If I look back at the media franchises that have in my life elicited the most long term devotion, every one of them had something very specific in common. From my first love, Pokémon, to the interest that I invested the most money into playing as a teen, Yu-Gi-Oh, all of the things I have gravitated most strongly to in my life have centered firmly around obsessively collecting sets of items.
As a young child, I not only collected every Pokémon possible in every Pokémon game, but I trained them to the strongest possible level, and memorized every bit of information possible about them. As an adult, I recently spent 550 hours over six months catching every single Shiny Pokémon in Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee (a 1/4000 base chance of spawning), training them all up to max level, and beating their master trainers using their maxed out stat shiny monsters.
Games like the Pokémon video games are a fairly healthy outlet for an obsessive need to collect full sets of things, because they contain a finite number of collectables to find, and do not require spending real world money for a random shot at getting the missing part of your collection. There are set steps to follow to find what you are looking for, with time and dedication eventually leading to completion as an attainable goal.
What is often less healthy for me is getting into Trading Card Game TCG economies.
I am an adult living with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum condition characterized by a number of possible diagnostic criteria. My diagnosis presents as difficulty processing multiple simultaneous sensory sources at once, difficulty socially, as well as obsessive urges to complete collections of things. As you can imagine, having a mental health condition that causes me to compulsively collect things and experience distress when a collection is incomplete can become expensive if allowed to go unchecked.
In the mid to late 2000’s, as I was first finding I had disposable income to spend on personal hobbies, I was really getting into the anime and card game Yu-Gi-Oh. For anyone unaware, the original TV series focused on a young boy, who with the help of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh ghost, had to play trading card games where holographic monsters were summoned, with the fate of the world on the line. It was cheesey, overly dramatic, and ignored its own rules when it needed to, but at its core was a strategy based card game where super cool looking monsters fought each other, and the winner got to be a hero. As a kid who loved strategy based games, the anime show and its direct translation to the real world card game got me really interested in picking up a few decks based on the show so I could play.
At first, I played largely by myself. I would purchase a pair of character themed structure decks, and play both sides of the duel alone in my room, going back and forth each turn acting out episodes of the show. However, a few years later I made a few friends at school to play with, who informed me there were clubs where you could go and play against others. I got really excited, a chance to make friends by playing with new people I shared a hobby with.
These new players were considerably better at the game than me. They had cards I had never seen, which could do all sorts of really cool combos I had never seen done. These players had been buying additional cards from randomized booster packs, and so I started to buy booster packs too. I was instantly hooked.
Trading Card Game TCG booster packs are addictive for exactly the same reasons gambling is addictive at its core. You risk a small amount of money for an uncertain outcome, with sunk cost fallacy sinking in if you get several bad spends in a row, and the eventual win mentally erasing the negative steps taken to get there. Confirmation bias and ritual behaviors kick in, and when paired with an obsessive need to complete full collections, for someone like me it can be a very easy hole to fall into.
Now, TCG booster packs are not a 1:1 equivalent to say gambling slot machines. You always get something when you buy a booster, and there’s a second hand market so you have the option to purchase cards directly without entering the randomized space, but the low price of packs and the high secondary market price of rare cards mean that buying packs can be addictive for those susceptible.
Additionally, TCGs like Yu-Gi-Oh are often updated with faster regularity than you can complete a perfect collection, with new cards making older ones obsolete and forcing players to keep spending if they want to stay competitive with their friends.
I fell for the trap, hard.
When I look back on my teens spent playing Yu-Gi-Oh, it’s a bitter sweet memory. I consistently overspent my means on cards, and I did see some minor national level success playing the game competitively for a short time, but the literal and figurative cost of doing so was too high. I was incapable of saving money, frittering it away as soon as I earned it. It was a negative spiral of spending, and one that I would likely bankrupt myself if I let myself return to today.
The problem is, I still love TCG mechanics at their core. I love drawing cards, making strategic choices about how to play, and hoping for luck to be on my side in a back and forth one on one fight. I love the concept, but I know I can’t let myself get suckered into spending money on randomized content.
So, what was my solution? Well, a couple of solutions. Firstly, if I play physical TCGs, I will only play using structure decks or other non randomized low entry price decks of cards. Sure, they’re never going to be competitively viable, but I now only really play with my fiancee, or other friends who take the game casually. We know that way we are on an even footing in terms of deck power, and we avoid anyone overpowering the other player too wildly.
Secondly, I watch competitive level players take part in the game, and enjoy top end strategies played out without needing to buy the rare cards to play them. I get to soak in and understand the strategies, without risking my own money. I did this at the Yu-Gi-Oh World Championships this year, and had a blast.
Lastly, I look explicitly for video game adaptations of trading cards games that do not feature any form of microtransactions. There’s a Yu-Gi-Oh game on mobile, but it really encourages spending real money on digital random card packs, so I uninstalled it fast. I still love the old Pokémon TCG video game for the original Game Boy, and the recently released Yu-Gi-Oh: Legacy of the Duelist – Link Evolution on Switch features no real money purchases. You can open digital booster packs, but those can only be earned by playing the game, not by spending money.
I still love playing TCGs, but I know they are designed to pray on the compulsive spending habits of teenage me. I have to engage with them carefully and on my own terms, because if I am not careful they can easily become huge money holes I know I can’t afford, nor resist.