By Clive Thompson

Leaning against the butt of a Terminator II machine gun, Doug Jefferys recalls the time he located the ultimate classic arcade game.

"It was a 1980 Atari Tempest," he says. "Sitting in this operator's basement, under maybe three inches of dust. I was there rummaging around for some joysticks when I spotted it. The operator didn't even know what it was. I picked it up for $200."

I'm duly impressed. In the booming underground network of arcade-game collectors, Jefferys is a seasoned pro, and I am a rank newbie. We're meeting at a Toronto auction of video games, one of many that take place monthly at suburban warehouses dotted across North America. Here, collectors flock to pick up 1970s and early-1980s classics that no longer have the power to suck coin at arcades—which could be anything from the cryptic Dig Dug to the elusive Lunar Lander. Here,

games find geeks who still love them.

"That's where old video games go to die," says Jefferys' friend and fellow collector Ashley Buratynksi. "Our basements."

Buratynksi and Jefferys, both 25, started their collections years ago by buying a handful of

hardwired game boards and cabinets en masse from an "operator" (collector-speak for an arcade owner). Multiple auctions later, they were not only owners of hundreds of games, but proficient at hacking and customizing the boards.

Today, they're after a Frogger—one of the weirder paradigm-busting blips in gaming history. They find one, albeit in rough shape.

"It's got a wicked case of screen burn, and nasty wiring," Jefferys says doubtfully, peering inside the front hatch. "I'd bid $50, max."

It's not much cash, and this is partly what fuels the collector trade: for sheer kitsch value, classic games are a cheap thrill. At this auction, prices range from a few hundred dollars—in the case of a respectable Ms. Pac-Man machine—to barely 25 bucks (the highest bid for a battered Superman unit, Taito's gruesome 1988

flop). As the Video Arcade Preservation Society will tell you, classic games must be rare as well as old to be some valuable. So while something like Asteroids might be old, it's still available for only $200, because Atari produced thousands of them. (The game is so common that one collector I ran into uses an Asteroids cabinet to prop open a garage.)

Newer games like Killer Instinct clock the highest prices, but, lacking early-80s mana, they're less

collectible and are bought mostly by "operators," who stalk the auctions in mirrorshades, baseball caps, and long, feathered hair. (And glaring at anybody who carries a camera. "You some sort of cop?" asked one, after I snapped a shot of two kids eviscerating each other on his Mortal Kombat II.)

It's not hard to understand why collectors spurn the contemporary breed of street-fighter games for the low-res, spacey classics; they've got much a much

higher Buck Rogers quotient. Admittedly, I enjoy plastering an opponent with Sarah's elegant spin-kicks in Virtual Fighter II . But honestly, if I wanted to get in a fistfight, I'd go to a bar and do it myself. Classic video games, on the other hand, truly extend my range of violent abilities—plasma guns, nuclear weaponry, and interstellar travel.

Maybe that's why one of the hardest games to locate is Tempest. Not only was it rare, but it was ethereally

cool—with its Euclidian, geometric vector graphics and free-spinning controller, it nicely merged geek abstraction with pell-mell, apocalyptic destruction. "There was something almost intellectual about it," Buratynski muses.

Indeed, there's something weirdly intellectual about the motivations of game collectors. As twenty-somethings, they see video games as more than just entertainment:

games are also reminders of how they experienced, firsthand, the rise of truly popularized digital culture. First-generation arcade geeks were the first generation to actually play with computers. In that demographic, owning a video game is like possessing a chunk of the technological Berlin Wall.

"This stuff was the hugest, hugest thing in its time," says Jefferys. "Still is."

After casing the auction, I briefly consider bidding on a copy of Narc, my fave product of the Reagan-era war on drugs (wherein you blow hell outta perps and run over drug dealers with a Camaro).

I figure it's worth about $100, and assemble at the front of the warehouse as the bidding begins. A crotchety old auctioneer named Terry Williams hauls himself up on stool and begins the crying of lot 1—a nasty-looking FirePower pinball machine. Williams works very quickly, and the bidders keep strict

poker faces: if you blink too suggestively, you could accidentally find yourself the owner of a stinker like the elliptically-titled 1987 Violence Fight. ( "I like these events," Williams tells me later. "What other auctions do I get to yell out, 'do I hear one-fifty for Alien Syndrome?'") In the end, I am crushed like a bug. When we get to

Narc (lot 43), I'm snowed in the competition—a young guy from a nearby suburb outbids me at $150.

Never mind, I figure, eyeing a battered version of Galaga. I'm hooked.

I'll be back.

Graphics based on Pac-Man, trademark of Namco,Ltd.

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