A hobby I have outside of my research and teaching at the University is collecting old video games. Specifically, and this is something I started again during lockdown after a number of years, games for a pretty obscure games console from the early 1980s called the Vectrex, made by MB.
As part of this hobby, and a slightly random way of engaging with creative practice, I’ve been designing new packaging for some of the ‘homebrew’ games that have recently been released for the machine (there was a gap of over 20 years when no new games were made, and then there has been many new releases in the 21st Century), as I didn’t think some of the boxes properly matched, or were up to the standard of, the original games.
Having shared my designs for these boxes with a Vectrex Fans Facebook group (which has 5,500 members), I was contacted by the presenter of a German retro-games radio show, who asked if I might like to design a box for a charity rerelease of an old game that he and other members of the group were planning. Although the machine is quite niche, collectors of the rarer games have been known to pay thousands for these, and to make some of the limited charity releases of games more desirable, there’s a metal working expert in Sweden who has been making the cartridges which hold the games (which are inserted into the side of the machine), out of esoteric materials such as aluminium, brass and wood, rather than the plastic that they are normally made from.
Sales of these unusual cartridges have been very successful, and a game cased in a brass cartridge sold for $980 earlier in the summer. The radio host had helped organise this sale, and also the one I was being asked to contribute to, to support a German charity called the Quarteera – http://www.quarteera.de/Spenden-sind-willkommen – which helps LGBTQI+ people in Slavic countries. The new charity auction was specifically being organised to help evacuate a young trans man out of Ukraine.
For some reason I didn’t fully read the first message I was sent when I agreed to make a box, and inadvertently made packaging for the wrong game. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the team involved in every aspect of the process liked the ‘wrong’ box so much, they decided to go for two charity auctions rather than one, and so I made a second box, this time for the right game!
As well as my involvement (and I decided to make an instructions leaflet for each game as well as a box), and the Swedish metalworker who also had the game encoded onto the little printed circuit board that went inside the brass cartridge shells he engineered, another person 3D printed a ‘cartridge holder’ that stops the game rattling inside the box, and another made a translucent overlay (which goes in front of the monochrome Vectrex screen), all of which were in Ukrainian colours.
I sent my boxes (which cost 80p to print out at University of Brighton Print Services!) to Sweden, where they were joined by the other parts of the whole package, and were shortly after listed on eBay. After an initial bid of $100, the auction went up to $1,525 after one day! Unfortunately, however, while previous Vectrex charity auctions, which have raised $1,000 each for the Red Cross and Heart and Lung Foundation, went ahead without any problems, this time the company decided the charity and this auction didn’t meet all of its criteria and so pulled the listing at this point.
As it seemed eBay were starting to be unnecessarily obstinate, the team decided to instead go for sealed bids from members of the Facebook fan group instead of using an auction site – and it seems likely that anyone bidding on eBay would most likely be members of this group, anyway. As such, the first game went for $2,022 and someone else agreed to match that amount for the second game also. On top of this a couple of members topped up this amount with additional donations to the charity, with the total coming to $4,915!
So, for a couple of hours of my time, I’m very proud to have helped raise this huge amount for a very worthy charity during Pride month. In the middle of this process, I saw the Call for Papers for “Structures of Community: Really Sayin’ Somethin’”, a conference at the University about creative practice and social engagement, and so gave a talk about my experiences at this event, which went down well, intriguing and entertaining the other delegates. Certainly, I very much enjoyed working with other members of this video game fandom, and would love to get involved with another similar project again, for another good cause.
–– Alex Fitch