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How Trading-In Games Actually Costs You

This is not going to be about GameStop being evil and how the used games market is killing the industry. I’m not going to toss hyperbole around and make any moral or ethical judgments about the re-selling of previously purchased video games. The practice of re-selling physical property you bought with your own money is legal, period. Used game sales might be taking money away from hard-working publishers and developers, but the reality is that everyone gets laid-off due to factors beyond their control, and if you have a great civic argument about why people who make video games deserve to keep their jobs more than farmers, teachers and cops, I’d love to hear it.
No, the truth is, you shouldn’t trade-in your games because it’s simply going to cost you more in the long run.
First off, the retail consumer goods industry as a whole is built upon a very simple principle: to sell goods for more than what they are worth, as well as what they actually cost to produce. This is an intrinsic aspect of buying things sold to you by someone else, be it an online or brick-and-mortar store. For the convenience of buying a boxed product, you are also paying for the cost of manufacturing, marketing, customer service, and the various other activities a business needs in order to operate. These things are commonly referred to as “overhead.”

What this means is that, unless you’re a jerk eBay reseller who buys up all the copies of a rare Atlus release and sells them for a 150% mark-up, you are always going to lose money by trading-in your games, or even by selling them yourself. You are going to take a loss on the purchase because, no matter what you get for it, you no longer possess the product itself. Even if it’s just collecting dust on your shelf, and even if you haven’t played it in five years and don’t plan on popping the disc in the tray ever again, the moment you enter into a transaction to rid yourself of the game, you are losing money.
I know you must be thinking, “Well, duh. This is why trade-in programs exist in the first place. Video games lose value quickly and, once I’ve beat the campaign or story mode, I’m not going to play it again anyway.” It might seem like trading-in a game is the best solution to getting at least “something” for an item that is no longer “worth” anything to you, either in terms of personal utility or market value, but this is often a myopic perspective. I regularly check eight gaming websites multiple times throughout the day. I watch trailers, live demos, and reviews as soon as they are posted. I love games and am always excited for the next big release, as I’m sure many of you are. Video game marketing is greatly effective in generating hype, but the downside to the perpetual, iterative nature of the industry is that you often don’t really take the time to truly appreciate a great game because its sequel is already due out for release in five months. Before you pull the trigger and trade-in that game, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:

1) Have I beat this game on every difficulty level?
2) Have I played the game so much that I have memorized the level design/drops/secrets/enemy spawn areas?
3) Does my personal taste in games dictate that I would, one day, feel like breaking out this game again and playing it, even if that day is years from now?
4) Do I appreciate, grasp, and understand the actual gameplay mechanics of this game?

I understand that games are entertainment and there are many of you out there who play for the experience and the story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; in fact, you are the exact consumer the games industry covets. The people who make the games want you because you will buy the sequels and they don’t have to work as hard to impress you as veteran gamers, and the people who offer trade-in programs want you because you might just be that type of gamer who plays a game on Easy, blows through it in five hours, and trades it in immediately after that.
No matter how many cutscenes or QTEs developers cram into our games these days, however, the unassailable truth is that the absolute worth of a game lies in its gameplay mechanics. It’s easy to understand how someone could pour hundreds of hours into Skyrim and Mass Effect, games that are designed for multiple playthroughs, or the obvious multiplayer examples like Gears of War and Call of Duty, but if you truly grasp the complexity and genius-level work that it takes to develop and code a game, you can find replay value in even the most linear single-player experiences. Mirror’s Edge might have been derided for being too “short,” but not for the community of speedrun maestros who have learned how to beat the entire game in an hour by studying it via countless playthroughs. Dead Space 2 might be the industry’s first and only two-DVD, six-hour game, but if you haven’t played that game on the hardest difficulty setting, you haven’t really played it.

From memorizing levels to studying physics engines to trying to break the game by looking for glitches, you need time to really appreciate a game instead of just “beating” it. If you’ve never felt what it was like to “master” a game instead of just fumbling through it on your first and only playthrough, you are missing out on one of the irreplaceable things about gaming that no other entertainment medium can replicate.

Now, say you’ve played the living shit out of your game. You’ve played it so much you are sick of it and can’t think of what else to do except trade it in. At that point, I would ask myself the following questions:

1) Would I list the game as one of my greatest games ever?
2) Did I love the art and/or sound design of the game?
3) Do I think that games are art? Or, at the very least, that this particular game qualifies as art?

On one level, video games are tech, and like all tech, they become obsolete. Graphics get better, sound gets crisper, voice acting gets more professional, etc. Yet, just as there are people who collect Apple products and display them as artistic works, games are made by master craftsmen and cannot possibly be seen as entirely replaceable.

Games are an immersive medium that engage multiple senses at once. I have been known to stick Persona 3 into my dusty Playstation 2 for five minutes just to run around the mall area and listen to a lady sing in Engrish that she “never felt like” something or other. The polygon count of the character models might be low compared to today’s standards, and it might be running at 480p instead of 1080p, but the art design itself is never going to age for me. I pop Jet Set Radio Future in every once in a while just to admire the artistic quality of the cel-shaded graphics, the catchy-annoying “Birthday Cake” song, and to reminisce about the fact that, a decade after its release, I still have never been more thrilled by a game than I was during JSRF’s “The Skyscraper District and Pharoah Park” level.

I can play the final boss battle in the original Gears of War probably every single day and never get tired of it, just as I will never tire of running alongside Liberty Prime in Fallout 3. Even a simple, solitary moment, like running across a suspended bridge in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow just to admire how beautifully the cursed castle itself is rendered, is an act of appreciation that can enrich your passion and understanding for the medium of video games.

This is something that not everyone can bring themselves to do, and while that is understandable, there is a value to seeing games this way that cannot be assigned a monetary value. Games aren’t just tech, and they’re not just art. They’re art that you can play, manipulate, and interact with. Adopting this type of mindset will help you to see the true “worth” of the games that you buy.
The one thing that you should never do is get rid of your game without thinking it through, only to realize that you made a mistake and purchase it again. Purchasing a game that you have already owned once before is both unnecessary and highly costly. Not only do you spend your time buying something you’ve already bought once before, but whatever price you are paying for the second copy should be deducted out of the trade-in credit you received. If you traded-in a $60 game for a $20 credit only to buy it again later for $20, guess what? You just threw away the entire $60 you initially spent. Think about that for a moment. You literally gave away your game for nothing.

You will notice that, often, used games come without manuals or cover art. The discs are sometimes scratched, though they will still play. I have often asked myself just who these people are – people who will pay $60 for something and then proceed to treat the item with a complete lack of respect. Who the hell throws away manuals and inserts? Who the hell treats $60 game discs like coasters at a local sports bar?

I can’t answer that question, but what I do know is that the lacking condition of many used games reflects the mindset of some of the people who trade-in games in the first place. Everything is disposable. Everything is throwaway. It’s always about the next big thing instead of the thing they already possess and have already paid for. The games industry hype machine is about fostering this mindset, but in the ways I have outlined, this kind of thinking costs you in the long run.
Lastly, I know most of us don’t have the money to buy every new game we want at full retail price without some sort of assistance, and that’s perfectly fine. If you determine that trading in your games is the only thing that you can do in order to afford Dishonored or Halo 4 in the coming months, I only hope that you have really considered the long-term costs of getting rid of your games. Maybe you can even look at it like you’re the curator of your own personal collection of perfect games. Games that make a statement about your tastes as a gamer. Games that you have lived with for a long time. Games that you will always remember. You don’t have to own every single game; just the games you really love. Whatever you decide to do, games are an expensive hobby, and it would be a shame for you to waste your hard-earned money on them unnecessarily.
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About mrdaraparkone of us since 12:06 AM on 09.20.2012

Novelist with a day job and avid gamer.