When Does Collecting Become an Obsession? Making Sure Your Hobby is Enjoyable and Not a Burden.
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
As of the date I am writing this, I own 31 classic coin-operated arcade games. Comparing the number of items in my collection to another hobby like perhaps collecting stamps, comic books, or potato chips that look like Nixon, 31 wouldn’t seem like a large amount. Since these are however, 200–300-pound wood boxes full of vintage electronics 31 is a good many of them. I think that I may own more arcade games than my local arcade had in my town growing up in the early 1980’s. When first time guests come into our home for a get together, party, or dinner often there is an audible gasp when they are confronted with the two rooms in our house that essentially is a vintage video game arcade instead of a traditional den or family room.
When I first started collecting arcade games about 30 years ago, I remember visiting a fellow collector who had a sizeable collection of around 30-40 games and my collection was somewhere around maybe 4-5 games. I just thought to myself while admiring his collection that I would probably never have that many games but here I am holding steady at 31 games. I made a promise to myself at the start of this year that I wouldn’t buy any new machines for at least 18 months while I finish up several lingering projects (as well as graduate school), I made it all the way until April when I bought my Q*Bert.
Will I Ever Have Enough to be Satisfied?
I take being the steward of these machines seriously as a hobbyist. The efforts and attitudes I have around the care and maintenance of these 40–50-year-old devices is done with great care and from the viewpoint of preservation. Watching others enjoy these classic machines also gives me a great amount of joy, especially when hearing related stories about childhood memories of early arcade games from others. I also spend a good amount of time playing the games myself but if I was totally honest, many of the game titles in the collection see very little action. I play Ms. Pac-Man almost every day, and about 6 other games in my collection are frequently played by myself or my wife. But there are others, despite enjoying owning them (and usually having spent a good bit of effort to restore them) that see little action and a few that almost never get played.
So, is 31 one games enough for me? Have I completed my collection? Space for games in the house is an issue now. The two rooms that house the games (one game is in my office upstairs as well) are packed and I even resort to some creative “power plug work” to make sure the breakers of the house don’t trip if all the games are on. I will admit to spending not only a lot of time in the week playing my games, repairing them, admiring them, considering ones I would like to own, stalking on-line sources for new games (even if I don’t intend to buy any), and even daydreaming about future projects I would like to undertake. I even have a mental “top 10 list” of games I would love to add to my collection despite having no place to put them. This makes my collecting sound like an obsession, and maybe it would veer towards that category if I didn’t have other things to do in my day-to-day life or other activities, I was passionate about.
The Competitive Nature of Collecting
One behavior often not spoken about in collecting communities is the competitive nature of collecting anything. Love it or hate it, American society is built upon the ideals of consumerism and with this consumer attitude we often are taught the narrative (either on purpose or through the absorption of media) to equate morality with consumer goods. Of course, this is a huge falsehood, one can’t judge the content of one’s character by the brand or age of the car they drive or the fancy sunglasses they own but these kinds of judgements take place every day in a society obsessed with the worship of wealth. Social media definitely doesn’t help this situation either, as we are inundated with unrealistic measures of financial success, body image, and even the on-line illusion of mental health.
Get any category of hobbyists together in either an on-line form or in person, and you are bound to get a good amount of them to share not just “collection war stories” but also comparing collections. Some of this oversharing can be healthy thing in my viewpoint, I love hearing how people have passion for unloved titles or how some games strike a certain chord of importance in a collector’s life. So much of this attitude can present itself in how the collector presents their attitudes or descriptions of their collection. I personally tend to get turned off when the focal point of a collection turns to economic value alone, “pissing contests” over originality, deep discussions over grading of condition, or comparing the quality of one person’s collection to another. Gatekeeping can also seep into any hobby making it hard for newcomers to enjoy the hobby or creating a bad example of behavior for newcomers creating an overarching atmosphere of toxicity.
The (Often Misguided) Attempt to Turn a Hobby Into a Job
A common problem with any hobby is the desire of the individual to turn the hobby into some sort of job or career. Now, before I start with this line of thought I should state the arcade collecting hobby is lucky to have countless skilled folks making high-quality reproduction parts for our machines. Our hobby would be in poor shape without those making everything from great quality control panel reissues to recreations of hard-to-find vector deflection boards. That isn’t to say all these reproduction parts are of equal quality, but perhaps that is a different conversation to be had.
Anyone could see the appeal of this for sure, to make a solid paycheck surrounded by the things you love seems like a win-win situation if you can make it profitable. There is also the danger of turning your hobby, which was an outlet for getting rid of the stress in your life, into a stress filled job in which you might need a new hobby to get rid of those stresses from sed job. For many years I was in a punk rock band which I loved, I also got a job working as the internet sales manager at a very cool vintage music store. I was surrounded by the things I loved (vintage guitars and keyboards) and surrounded by a cool staff who loved to “talk shop” 24/7. After a few years however a funny thing happened, being in that environment 5 days a week made me less of a “gear hound” for music gear to the point when at shows I would normally jaw jack with fellow musicians about cool guitars seemingly forever I no longer was as passionate about talking about it. Working at the guitar shop might have over the years even diminished my passion for being in a band somewhat (the band did break up after 6 years despite some decent success, but due to everyone moving out of Texas).
When it Becomes No Longer Enjoyable
So, what are the red flags that your once beloved hobby is no longer enjoyable as a hobby? These are a few things to keep in mind…
- An obsession can be over anything, even a hobby. If engaging or participating in a hobby is damaging your ability to do other things in your life you might have a problem.
- Is enough never enough? When you get a new game or collectable do you enjoy it or immediately start planning your “next conquest”?
- Having more "projects" than realistically being able to fix, work on, or enjoy.
- How do you measure your enjoyment of the hobby? Is it a personal satisfaction or strictly on measuring your collection against others?
- Addictions come in all forms, even collecting or relationships with hobbies.
- Is your hobby affecting your relationship with family members or friends in a negative way?
- Do you find yourself being a gatekeeper? Do you overly judge others in a hobby or their tastes in collecting?
- Do you often collect for investment only? This is a pretty strong sign of not enjoying a hobby for the hobby itself, and is often a questionable investment from a financial standpoint.
- And finally, is your hobby causing you financial hardship? Are you putting the costs of your hobby ahead of other things?
How To Safeguard the Joy For Your Hobby
If you have gotten this far into this article, you might be reassessing your own hobby habits and thinking “Gee, maybe I am obsessed with this stuff how did I get here”? First, I just want to state passion or love for a hobby is a positive and good thing. If you love collecting vintage bean bag chairs and they bring you joy, then go for it. The trick to keeping your joy for the hobby is to enjoy the dynamic of the hobby and not the dynamic of accumulation.
One of the very first arcade games I ever got was a dead mint 1982 Atari Kangaroo upright which my parents bought me for Christmas around 1995. Kangaroo isn’t the greatest classic arcade game ever made; in fact, you could make the argument that as early 80’s platformers go it is on the lame-sauce side. Despite me putting the quality of Kangaroo “On Blast”, the game has a lot of warm fuzzy memories attached to it for me personally, so it was very exciting to own. Kangaroo doesn’t have the wide appeal of other classic titles such as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong but from a joy of the collecting hobby, for me, it really meant a lot and made me very happy to even just look at it.
This joy for any collectable, without care for its value or rarity or even what other collectors may think is a critical point of ensuring a hobby stays enjoyable. One of the other falsehoods we often run into with hobbies that involve a skill set (like say, learning to play the guitar or maybe something like a sport) is we can only enjoy it if we become very good at it. If you say, decided you wanted to learn how to play the drums at age 35 with the goal of being as good as say, Stewart Copeland of the Police, I have some bad news for you, it’s not going to happen. I would also leap from this train of thought and say you don’t have to own 31 one arcade games to be an arcade collector, you can have one game or even zero games. I have known collectors who only collect arcade manuals or even just flyers.
I leave you with this, a clip from the great American comic book writer Harvey Pekar over his own obsession with collecting jazz records. Pekar can brilliantly encapsulate many of the above concepts in an under 3-minute story better than I could ever possibility attempt to. When does the collecting overtake the collector? When is enough of whatever enough? What is the fine line between a healthy hobby and an obsession?