Steam Trading Cards: Cynical Exploitation or Harmless Metagame?

by stavrosthewonderchicken
Features, Games and Gaming

If you’re reading this, you probably know what Steam Trading Cards are. They’re a metagame recently introduced to the Steam platform, and they tie into the also-newish Market (where game items like TF2 weapons and hats and, to a lesser extent so far, in-game digital goods from other games can be bought and sold for real money that can then be used within the overall Steam walled garden). They also tie into the until-now pointless Badge system, where you are awarded icons on your profile for participating in betas or sales or interacting with the community or just buying MOAR GAMES, and include abilities to customize your Steam profile page with backgrounds, use emoticons in chats, and other silly crap like that.

Cards come in sets, like physical trading cards, can be ‘crafted’ to upgrade them, and are ‘dropped’ — like weapons and hats and other things are dropped in Team Fortess 2 — when playing games that have them. They can be traded, bought and sold. They are also dropped when voting on games to be offered at discount in the current, massive Steam Summer Sale 2013, and more worryingly, when buying games. And that’s where things, for some, get a little… icky.

There are differing views these days on the ethical responsibilities of companies that exploit the addictive sides of our natures. When tobacco companies tweak a product that kills to make it more addictive, there aren’t many people that are sanguine about that. We’re pretty comfortable with thinking of them as villains. Cities all over North America and the rest of the world ban or curtail smoking in public, and an overwhelming majority of folks nod in agreement. (Oddly, craft beer and wine and liquor makers are kind of cultural heroes, these days, at least in my cohort of middle-aged geeks.)

When fast food companies pursue the bliss point in a effort to circumvent the conscious minds of their customers and eat more, or casinos feed the urge of gamblers to play their ‘games of chance’, we’re maybe a little less certain about the role of personal responsibility. When the mayor of New York city starts banning massive serving sizes of the sugary sodas that are killing so many, the balance point starts to tip, and mockery and resentment start to become the most common reaction, with outraged cries of resisting a nanny state that limits people’s freedoms to ruin themselves any damned way they like.

Some fall towards the personal responsibility side of the discussion — that we are solely responsible for our own welfare, and it is wrong to expect for-profit corporations to be in any way responsible for their customers, or for government to regulate companies or protect consumer welfare. This extreme of the argument suggests that if we become addicted to a product or service that has been designed to lead us toward addiction (or, you know brand loyalty), then that is our personal burden to deal with.

Some fall towards the opposite end of things — that government has a responsibility to regulate the most exploitative aspects of capitalism, that corporations have a responsibility towards their customers as well as towards their shareholders, and that personal responsibility exists within a framework of consumer protection. The extreme of this argument might suggest that if we become addicted to a product or service that has been designed to leas us toward addiction, then the maker of that product or service is at least as responsible as we are, and government has a duty on our behalf.

Most people fall somewhere in between these two views.

We are more accustomed to the psychological phenomenon of hoarding than we’ve ever been, most of us, in no small part thanks to exploitative, latter-day circus-geek point-and-shudder ‘reality’ TV programs like ‘Hoarders‘. A lot of us, myself included, have known people who were somewhere along the spectrum that ends with compulsive hoarding. And we are aware that an unchecked compulsion to collect stuff can destroy a life just about as comprehensively as a coke habit.

I would suggest that that spectrum actually begins with the otherwise benign habit of collecting, and this is where things get sticky.

It takes effort to collect things in the real world. It takes work, and it takes money, and it takes space. It’s also fairly harmless, at low intensity, and there’s little to no stigma attached to it. Society still tends to think it’s a little wackier for an adult to collect, say, action figures than it is for a kid to do so, or rocks, or fossils, or whatever, but this has been changing. Collecting, like so many habits and behaviours, once mainly thought to be the preserve of the young, has crept into the range of unexceptional activities for adults. And that’s probably a good thing, because living and letting live is, I reckon, a good maxim for a society to abide by. You’re 40 years old and you collect comics? Or games? Or dolls? Sure, why not? Go to it if it makes you happy!

Collecting is emblematic of what have become widely accepted and vibrant subcultures, and though there are certainly people who will judge you for it, there are people who are keen to judge others for just about anything. That’s the way people are. Arguments could be made — and I’ve made them in the past — that these subcultures define themselves a little too much around what consumer or cultural products are bought, accumulated and cherished, perhaps, pushing our tribal identification and sense of individuality into the deep end of the commercial pool, but this is where we find ourselves, and so be it.

Technology has begun to play an increasing role in the Collector Mode, though, and that’s shaking things up.

In the physical world collecting is hard and expensive, in the digital one, it’s far too easy. It’s rat-pressing-the-juice-button easy. In the physical world, there are physical limitations and obvious consequences to our ability to hit the pleasure button. Whether it’s a drug or food or sex that gives us the hit of happy we crave, we can only indulge so often before things start to go off the rails. If it’s collecting that does it, there’s a point where we run out of money, or space, or we test the limits of our loved ones’ forbearance.

When it’s collecting digital things, especially when those things cost us little or no money, there are no brakes to hit, the gas pedal is made of candy floss, and there aren’t a lot in the way of obvious consequences, other than the sheer amount of time someone might spend aquiring and organizing and playing with their collections. And the price of hard drives, which drop by the year. The vast majority of people I know who are Internet People have massive music collections, for example. Or TV. Or movies. Or comics. Or ebooks. Or all of them. Legally gotten or torrented in massive swathes of .rared-up entertainment product.

As efficient as TV or cinema has gotten in arrowing straight into our brains and tickling the pleasure nodes, I would argue that no other kind of media has gotten as good at hooking itself into our lizard brains as video games have. A great movie is a shot of scotch, a game that has been designed to set up a stimulus-reward cycle in your brain — whether it’s a shooty-kaboom game like Call of Duty or a casual aquisition game like Farmville or a social interaction game like Words With Friends, or games that cover all the bases like Diablo or World of Warcraft, all designed to perfectly link up with a certain type of need in people’s brains — is like a digital speedball loving concocted from finest digital heroin and sweet skinnerian cocaine.



Games that captivate people are designed to set up a desire, stimulation, reward, intensification cycle. And I’m not suggesting that this is done — most of the time — out of any cynical manipulation, or out of greed, or other base motives, although the waters can get muddy. I think much of the time that makers of games just want to make their games as fun as they can possibly be, and for people who play those games, fun means that an itch they have is being scratched pleasurably, then stimulated, then scratched again, and done at a level and pace that just keeps the pleasure going without being exhausting or boring. But I am also aware that corporate makers of games in particular spend millions and expect millions in profits, and the massive stakes that this involves impels them to use every tool at their disposal to hone the stimulus-response loop to perfection, by whatever psychological and interaction design and audiovisual means they can muster.

This is why I look at games like Diablo, for example, with more than a little bit of skepticism. I am only able to do so, I admit, because I am not someone who finds the Loot Aquisition Mechanism, which is at the core of that series, attractive. Just doesn’t do it for me, in the same way that marijuana doesn’t do it for me (but alcohol does). Diablo III sold millions (although, gratifyingly, its Real Money Auction House (from which Blizzard took a cut of every transaction) was a minor flop, even if it was a harbinger of things to come). Role Playing games, where levelling up a character becomes a major focus for players, rewards a different sort of desire in its players, with a different kind of mechanic (and again, one that doesn’t push any of my buttons). It is no coincidence, I don’t think, that Trading Cards and Badges on Steam now help you to ‘level up’ your Steam profile. Other game genres and mechanics focus — ever more accurately and intensely as time goes by and developers and designers get better at this kind of ludic calculus — on different buttons that their customers enjoy having pleasurably pushed.

Is it cynical? Sure, sometimes. To an end: selling more. But also towards giving the customer the most intensely enjoyable experience from the product. That same bliss point that the manufacturers of Cheetos, say, spend years and millions of dollars incrementally narrowing in on.

The recent trend towards downloadable content exploits the completist impulse that the Collector Mode enjoys, but here is where things take, I think, a solid step towards the malevolent, along the same path that Blizzard’s Real Money Auction House led us. Now it’s not about so much about keeping players in the game happy, it’s about exploiting the Collector Mode to get more money out of gamer’s pockets. The truly cynical manifestation of this kind of thing is in useless gewgaws like player skins, or new but non-game-altering weapons — items that cost money, but do not enhance the game in any way. Not actual new content — as in, say Skyrim’s campaign or house-construction DLC packages — but just ways to exploit gamers who are susceptible to Collector Mode, who are completists, and who want everything, just because it’s everything.



And so, finally, we get to Steam Trading Cards. I’ve played around with them a bit, and even though, as I mentioned, I don’t ever really feel the need to scratch that collector itch, it is not a secret that there is a significant overlap between the Gamer Mind and the Collector Mind. The success of games whose core mechanic revolves around collecting items, and the unexpected and wild success of hats in Team Fortress 2 are ample evidence of this. In fact, arguably, it was the introduction of hats in TF2 that led us to the Steam market, trading, real-money transactions, badges and now trading cards in Steam.

I may not be a Collector — although I certainly have a massive music collection, I admit — but I know a lot of people, gaming people, who are. And a fair number of them are calling introduction of the Steam Trading Cards exploitative and manipulative, and a disappointment from a company that has always seemed (and claimed) to be on the side of their customers, focussed, as Gabe Newell has said again and again in public, on giving their customers the Best Experience Possible.

It would seem downright evil, if one weren’t so sure that Valve is doing it because they just want people to have more fun. One is sure of that, right?

It seems to these folks — and to me, as well, a bit — that Valve, those canny ludologists, know exactly what they’re doing with the introduction of trading cards. That they’re zeroing in on the Collector Mode of so many of their customers. It’s a gorgeous (and possibly horrifying) fractal of a thing, when you think about. Gamers, playing games that they buy on Steam, some of which involve as part of their core gameplay locking into the Collector Mode. Then Steam itself, where Collectors also collect games. Then the Trading Card metagame, where Collectors collect cards, which also enable them to collect more games, in the playing of some of which they can also scratch that collection itch.

It would seem downright evil, if one weren’t so sure that Valve is doing it because they just want people to have more fun. One is sure of that, right?

Well, one would be, if there weren’t Real Money involved. Sure, Steam Wallet real money, but dollars and cents nonetheless. Valve takes a cut of every transaction, and that, to me at least, introduces a less than savory aspect to this latest fun-propagation mission. Remember the Company Store phenomenon, before labour unions began to have any power, where employees of a company received payment in company scrip, which they could only spend on food and other necessities, for inflated prices, in the company store? I’m remembering that.

I actually enjoy the new trading card stuff. It’s gotten me to spend a lot more time poking around in the community infrastructure they’ve built, I’ve enjoyed trying out the Market and made precisely 48 cents selling trading cards, I’ve been playing games from my library that I might not have otherwise, and yes, the whole thing has probably gotten me to buy more games during this sale than I might otherwise have.

Back when I was young, I enjoyed a bit of the cocaine once in a while. I grew out of it without developing an addiction. I had friends that weren’t so lucky.

Giving people what they want is just making a buck? Sure. But, you know: so’s the coke dealer.

See also: Mike Rose’s Chasing The Whale


stavros thewonderchicken has written 125 FGEC articles.

Founder and Chief Ornithological Officer of Wonderchicken Industries™. I run LevelsOfDetail, Gamefilter and MefightClub (the mothership), and do not-gaming internet things at and I love you all.

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5 thoughts on “Steam Trading Cards: Cynical Exploitation or Harmless Metagame?

  1. senorroboto says:

    As a relative child who was once caught up in the Pokemon card phenomenon (at least that had a game you could play, even if most didn’t!) I’m not exactly sure of the point here either. I don’t see the point here, or the moderation. Aside from trying to master the art of price timing and market exploitation, there’s little room for mastery or exploration, two of the main joys I get from games.

    • Well, I think there are twin and possibly conflicting impulses on Valve’s part — 1) to drive more engagement in their community (and thus to their sales platform and so to increase revenue to them and the game devs, so that’s two-in-one), and 2) to Be Fun.

      Where the balance lies and should lie is up for debate and that’s the question I’m headscratching over at length here. ;-)

  2. One of the intereresting effects that the Trading Card game has had on me is that I’m replaying games that have Trading Cards added to them afterwards, which I may otherwise have not touched again for ages.

    • Yeah, I’ve been doing the same thing. I revisited Hotline: Miami, for example, and have fallen in love with it, which didn’t happen for some reason initially.

      I don’t care all that much about the card drops, or so I tell myself, but they have got me prioritizing my backlog differently, definitely.

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