The $5,000 decision to get rid of my past (update)

I noticed that she started wearing a T-shirt between the shower and the bedroom.

That’s how these things begin. You build up a small barrier between people, and the tiny intimacies of living together fall away. You close the door when you use the restroom. You roll over and fall asleep before the other person gets in bed. You get dressed in the bathroom so the other person doesn’t see you naked.

She was gone, along with most of the furniture, about a week later.

These things happen, and there were good reasons why they did. I came up with some of them, and she came up with the rest. That’s how things fall apart when you live with someone in your 20s. You barely understand your own heart, and that makes it very hard to be what someone else needs. I went on a trip for work, and when I returned, there was a note where a person used to be. I sat very still for a very long time.

Someone broke into my apartment and stole my video game collection exactly four days later. A dozen or so systems, and over 600 games, all gone.

This is the story of what happened next.

You can tell a lot about someone by their garbage

It was the first time I had ever walked into a crime scene. My ex-girlfriend was standing in the kitchen. The police were in the living room, surrounded by empty racks of what used to be my life’s work.

The collection included most of the important Dreamcast games. Boxed Nintendo 64 games. Rare, even at that time, PlayStation RPGs. Sega CD games in perfect plastic cases. I had the hardware necessary to play them all.

It had been a simple crime; I lived in an old building, and the hinges on my door were on the outside. The thieves had simply tapped the pins out and walked in. It must have felt like Christmas. I doubt they even knew what they had stolen, and my gut lurched as I thought about my carefully curated collection being sold for a buck a game at some random pawn shop.

I made a mental note to begin calling all the places the collection could be fenced in the area. This thought felt very responsible and adult as I threw up in the sink.

The landlord must have called my ex, whose name was still on the lease. It was strange to see her back in the apartment, with so much of her personality removed from the space. She could tell how much this all hurt, and took half a step forward to maybe hug me or say something comforting.

That’s when she remembered we were broken up, and those moments of unguarded closeness were behind us. It’s also very possible she saw my garbage, which was filled with pizza boxes and empty bottles of scotch. When someone becomes a void, it’s never a good idea to get too close. It’s too easy to be sucked in, especially when it’s someone you care about.

The police asked me about renter’s insurance, which I didn’t have because I was young and invincible. They asked me if I knew anyone who knew about my collection, and I gave them a list of names. They said they’d call around, but these crimes were rarely solved.

It all seemed like something out of a television show. I asked the police if they were going to dust for prints, and they said they could if it would make me feel better. I asked if they had one of those special flashlights.

“Son, the only things that happen if I turn on the blacklight in here is that you get embarrassed, and the games will still be gone when I turn it off,” he said. I nodded. It later occurred to me that he was probably joking, but I was too numb to read social cues.

The cops left soon after, and she left once again after that. My ex asked if I was OK before shutting the door behind her. I told her I wasn’t. There wasn’t much for her to say to that.

It’s easy to make a bathroom feel lived-in and complete, even if nearly everything else is missing in your apartment. That’s why it was so easy to cry in the shower.

The tyranny of a collection

I was never not collecting video games. When I was younger, it was just a matter of buying video games, and it never occurred to me to sell any or to trade them in. As I got a bit older, I liked the way they looked on my shelves. By the time I was in college, I was actively looking for the rare stuff, while using my discount and connections from my job as a video game store manager to get stuff for much cheaper than the going price online.

One afternoon, I wired all my systems to a single television, and a month later I bought a nice CRT for the classic games. I purchased metal and wood racks to display it all. My collection was the primary decoration in the apartment, dominating everything else. There was just so much of it.

They weren’t games as much as they were the story of my life. This is the longbox copy of Resident Evil I purchased on the game’s release day, before the franchise became a dynasty. This is the copy of Mars Matrix someone traded in that I bought before it could be stickered and put out on the shelves.

Super Mario 64 was the first game my ex and I played as a couple after we moved in, when only the TV and the consoles had been unpacked. We sat on the floor and ordered pizza. I still remember how she looked in a white tank top, holding the Nintendo 64 controller, lit from the front by the bright colors of the game. We spent my 23rd birthday playing Dance Dance Revolution on the hardwood floors. We played fighting games badly, laughing and having a good time as all the buttons were mashed. We finished every Halo game in co-op mode.

In the aftermath, it felt like the memories were gone along with the games. I had lost the woman I was living with, my video game collection, my couch and what felt like my will to do much of anything — all in a single month. My diet continued to consist of pizza and scotch. I worked at my store selling video games, and I found alphabetizing the shelves to be a very comforting exercise. Time seemed to skid along, months and then years passing in the time it took me to take the bag out of the garbage can, the bottles clinking together on the way to the curb.

I slowly began buying the games I cared about again, and putting them back on the shelves. It felt good, in a way, but it was more of an obligation than a way to heal. It felt like lifting barbells with a phantom limb. I was trying to get something back, but it wasn’t the physical copies of the games; it was a past in which I imagined I was happier.

Part of me believed that if I recreated the collection carefully enough, one evening I would wake up and she would be there, playing games in front of the TV in one of my shirts. If I owned enough of those same games, I could create a portal back to the past and never have to move forward.

I never really understood how damaging this attitude could be until I heard it explained in a movie. “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, there’s more going out the door,” a very wise character says in No Country for Old Men. “After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.”

I stopped buying old video games by the time I was 30. It was my way of tightening a belt around the stump. The games were ultimately boxed up once again when I got married and bought a house.

You carry your past with you

The replacement collection, about 450 games deep when I stopped looking for the classics, was carried from house to house as I grew older. One day, short on money to buy a certain Nintendo Switch game, I took down a few Super Nintendo games hoping to trade them in. It turned out that GameStop was giving $33 for R-Type 3.

That was an interesting development.

If GameStop gives you $1 for a game, that means it’s worth at least $5. I began to price out that long-dormant collection. It was filled with good stuff, and many of the cartridge games included the boxes and instructions, with some rarer games still sealed in the original plastic. That was the secret of this collection, and why it was in such good condition: I never replayed any of these games. Many of them I never even opened.

I found a private seller soon after, and this week I plan on boxing everything up one last time while making a surprisingly large amount of money.

The games weren’t bringing me joy; they were just ghosts trapped inside jewel cases. The collection was a weight I was dragging from house to house, and opening a bin only to find boxed NES games always felt like metal poured into my gut. These games made me picture a young woman wanting to hug me when I was hurting, then deciding not to. These games were bottles of expensive, and then cheap, scotch in the garbage, double-bagged so the neighbors wouldn’t see how bad it was getting.

This isn’t a sale; it’s an exorcism. I’m about to turn a decade of bad memories and regrets into a chunk of money, and these games are going to find a wonderful home where they will be treasured for the fun objects they are. Their new owner won’t see baggage; he’ll see something to be celebrated and enjoyed with his child.

And that makes me happy. The games themselves did nothing to me, and they deserve better than what I had been able to give them.

Besides, I’m a married man now, with kids. Everything is fine, right? I can let go of the past. I decided to write this story in the shower this morning, as I slipped on a pair of sweatpants before heading into the kitchen to make coffee.

Update: Mailing this many games takes about two days of work, a huge amount of bubble wrap and a few hundred dollars of shipping fees. They have arrived safely. The money has exchanged hands and now resides comfortably in my bank account.

I used a small amount of the cash to print out about 300 pictures from recent trips abroad, and purchased some nice photo albums in which to put them. Laying everything out, complete with a few souvenirs, took about a day. It all looks very nice.

The rows of empty shelves, where the games once lived, now hold two photo albums of happy memories from the last year. My goal for the future is simple: To fill them up again.

Comments

Thanks for opening up and sharing. This was a great read!

That’s me absorbing what at least I feel to be the best thing you’ve ever written.

Thank you.

This hurt a lot, but I think it hurt like antibacterial gel hurts.

FLAWLESS description.

Great piece of writing. Powerful and heartfelt. More of this on Polygon please.

First, Ben, thanks for the public invitation to this painful time in your life. I hope sharing it was as therapeutic as selling the games were, then.

It reminds me that the stories surrounding a game are sometimes more powerful than the ones inside the boxes. We all have our own, intimate and unique and priceless.

My father never played video games with me or my brother, nor did he really share that part of our lives. Except, when we got Mario Kart 64 one year, he came into our game room and watched us play for a time before asking if he could join in. It wasn’t long before 5:30 in the evening would always find us waiting patiently on the carpet, the menu music tittering along and a third controller sitting on the striped carpet.

Dad would pop his head in and all three of us would smile. Best hour of our day hands down.

I have a vivid memory of my dad poking his head in my room when I was a senior in high school and asking if he could have a go at Grand Theft Auto 3. He was terrible, but he had a great time. I don’t think he ever played it again, but sharing that moment with him is something I’ll always remember. I can’t see that old Liberty City without thinking of my dad driving backwards through the streets because he couldn’t remember how to go forward.

It’s something I think about a lot as I build levels with my sons in Mario Maker now. They’re more than just games.

It’s why I play Madden with my dad whenever I get a chance, even though I dislike it and never stand a chance.

It reminds me that the stories surrounding a game are sometimes more powerful than the ones inside the boxes.

Wonderful sentiment. One of my favorite games is Demon’s Souls and most of that stems from the memories. During a snowy holiday vacation me, my little brother and sister all sat in a stuffy hot bedroom with 3 TVs and 3 PS3s playing the recently released game. We would wake up in the morning and rush to the bedroom to start playing. Sharing the fear of when we were first invaded, to growing confident enough to invade others. We would have someone invade in an area where another was trying to get summoned. The laughs when one of us was summoned to fight off the other is forever imprinted on my memory. The joy of helping each other through the game and learning and dying together. The game holds a very special place in my heart and it’s because of the memories from sitting in a hot, stuffy room with my two siblings.

I remember when I first got the N64 when I was 6 or so: still too young and uncoordinated to play well at anything. My pops isn’t a gamer, but I have some fond memories of him beating Super Mario 64 and Star Wars: Shadow of the Empire for me when I was struggling. By the time I got to Banjo-Kazooie, I had learned enough to do it myself, but I’d always ask my pops for help to spend some time with him.

J: Remember that night, not long after we got the N64 and our parents actually let us play Mario Kart and Smash Bros. all night?

Z: Yeah, our parents had never let us stay up all night before. We were just having so much fun, then around 3:00 a.m., when we realized we weren’t going to be told to go to bed, we had all night to play video games, that just felt so awesome.

J: Then the next morning…

Z: Yeah, then when Mom and Dad woke up, they came down, told us to turn off the Nintendo, and said ’We’re getting a divorce.’

J: It was like they gave us that one night of joy together, because they knew we weren’t going to be happy again for a really long time.

Z: It was a really, really long time before I was ever that happy again.

This isn’t my story, but that’s how it was told to me by two brothers over a Thanksgiving meal we shared without our families.

And now the collection follows you, thanks to STEAM…

Those ghosts plus all the backlog of pending games…

Ben, that was really heartfelt and beautiful. Thank you.

Nice story. There’s so much more to gaming then just the actual gameplay.

"They weren’t games as much as they were the story of my life. This is the longbox copy of Resident Evil I purchased on the game’s release day, before the franchise became a dynasty." <—Perfect!

This was a great story.

Wow I have never seen an article like this on Polygon. Thank you Ben for writing this. It was a nice change of pace to read something of this nature.

Good read…and a good reminder that everyone should have renter’s insurance or an equivalent if you own, etc. Not that it’d help any of the emotional stuff, but getting a check to replace your stolen stuff can help the healing when you use it towards a new chapter in your life.

It must have been really difficult to write all this in the shower. Thanks! It was a nice read.

Beautiful.

Really great. More stuff like this here please and less slatepitch headlines and breathless previews. Polygon, when it started, was about this kind of thing: the stories behind the games, how they impact our lives, how our lives grow around them, what it’s like to make them, what it’s like to live as someone who enjoys them. That’s why I started reading here, and this post, beautiful and sad and poignant, gives me my own little piece of nostalgia for what used to be.

Very well said, and agreed

I love Polygon, but I loved the beginnings of Polygon even more. This piece reminds me of books from Boss Fight Books, or pieces on my once-favorite videogames outlet, Kill Screen Magazine. To a lesser extent, it reminds me of the best posts on TinyCartridge, where games aren’t just games, but poignant reminders of the most well-worn parts of life.

Reading this post, I almost want to put on some mid-2000s rock and go on IRC. That’s how vivid it was. Beautiful work, Ben.

If you haven’t already found Vice’s Waypoint, you might like to have a look; it seems to fit that description.

Those first two paragraphs…

What a heartfelt and insightful piece. Thank you.

Absolutely incredibly work.

Please, please post more stuff like this, Polygon.

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