Maybe you’ve heard about Steam Trading Cards. When you play certain games, digital cards will drop at random into your Steam Inventory. Enjoy one of these games for a while (or just idle in its menu), and sooner or later you’ll have about half of that game’s Trading Cards. There rest, you’re supposed to trade for, or else buy for real-world cash-money in the Steam Market.
The cards don’t really do anything, it must be said. They don’t belong to some card-based game of their own—no Magic: The Gathering analogue here—nor can your avatar in some other game carry them around. This means that they are objectively less useful than Team Fortress 2’s objectively useless, much-mocked, obscenely profitable pretend hats.
(If you get a full set of cards, then you can “craft” them into a badge, an emoticon, and and some experience points, but none of those do much of anything, either).
Curious, spurious, and confused, I signed up for the beta of this bizarre new meta-not-a-game. I let Don’t Starve idle for a few hours and I got three of the game’s five cards. One of my Steam friends had one of the cards I needed, but I had nothing to trade for it, so oh well. Then I idled in Half-Life 2 with similarly unspectacular results.
While idling in Team Fortress 2, I got multiples of a few cards, leaving large gaps in my collection. I messaged a friend who was similarly afflicted, and we traded. Neat! We were getting into the spirit! (Is that neat?) Next I idled in Dota 2 for a while without getting any cards. I consulted Google, and learned that only those who’d spent $9 or more in Dota 2’s in-game shop were entitled to its cards. Well, fuck that, then.
Last of all, I idled in Portal 2, and slowly my inventory notifications ticked away, and lazily I clicked over to see what I’d gotten. A card, a card, another card. No duplicates this time, and of course, no complete set. Just more cards. Unremarkable.
But then, on my very last allotted drop, I got a Foil Card. For those who’ve never traded or collected physical cards, I’ll explain that anything festooned with foil is rarer, and also shiner, and that those factors conspire to assign such objects much higher prices. Sure enough, I flipped over to the Steam Market and saw that the card I’d just acquired had been selling for between $7.50 and $20.
Twenty. Dollars. American.
I listed mine. Nothing happened for a while. Then someone undercut me by a few cents, and neither of our cards sold that day, and I started to get panicky. Sooner or later, the bottom will fall out of this thing. Values will plummet. It’s a matter of when, not if, as is the way with all such bubbles. So maybe, I told myself, I’d already missed the boat.
After all, my shiny card—which wasn’t even shiny! Just kind of gray—was not a Honus Wagner rookie card or an Action Comics #1. It was more like a gaudily befoiled card with Mewtwo on it, or a glossy 90s comic in which Superman dies, intentionally produced in limited quantities simply to pander to self-styled speculators. Someone will lose this little game of musical chairs. Someone will be left holding the Mewtwo.
So I relisted the card at a price that would, after the seller paid Valve their cut, net me $15. And someone bought it. Don’t think too hard about what it means to sell a simulation of a reproduction of a collectable for real money, I told myself.
I’m not even sure how comfortable I am with the idea of a real trading card selling for $15, especially when its scarcity, its overvaluation, has been so baldly calculated and so cynically engineered. This card is so many orders away from being real. It’s an abstraction of something that is already abstract, symbolic, and intrinsically meaningless, not to mention manipulative and exploitative.
Yet here I am, part of the problem, selling the damn things. As new games (and thus new cards) have been added to the beta, I’ve continued collecting and selling the cards. At time of writing, I’ve made $47 profit. To me, that seems like a better deal than badges and emoticons.
But plenty of other people must feel differently, or else no one would be buying what I’ve been selling. Steam Trading Cards are clearly an experiment in seeing who will pay how much for what. For me, they mean that whenever I happen to have a game with cards, I’ll get a couple of bucks with minimal effort, and then feel utterly strange about it, but not quite strange enough to break the cycle.