Collector – Andrew Stephen
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What got you started collecting on/around the area of games?
I was lead into collecting by nothing more than misty-eyed nostalgia. My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81. In the early 80s, at 10 or 11 years old, I taught myself to program a ZX81 which was on display in a local electronics shop and eventually convinced my parents to buy one. Over the next few years I spent considerable time programming, hardware hacking and trading games with the ZX81, and memories of some of those games stayed with me into adulthood.
In 1997 I realised I could use the Internet to try to find a ZX81 again, and I set myself a mission to get a functioning ZX81 to play my favourite game of its time – Mazogs. To achieve this I needed three things: a working ZX81, a working 16 kilobyte RAM expansion and a working copy of Mazogs on tape. All of these proved more elusive than I’d expected.
After posting a “wanted” advertisement to a Usenet newsgroup I managed to find a ZX81, but it didn’t quite work despite my best efforts to repair it. I started to scour the newspaper classifieds every weekend, posted to newsgroups and began attending auctions – real live auctions in a big room – waiting for the right thing to come up, but for a long time it didn’t. Instead I saw other old computers and game consoles from my youth; a Commodore 64, an Atari 2600jr, a Fountain Force 2. Having fond memories of many of these, and being worried they’d end up as landfill, I bought them and took them back to my office to test and try out. Before long I was hooked. Today I’m approaching 200 machines in my collection, each with associated tapes, disks, cartridges books and ephemera, yet even now when I see something that tickles my nostalgia I’m driven to collect it.
Can you tell us what you collect?
First and foremost I collect Sinclair computers and software.
It became clear early on that I was ranging well outside that category so I revised it to “8 Bit home PCs of the 70s and 80s.” Even that failed to accurately describe my interest; evolutionary steps like the original Macintosh, Amiga and IBM PC were well in scope, as were game consoles that came up along the way. Today at least a quarter of my collection is consoles.
What do you find pleasurable/enjoyable (or substitute the word you’d use here) about it?
There’s a visceral thrill to seeing something that sparks a nostalgic memory, acquiring it, holding it and using it. And there’s a sense of amazement when I hear the stories people tell of how these things affected their lives. And a sense of accomplishment in finally owning something I have desired since childhood but never had.
Do you have any items that hold a special significance for New Zealand/Australia? Can you tell us about one/some of them?
The most astonishing thing I have is something that I have no plans to hang on to. I grew up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and attended the Central City Computer Interests Group – a local computer club – during the 80s. There I met a man named Harvey Kong Tin who was a keen Atari enthusiast. I remember Harvey showing off some graphics he’d done which I remember being quite spectacular for the time. I later found out that Harvey had, with his friend Andrew Bradfield, written and had published games for the Atari 8 bit computers, and that was the source of some of those graphics.
A few years ago Harvey contacted me asking if I was interested in the documents and old floppies used while developing the games. At first I was hesitant – I didn’t wan to become responsible for preserving these artifacts that I consider a massively significant piece of New Zealand History. I have scanned the documentation and am working on archiving the floppies, and will be lodging all the originals with the New Zealand Film Archive as soon as I can.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a collector?
The artifacts in which I’m interested are degrading rapidly. Hardware is often faulty and replacements parts can often be hard to find. Floppy disks and tapes are often at the point where little or no information can be recovered from them. Though hardiest of all the storage media, the ROM chips inside cartridges are starting to fail. Even if tapes and floppies are readable, finding the hardware and software necessary to recover the data can be problematic.
Time and space also constrain my ability to give it the attention I feel it deserves. I have a garage, storage unit and a study full of retro history. What I really want is somewhere to display the items in an accessible and interactive way, to tell the stories and to have the time to spend repairing and curating them properly.
Do you consider what you do as having an archival/historical aspect?
One of the drivers behind my early collecting was the realisation that the items I was acquiring would otherwise have gone into landfill. Despite searching around the Internet I found no sign that there was any recognition by individuals or institutions that the hardware and software of the 70s and 80s were a critical part of modern history. I feared that my children, and generations beyond them, would never have the opportunity to see, touch or experience the games and devices that revolutionised how computers were perceived and accepted in society. I developed the desire to display these in a museum where people could learn about the machines, the games, the history and the stories behind them.
This desire burns as strongly today as it did almost 20 years ago. If anyone’s interested in joining me and other New Zealand collectors in establishing such an institution, please get in touch!