Photography has been a personal and professional interest of mine for more than twenty years. One particular area of photography that has long fascinated me is frontier photography of the United States. I was turned on to the period in the 1973 classic Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy which frames a late 19th-century town’s life in photos ranging from the deeply personal to the macabre. Given the complexity and expense of early photography, I’ve always thought of the personal, logistical and financial choices made in people capturing images in the late 19th through early 20th century.
Photographs of American frontier people and their possessions have always held a big pull for me. In the photo at top (from the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Prairie Settlement collection) a family has chosen to hire a photographer to document them on the new frontier. Aside from the family in the foreground, the photo is filled with possessions. What the family owns occupies more than three-quarters of the photo — land, cattle, horses, mules, hogs, wagons and a prominently placed piano right in the middle of the family. So large are the family’s holdings the photographer has needed to climb to the top of a hill or perch on a ladder to take it all in with a shot taken from a godlike point of view from above. The photo conveys much including survival and success not only with the portrait of the family itself but in the wider portrait defining the family by what they own.
A picture of another Nebraskan family from the same period (above) puts what is among their most valuable possessions — a team of horses — on an equal plain with the family. One of the family’s cattle stands above them all on the sod house’s roof, a quirky accident placing the ownership of livestock not only on equal par but above the family in terms of importance. A table decorated with a blanket has also been hauled out of the home and set with food, and it appears some celebration is being documented. The family’s possessions — the house, the animals and the land — dominate the photo. As with other frontier photos of the period, the celebration of success is what’s captured in the photo. It provides a document that says, “Here we are. Here’s our stuff. We’ve made it.”
People, and seemingly Americans in particular, have a long tradition of defining themselves by what they own. From the 19th-century frontier until relatively recently, photos of what we own have largely been for the benefit of ourselves and perhaps the closest of family and friends. In the era of mass self-documentation of even the most mundane activities, meals, possessions and “selfies” distributed through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit and other social media platforms, what people own is now widely available for all to visually consume. Some sites critical of the trend, such as Rich Kids of Instagram, point out the more absurd edges of what we’ve all come to accept as just another part of our digital day-to-day. Photojournalists have taken a more documentary approach in such series as Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things and Personified: A Photo Series on People and Possessions. It’s clear for many of us, we are what we own.
Last year I became highly aware of the trend among my own gaming subculture. Many of the online groups I had joined to share historic knowledge, miniature modelling techniques, learn about game industry news or discuss rules were quickly filling up with a photos of people’s stuff. As a subset of the “selfie,” the “shelfie” is popular among gamers as a way of showing just how committed they are to the hobby the the sheer size of their collections. Some of the photographed collections border on historical archives of out-of-print games collected over decades in the hobby. More often than not though, many of the photos appear to be presented with a flair of a “top this” subtext or alternately a “this is all I have” apology to the virtual crowd. Things amped up during the past winter holiday season with a torrent of online photographs posted to gaming sites I frequent depicting a virtual arms race of heaps of games received as gifts or bought for themselves.
This spring the US-based bookseller Barnes & Noble is running what I quickly came to learn was an annual 50%-off game clearance sale, and there was enormous online gamer excitement and chatter in the weeks leading up to the event. Gamers plotted elaborate routes to multiple locations, connected with employees for inside connections, shared inventory reconnaissance (or lack thereof) and even concocted complex plans of buying from one store and returning at another store for a higher value of store credit (an idea not supported by many online). Others, living far away from a B&N store, lamented jealously they were being left out of the sales rush. As the sale period progressed, complaints also arose in a mix of comments on poor local selections or having to settle on buying something the person didn’t really want. Buying something — anything — was critical to many, lest a gamer somewhere feel left out during the sale. In the weeks following, photos of “the haul” have appeared in social media displaying stacks of games purchased (often in multiple copies for gifts or re-sale). Again, photos and shopping stories were met with comments ranging from congratulatory to jealousy to the feelings that this was simply another example of how life isn’t fair.
The emotions wrapped around photographic documentation of the acquisition of games are not limited to the holidays or special sales by corporate retailers. People who post pictures and tales of finding bargain second-hand games in local thrift stores are likewise met with digital slaps on the back or lamentations that some people’s thrift stores are unjustly better than others. Reviews of gaming conventions are increasingly dedicated to celebration or criticism of purchasing opportunities, and in the past year I’ve seen an increasing number of photos showing not only the fabulous games played at a convention but also of all the stuff a person managed to buy while there.
I’m a lifelong collector of many things, including comics, books, model trains, music, toys and, yes, games. My comic book collection paid for a lot of my college education. My parents are collectors, too. So was my grandmother. I have great memories and stories about an insane find at a flea market, working for years to track down a long-sought item or hours of relaxed browsing through dust boxes at a yard sale. It’s in my blood — I love collecting.
Gamers I’ve known for decades are also more often than not cut from similar collector cloth. There’s always something new to buy – a board game expansion, a new army to paint, a campaign module, a new edition of rules or the latest hot release. The hobby naturally attracts collectors. I know people with more games than they will ever play or even open for that matter. I also know people who are no less passionate as gamers with small collections of games.
Within the endless stream of online photographs and stories of consumer victory and defeat in the gamer community, there’s a lot of personal information that rises to the surface from comments. Couples have babies or get divorced. Jobs are lost and others find new careers with richer paychecks. People relocate for a variety of reasons, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. Some owe taxes or are buried in household bills while others spend their hefty refunds or max out credit cards. Narratives vary, priorities shift, lives are lived and another game is purchased.
Like most games, life has a time limit. We do what we can to play the game right and by the rules, celebrating our victories along the way (sometimes with a bit too much passion) and hopefully learning from our mistakes. Like those families struggling to show in photographs how they had made a life on the 19th-century American frontier, we all want to show we’re not only surviving but thriving. The photos of shelves and hauls gamers share (again, sometimes with a bit too much passion) may possibly just be the way we’re all trying desperately to communicate, “Here I am. Here’s my stuff. I made it.”