As a father of two, I have a duty to exemplify the qualities of patience, thrift and responsibility. Where videogames are concerned, however, I have chosen instead to become a master of subterfuge and deception. That I am to appear a paragon of virtue is one thing. That I am to practice what I preach – well, that’s another thing altogether.

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I admit I’ve been known to stow newly purchased video games under the seat of the car, an empire of burger wrappers and Home Depot flyers, until everyone in my house is fast asleep. Then, stealthy like a pudgy cat with poor eyesight, I smuggle in the goods under cover of darkness, hopeful that no one will notice the slow but steady growth of my game library.

The next morning I tell my son he can’t have a new game unless he saves up his allowance. He’s only 5 now and not nearly cynical enough to expose my hypocrisy.

As he ages, I realize I will have to become infinitely more crafty; my nighttime trips to the car may someday escalate into an elaborate underground railroad for new releases. It’s not that we don’t have a household budget and bills to pay. I’m simply the Bernie Madoff of the family, cutting corners and making sure hidden piles of money are at my disposal when the time comes.

Recession, shmession! It’s not about quitting gaming – it’s about buying smart.

Of Flimsy Justifications and Tortured Analogies

I am by no means recession-proof. I am wholly recession vulnerable. I’m an English major, for Pete’s sake, which means that on the job security scale I fall somewhere between mortgage broker and head coach for the Oakland Raiders. Even though tiny glimmers of economic recovery tickle and tease us with every bi-polar news cycle, I should probably be jealously hoarding every dime, nickel and penny that finds its way into my home.

When it comes to almost everything but gaming, I’m budget conscious. Annoyingly so. I will scowl at 99-cent cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, which is to Minnesotans what salt or butter is to people with functional taste receptors, and insist that the store brand is six cents cheaper.

With games, however, I have long been the Norm to the Sam Malone of my local game proprietor. I walk in to a hero’s welcome; like Paris Hilton at a Daytona Beach kegger, I am the sure bet. Every time the bell above the door rings and I enter, a sales associate gets his multi-SKU transaction. But that bell doesn’t ring as much as it used to for me.

Stock recoveries be damned, the job market remains more in free fall than Keanu Reeves at the end of Point Break. Until I suddenly find a gold market for flimsy pop-culture analogies, I have to be a little tighter with the coin. Gaming, however, is where I put my foot down.

The line must be drawn here. This far, no further!

Get More for Less

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According to one widely reported 2009 ESA survey, more than 40 percent of U.S. homes have at least one gaming console, and, of course, the industry continues to report record revenue as one of the few bright spots in an up-and-down economy. It would seem that I am not alone in my bullishness on gaming.

Even if 2009 doesn’t produce another great big Scrooge McDuck money pool that has historically flowed into the coffers of big-gaming publishers, it’s hard to argue that electronic entertainment has been neutered in any kind of meaningful way. Of course, this is exactly as predicted. Home-based entertainment is historically recession proof, and in the grand scheme of things it becomes pretty easy to justify a thrifty game purchase or two when you skip the $5,000 Caribbean vacation. Azeroth may be as far away from Sandals, Bahamas, as a Hot Pocket is from a five-course meal at a French bistro, but your wallet will thank you.

Overall, there’s a downward trend in gaming costs over the past dozen months; nowadays you can practically buy a year’s worth of games for the price of a nice HD television. Price drops are the new black in and outside of the hardware world. Games like Shadow Complex and Castle Crashers have managed to absorb as much of my time as any $60 AAA title at a fraction of the cost. A Rock Band 2 DLC pack might as well be a whole new game for the time I end up investing in it. And Steam’s weekend deals have provided me countless hours of joy for pennies on the dollar. As 2009 sweeps into what will have to pass for high gear, the industry seems to have picked this trip around the sun to provide new vectors for quality gaming at rock-bottom, discount warehouse prices.

I’m starting to expect a set of steak knives to be shipped with my next gaming purchase at no additional charge.

But Wait, That’s Not All!

Today, there are enough outlets that market to a budget-conscious audience that I rarely have to take the responsibility on for myself. It’s just so criminally easy to log into a service, see the smorgasbord of digital mirthfulness and fire off a sale-price purchase with a click of a button. I have a harder time buying Pay-per-view pornogra- I mean, sporting events.

I know that as a father, a husband and a passenger of the recession with a retirement fund and home value that are mere shadows of their former selves, the last thing in the world I should be worrying about is videogames. On the other hand, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to imagine a budget without room for recreation. I have always contended that videogaming is some of the best entertainment bang for the buck, so I don’t have a hard time justifying 20 hours of use out of $20 dollars.

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Developers, publishers and manufacturers may even be in sync with the desire of consumers. No one appears to be in much of a rush to get new and expensive hardware on the market. No one is pushing the envelope of cost in a meaningful way. The long dirty words of “sale” and “discount,” once anathema to the industry, seem to be the buzzwords that the industry is using to keep my trigger finger firmly on the “buy” button.

The only real change to my spending habits seems to be fewer trips to actual brick-and-mortar outlets that, either by naïveté or necessity, seem oblivious to the changes going on around them. While I have always loved the rush of holding a new game, I’m willing to take a chance on the new delivery systems as long as they offer me the same quality at a discount. I like to think that eventually their influence will drive traditional outlets into competition, and we’ll start seeing more price specials on new releases.

Bringing It All Home

Making sound buying decisions shouldn’t require you to give up the things you enjoy. As always, common sense is your greatest ally for gaming on a budget. Even doing as little as waiting a few days to get feedback on a new game before deciding to purchase it can have a significant impact over the long haul.

I don’t feel like I’m gaming any less today than I did in 2006, when every week spelled at least one new game purchase. I just feel like these days, I’m paying less and enjoying the games I play more. The reality is we have more power as consumers than we like to admit, draconian return policies and restrictive DRM issues aside. We just have to take that power and use it.

Sean Sands is a regular gaming columnist and is hoping like hell that this is one of those articles his wife never reads. But in case she does – I was just kidding, sweetie!

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