1994. Tuesday night. Dinner time. I walk into the Jack in the Box on Market Street (a fact disclosed without pride). This particular House that Jack Built is unusual in that it features a massive subterranean dining room. 60 white topped plastic tables with molded ass-hugging chairs augment the abattoir of the first floor. On this fateful evening, charred-flesh-and-salt confections must be on super-sale, filling the entire top floor. I descend.
I sit. I eat. Fluorescent panels sear the room with unnatural shadowless light.
From the farthest corner of the room voices are raised. A 13-year-old blond surf-kid stands up abruptly.
"Screw you man, I am NOT giving you that card."
Sitting across the table from the offended youth is a guy about my age. He's in a suit, tie still tight, clearly not off the rack. My trained eye pegs it as Hong Kong tailor. He is the Suit.
"Look kid, you said you wanted to play for ante. It's not my fault your Mox came up. You don't want to lose it, don't play it. That's the rule."
The kid stands up, grabs his book bag, scoops a bunch of cards from the table and walks out. The suit takes a sip from his decaffeinated diet beverage. Half a dozen tables around him are occupied by pairs, each playing some sort of card game.
The diversity of the group is shocking, but for XY chromosome dominance: Black, white, and Asian; 12 years old to 30. The Suit anchors the professional end of the food chain, the other end represented by Central Casting ravaged-college-student#27 (hygiene and footwear optional). In another context, I'd think him homeless. Walking casually past his table on the way to the garbage, I see there are two five dollar bills stuck under a prominently placed cardboard box bearing the inscription Magic: The Gathering.
Bashful, I don't talk to anyone, but watch the games. After 15 minutes or so, I think I've got the basics. The following Tuesday evening, I go back to the basement of the Jack in the Box with a few hastily-constructed and never-played decks in my jacket pocket.
I sit down. I play. I get schooled by a 12 year old for two hours as he teaches me the ropes with a condescension reserved for teenagers with grownups by the throat. Each game is a bet--loser gives the winner the top card off his deck: Ante. I leave a dozen cards short.
I had discovered a great game, and people to play it against. But that's not why the night sits burned into my brain with razor sharp clarity. No, it's because that Tuesday night in San Francisco, I became a collector.
The manifestation of my collecting infection followed the two classic pathologies.
The first vector--one that most people fall to--is love. With Magic, it was a love that hit me on so many levels. In the beginning, when the card pool was just 300 cards, the idea that the game was a festering collector's money-pit had yet to register. Dropping from the sky on a tired gaming world, it was--just as a game--flat out brilliant. It was the Best Game Ever (tm). The fact that it had style, art, and a bit of humor just baited the hook with a bit of honey. My collecting started as a function of the game itself. Having 4 of every card gave you limitless possibilities, and the possibilities were the love: endless hours pouring over binders full of cards, the lizard part of my brain engaged in irrational lust caressing the pasteboard, the higher brain constructing orthogonal combos of gaming goodness.
The second vector was economics. The infected use money to maintain their denial of the love. After a time, I convinced myself that these worthless little things, these cards were investments. If enough people believed a card was worth more than the 20 cents it originally cost, then it was worth more. This madness of belief can justify nearly anything. But with any denied love, it can only end in tears. Like the comic book collector who never rereads a book, I came to resent the very object of my affections. Still I slipped deeper in. I acquired thousands of cards, "invested" thousands of dollars. I became the Suit--the old guy with the suitcase full of rarity and desire, doled out reluctantly when presented with cash, or a better trade.
I was one of the lucky ones. I met the perfect woman, and somehow I got better. I sold out near the top. I still fall off the wagon from time to time, but never like that first time.
Pundits (here, and elsewhere) predict the end of the collectible, writ large. They are wrong. The epidemic flourishes. Cardboard-and-plastic game companies continue to thrive on the backs of collectible games: cards, miniatures, and anything anyone can claim as the "next big thing." Since the Dutch tulip crises of 1637, the madness of crowds when faced with collectible, irrational, greater-fool economics has remained indomitable. As one market collapses, another rises to take its place, as people who need-to-own become people who mask their disease with the paliative of investment.
Persistent digital spaces just spread the epidemic. In the mid '80s, members of my university science fiction club prided themselves on their collections of ASCII books--never read of course, why would you read Heinlein on a VT100? Virtual worlds continue to attract a large cadre of collectors--people who love a digital object with all the passion of a baseball card or a Beanie Baby. When Guild Wars handed out birthday presents to the game's original buyers, the mini-dragons and micro-monsters inside the wrapped boxes became, and remain, the most expensive objects in the game. They serve no purpose. They exist simply to be owned. Second Life is a--whatever it is--in which the only activity that generates revenue for the developer is the accumulation of digital things.
And of course, Wizards of the Coast, makers of Magic, took my old dirty needle online. One buys virtual cards, 15 to a pack, for 3 non-virtual dollars. It's even easier to build and lust over a collection than it is to sit in your living room with the binders. And there's a thriving marketplace for trading and selling these ethereal pasteboards.
And I can quit anytime I want.