Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Ephemeral Nature of Games

 Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

All things must pass...and so too with games. Despite the wonders of the internet helping to produce, disseminate, and preserve PDF games and a host of websites helping gamers to obtain those hard-to-find treasures, many games still pass into the dread territory of “out of print,” becoming difficult if not impossible to find. Consider the ages of different aspects of the hobby: miniatures wargames 110 years (by far the oldest, based on H.G. Wells’ Little Wars); board wargames 71 (based on Charles S. Roberts’ Tactics); roleplaying games 49; collectible card games 30; Euro-style board games 28. All relatively recent as history goes, and most within our lifetimes (okay, my long, increasingly weary lifetime). Some live, legally or otherwise, in PDF on the internet; but many fade into memory, tossed into the trash or sold at flea markets, their mark on our gaming culture out of reach of future generations. Few, if any, archives actively seek to preserve a record of adventure gaming hobby materials, most notably the Strong National Museum of Play; regrettably our nation’s venerable Library of Congress does not (a subject I’ve wanted to blog on for years now but just can’t given our volatile political climate). Each of us enters the adventure gaming hobby at different points in its history and our own lives. Our interests can wander or change across genres and forms. So when we discover something “new to us” that engages our interest, finding it can prove challenging in our increasingly disposable, capitalist society which cultivates a “fear of missing out” (or FOMO) on the “new hotness” of the moment.

My own experiences demonstrate this conundrum and its often inadequate solutions. At various times I’ve wanted to fill out my collection of roleplaying game books from my idyllic teenage years exploring the adventure gaming hobby, scenarios and supplements for games like Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, AD&D, and Traveller I never acquired in those early years that have since become collectibles. I was late to the party for games like Wings of Glory (originally Wings of War), the X-wing miniatures game, and Star Trek: Attack Wing, which engage some of my interests in history and science fiction media. Discovering those games later in their publication life meant I had difficulty finding some of the earliest expansions at reasonable prices. It also meant I had less time with X-wing before a second edition necessitated the purchase of expensive conversion packs to cover my collection of ships; ultimately I abandoned any hope of playing the game in public venues like game stores and tournaments and relegated myself to first-edition play among friends. When I heard about interesting wargames from various companies I often found many had passed out-of-print; if I couldn’t find them my interest eventually dissipated or I sought a newer release from another company to engage my interest in a particular historical period.

My quest for specific game titles brought me to various venues, some proving more successful (and less expensive) than others; as always, your mileage may vary depending on geographic region and what specific games are on your list:

Thrift Stores: I’m not in the habit of combing through thrift stores or puttering around to Saturday yard sales, but on my occasional pass I rarely discover a lost gaming treasure (or more accurately my wife finds the gaming treasure, as she’s more attuned to such venues). This also depends on where you live; we’re near Washington, DC, so we have a high transient military population interesting in wargames.

Game Convention Flea Markets: Another hit-or-miss venue that’s at least more apt to have something of interest. One’s just as likely to find bargains and haggle prices down as one is to find folks offering items at collector’s prices.

Online Gamer Communities: Since the demise of Google Plus I’ve not found a suitable buy/sell/trade online community for games. I’m sure they’re out there, but I don’t have the time or patience to hunt them down and watch them for desired gaming bits.

Used Bookstores: Like flea markets and thrift stores these can prove hit-or-miss; but if you’re like me and frequent such places that deal in used games you stand a better chance of finding lost treasures. They’re also good places to trade/sell games one doesn’t want anymore.

Online Dealers: Seeking desired games online proves the easiest way to fulfill one’s quest. Various sellers on Amazon offer more recent hard-to-find fare. Certainly e-bay often proves effective matching buyers with desired new or used product, though it’s not one I’m comfortable using. But dealers like Noble Knight Games (NKG) and Wayne’s Books provide online experiences with specialized search engines to more easily find specific titles. I’m particularly fond of NKG’s “want list” feature that allows people to add out-of-stock games that once passed through the warehouse; if someone trades in a copy NKG sends out a “Wish Granted” e-mail letting folks know a copy’s back in stock.

I’m sure other venues exist for finding games I missed in their heyday. I regret fewer brick-and-mortar game stores deal in used games or maintain sections of older games. Shelf space remains a premium and moving existing stock at a solid pace a priority; this sometimes relegates game materials only a few years out to the sale or promotional bins to make way for the “new hotness” of the moment.

Business concerns drive games’ life cycles, which seem ever shorter even as the adventure gaming hobby community expands. Capitalism likes promoting the “new hotness” to drive sales; it’s perhaps the best way to test how well a particular product does on the market. If it’s a success, corporations find ways to monetize it, often with extra expansions, associated games, and new editions. If it’s a failure, the company abandons the game, selling off what’s left and letting it lapse into out-of-print status. Companies are ultimately in the business of making money; even the small ones that produce games they love still need cash to keep doing what they do. Capitalism isn’t about preserving games for future access; it’s about meeting demand by satisfying immediate needs to make money.

Humans have always had a need for entertainment to make the sometimes overwhelming miseries of life slightly more bearable. Yet, like most entertainment, they’re disposable and forgettable. Look at the early film industry. Since the emergence of film as entertainment media in the early 20th century, the Library of Congress estimates more than 75% of early silent films have been lost forever. Games seem no different in our disposable consumer culture driven by an unsustainable economic system that depends on constant increased growth. Certainly in our media-heavy society games and their presence have a better chance at survival in some format. Numerous histories and “best of” retrospectives memorialize the most notable or popular games...but these are not a complete record of their playable form so future generations might enjoy them. PDFs (official or otherwise) help preserve some print material – rulebooks, counters, boards – but remain seriously limited for proprietary components like customized dice, card decks, and customized pieces. Although electronic formats online can sustain a virtual sense of games, they’re not quite the same as gathering around a table with actual people to play the game in a tactile, real-life experience.

These remain issues to investigate in the future, and for the future. Few institutions seek to archive our enormous flood of entertainment media. The Library of Congress and other national organizations throughout the world try archiving books, sound recordings, and film. Few libraries care much for collecting adventure gaming hobby materials beyond some popular titles for teen gaming night or other specialized programs that come and go as time, personnel, and academic trends move onward. Few, if any, accept donations of such materials to their stacks, their policies outlining such donations are more likely than not destined for book sale fundraisers unless they fit their current collection rationale (also an ephemeral standard). Personal collections, while meaningful in life, often go to flea markets (where the stand some small chance of finding new, appreciative owners) if not thrown in the trash. How do we preserve the rich gaming culture we currently enjoy? I suspect the general answer from humanity is “Who cares?” People created things in the past that we’ve since lost, with only the most outstanding (or lucky) ones surviving to enlighten and inform our contemporary society. All things come and all things go, both in a physical sense and even as a collective memory.

So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it’s gratifying to have something you have done linger in people’s memories.”

John Williams


  1. It is easier...and more profitable...for game shops to buy used games and sell them on-line (via eBay) to collectors than it is to stock their shelves and hope for interested customers. Which makes me sad, as the main reason I enjoy frequenting game shops is perusing them for such "treasures."

    Noble Knight and Wayne's Books ARE great on-line sources. But I can get sick of shopping on the internet...I like the visceral experience of brick-and-mortar stores and interacting with friendly humans.
    ; )

  2. I agree with both your points. I love stumbling upon a game store with a used game section (though these days the closest I get is the regional used book store).

  3. The short life cycles and smaller production runs certainly create a lot of pressure to buy games if they look interesting (for me, anyway). It feels like if I don't buy something when it's released, I might not have a chance in the future.


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