Emulators were first brought to my attention about 1996 maybe 97, as a means of playing old games, and yes even back then, even with NES games being a dime a dozen, they were still not readily available around where I grew up. Mainly I would play Super Mario hacks or some fun variation of a NES game that I already owned. One thing you always heard when it came to ROMs was that legally you couldn't hold on to a ROM for more than 24 hours unless you owned a physical copy of the game, which is partially why I am the way I am today.
While my Wii is soft modded and loaded with an SD card of ROMs and emulators, I choose the middle ground that so many people just can't seem to find or understand. I use emulators and ROMs as a way to test and see if I want to own a physical copy of a game. I'm not saying that this is unique to myself, I'm sure it's not, but it seems in the majority of cases in-which Emulation and ROMs come up people either think they're evil ways of ripping off a company or an alternative to the original hardware and software for any given system.
Even though I've been a gamer for over half of my life I still don't know every single detail about every single game ever released, and this is where emulation and ROMs help me greatly. Often times I'll hear or see something online that brings a game to my attention that I've never heard about before but may want to try out. Instead of rushing to ebay, Amazon or to a local used game store and trying to track one down in the best condition at the lowest price, it's just easier to emulate the game for a little bit and see if all the hassle would even be worth it.
Obviously I don't emulate any disc based games, as I find it easier to just watch a Let's Play on Youtube and see if I feel the excitement of playing that game myself and making my own decisions while playing it. I also can't deny that I use this to experience games I could otherwise never obtain, something such as Little Samson or translated Mother 3. I even own a few Famicom games that I wish I could understand, yet they're all in Japanese, so it's much easier to find a fan translation to play through.
I believe emulation has its place within the video gaming spectrum. Some may demonize it, others may depend on it, but I feel that it could easily be used as a tool to spark interest in a very fulfilling hobby. Think of ROMs more as a demo of a game, or a trial play through. If you download a demo to your console and don't like it, you delete it and forget about it, but if you liked that game you play the demo to it's completion and then start tracking down a copy of the game itself.