reach my mid 60s, I need to be selling off more of this kind of stuff than I buy. The values will still be high enough that I won’t lose much. Timing will be trickier for the Millennials, I think. Interest from Millennials will keep values high for a couple more decades. But will the Zoomers be interested in retro gaming? As Millennials age, that’s something they’ll have to keep an eye on, and plan accordingly. The less interested Zoomers are in old games, the earlier in life Millennials will need to sell out.