Appearances can be deceiving.

This is especially true on the internet, of course; there are plenty of decent-seeming people lurking in the network shadows who just as soon as you turn your back would prey upon your hard drive’s contents in search of whatever it is – passwords, credit card numbers, videos you promised would go no further than you and your significant other, whatever – that would bring them a few bucks.

And yet here I am, conducting a magazine interview via instant messenger with a fellow whom I contacted via a forum private message because I don’t have his real name, phone number or email address. Apparently, he’s in Tokyo. We’re chatting about a particular corner of cyberspace traversed by all manner of obscure screen names, where people post cryptic messages like “TRU 12/20 YMMV” and engage in various black-market transactions hidden from prying eyes, where appearances are deceiving in a very different way. Credit card theft? Stealing personal information? Software piracy? Nope. These guys form a gamer network that spans across the United States, working together in the name of – what else? – cheap games. Welcome to CheapAssGamer.com.

“Cheap Ass Gamer was inspired by [general bargain site] bensbargains.net,” David Abrams tells me. “One of my friends used to keep emailing me deals that he found there and I got hooked.” David, known as “CheapyD” to his fellow Cheap Ass Gamer ilk (“CAGs”), started Cheap Ass Gamer in May 2003 as a side project to his normal nine-to-five job. “The problem was, there wasn’t enough videogame deals to satisfy me. And when there were videogame deals, they just got lumped in with everything else,” he continues, “I found myself searching the online retailers for videogame deals and then decided to try and make my own website.” Two and a half years later, David has moved to Tokyo with Mrs. CheapyD and made videogame bargain hunting his full time job.

But, if Cheap Ass Gamer’s deal news page is the Bat-Signal for Cheap Ass Gamers, it is the forums that constitute its metaphorical Batcave. While CheapyD still finds his share of deals, and retailers will occasionally come to Cheap Ass Gamer to give him the inside scoop, the majority of deal news comes from the Cheap Ass Gamer bulletin boards, where a community of like-minded individuals congregate to form a network of cheap ass informants capable of locating videogame deals that even CheapyD himself couldn’t find.

Deal information ranges from a simple heads-up on a local videogame store sale to a detailed list of clearance games leaked from anonymous retailer employees at national chains like Toys ‘R’ Us, Circuit City and Sam Goody. Their sources are impeccable. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for CAGs to be sighted skulking the gaming aisles of their local Best Buy with a list of cheap ass games in hand or an obscene stack of games at the checkout aisle, of course. But neither is it uncommon for them to know exactly what games are on clearance for $9.99 before the employees themselves do.

Their methods are just as ruthless as their information is reliable, too; every trick in the book is used to make sure that they don’t pay a penny more than they have to. A recent Target holiday catalog erroneously published the price of the Nintendo DS as a mere $99, $30 cheaper than the normal retail price. However, while the average Joe stomped angrily to the store manager’s office to wave a printout of the mistaken advertisement in his or her face to varying degrees of success, savvy CAGs were found at Circuit City and Best Buy with the same Target ad in hand, requesting a price-match, and, in most cases, getting it.

While the average Internet-savvy gamer may have showed up at the December Toys ‘R’ Us clearance sale to pick up Resident Evil 4 for $10, CAGs were there two days before the sale to pick up all the items that were to be marked for clearance, and returned during normal sale days to get the price difference refunded, allowing them to snag the titles they wanted at the prices they wanted without having to deal with the sale-day rush.

No doubt, the temptation to abuse this cheap ass power runs strong in mere mortals. Indeed, I found at my first game clearance sale, thoughts of my own gaming needs were brushed aside in favor of money signs and thoughts of eBay. The thought of obtaining a veritable catalog of current PlayStation 2, XBox and GameCube games at prices as low as $5 per game can do that to any red-blooded gamer, and this is doubly true to a starving student like myself.

But, curiously, there is honor among cheap asses. Rather than use their cheap ass information to encourage a feeding frenzy of clearance titles in stores nationwide, Cheap Ass Gamers frown on buying up obscene amounts of clearance games with the intent to resell – after all, their fellow Cheap Ass Gamers can’t buy Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for $9 if an earlier Cheap Ass Gamer snapped up all the copies to sell on eBay for $20 apiece. “‘Hoarding’ is taking advantage of sales to turn a profit on eBay – or elsewhere. Unlike other “deal sites,” on CAG, hoarding is considered bad form,” David IMs. “The CAGs view these sales as opportunities to purchase and play games that they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to enjoy. They view games as more than just a commodity.”

Instead, CAGs will take requests from other CAGs who, for whatever reason, can’t make it to the sales, with the understanding that the recipient of the favor will return the favor at their next opportunity. Indeed, the Cheap Ass Gamer experience doesn’t end at the checkout aisle. CAGs are encouraged to pick up multiple copies of popular titles for use as “trade fodder” – that is, games that aren’t their personal domain, but can be traded to another CAG for a game that strikes their fancy, enabling CAGs who aren’t catered to by their local stores to get in on the cheap ass gaming action.

But what happens when a trade goes afoul? CheapyD explains, “For the most part, it has been relatively smooth sailing. The community has been very good about policing itself and it is not unusual to see the CAGs help each other out when things go wrong. Recently, someone got ripped off and a CAG who was local to the bad trader actually made a house call.” I raise my eyebrows in surprise. He can’t see that, of course, but I suppose my shock was apparent. “Nobody got their ass kicked or anything like that. I believe the bad trader’s parents were informed of their child’s wrongdoings.”

Phew. Kicking someone’s ass in the name of affordable, accessible gaming just doesn’t sound right, somehow.

My chat with Mr. Abrams doesn’t go much further from here. We talk a little bit about his noble efforts to get a CAG contribution to Child’s Play that eventually came in at over $3,000; I can only imagine how hard it was to milk three grand out of a bunch of self-identified cheap asses. But in the end, it’s not really just about saving money. “The focus will always be on the community – that’s really the most important thing,” David tells me, and somehow, even over the impersonal medium of instant messaging, I get the feeling that I should have known that the whole time.

Wow.

Appearances really are deceiving.

Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.

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