My TV stand is proudly lined with every console I’ve ever owned. At least one from every console generation. Beside the stand is a five foot tall cabinet chronicling my 24 years of gaming. Titles range from cult classics, obscure genre-benders and hilarious misfires. My collection might not be the biggest, or the most complete, but what is increasingly unique about it is that it physically exists.
Physical games are becoming increasingly difficult to find. While more people are playing games than ever, a sizeable portion of those people aren’t buying those games in stores. Most people are getting their games through digital distribution, not counting the number of players downloading copies of games illegally. The industry is making a more concerted push every year to reduce the costly manufacture and distribution of discs and up digital sales.
Already there are plenty of must-own arcade and indie games that can only be downloaded through a digital source. Rental stores couldn’t be disappearing faster if they were all being struck with meteors and eventually the physical retail stores will follow suit. Cases containing games will be speciality collectors’ items the way records are for music.
The Super Nintendo I own is the same one I played in 1991. When I play Chrono Trigger it’s on the same cartridge that I played it on for the first time ever. The years may have gone by but this is how the player can get to the experience the developers intended. There is an authenticity to having a physical copy that you can’t get with a file folder in a flash drive.
Like many, I grew up with games as something that were lent back and forth at recess, or coveted relics that awaited me after many months of allowance. One of the most formative experiences to me as someone that plays games is the independent rental store across my childhood home run by an alcoholic German. Driving into the city and browsing the shelves at the game store was sacred. Setting the controller down and watching the intro screen flicker by before burning through a great game was a part of my childhood and it all centred around the physical copy of a game.
It isn’t as though digital distribution is a rotten evil thing, or even that it has many disadvantages. The benefits of having a full title to play in under a minute for a reduced cost are clear. But gaming has lost one of its rituals. Tracking down a classic title from bargain bins, pawn shops or mail-order websites has its rewards as a collector, but it’s lonelier now that games are becoming a virtual commodity and not physical artifacts.