An article on Slashdot asked this weekend whether video games were a good investment. So are video games a good investment? Will they appreciate over time?

The answer is generally no. Collectibles in general are not–they follow a boom and bust cycle. I’ve seen it happen in my own lifetime.

Let’s look at another of my interests for a precedent.

A lesson from the baby boomers

Two or three decades ago, the trendy collectibles among well-to-do baby boomers were Lionel and American Flyer trains from 1946-1969. In the 1950s, these were the must-have toy, and the well-to-do bought what they wanted in the 50s but couldn’t have at the time, driving prices up and up. As this generation aged and started selling off those collections, though, prices are much lower today than they were in the mid-1980s, even after factoring for inflation.

There’s still interest in them. But people who bought vintage trains as an investment in the late 1990s aren’t making any money on that investment. Whether prices will continue to drop or hold steady moving forward is anyone’s guess. But the prices on anything but the rarest of the rare aren’t going up.

The rarest of the rare are the exceptions. Those would include production samples, pieces produced in incredibly small quantities, and items still sealed in their factory boxes. Those items are likely to continue to appreciate, the same way the very rarest, highest-demand baseball cards have continued to appreciate even as the value of 1980s cards has crashed. But there certainly are safer investments than that, like stocks and real estate.

Yes, stocks and real estate are a safer investment.

Are video games a good investment?

The appeal of vintage game systems and retro gaming is obvious. Anyone born after 1970 likely spent considerable time playing old Atari and Nintendo consoles in the living room and/or basement while growing up and has fond memories of doing so. Cue up some music of the same vintage, and you can transport yourself back in time to wherever you want to be for a little while. Some people even think that’s good for your health.

But there’s a factor in video games that didn’t exist with those old trains. Even a $35 Raspberry Pi (let alone any ordinary PC) can emulate all of those old consoles. Plus, the entire known libraries for them fit easily on an SD card. So a GenXer feeling pangs of nostalgia doesn’t have to spend a decade painstakingly collecting; it’s possible to just download an emulator and a library of games, cue up some music and play.

So the people who want to just casually play aren’t competing with the collectors who must have the real item for their collections. Emulation, therefore, is probably driving down the value of some of those vintage games.

Boxed games with booklets and cartridges in nice condition will always be more collectible and more valuable than loose cartridges. But I’m not funding my retirement with them. I have loose examples of my favorite games for my favorite systems from growing up, and that’s good enough.

But if I were going to try to make some money in the next few years, I would be buying Playstation or PS2 games right now. Not Atari. They’re much easier to find now and the prices tend to be lower. And by the time I had a sizable collection, people who grew up playing those systems will have money, and the value will most likely have appreciated from where it is now. The stuff that’s two or three generations back from what’s current tends to be the stuff that’s bottomed out (or is about to bottom out) in value.

You can make some money in the short term on video games while they’re popular collectibles. So does that make video games a good investment? No. That’s speculating, not investing. Don’t count on them appreciating over time. At least not in the long run.