In the mid-1990s, riverboat casinos became legal in Missouri, where I grew up. The intricacies of this seemed complicated: when they first appeared; the casinos had to go on actual “cruises” up and down the river. Today, the casinos operate in large structures that just need to be near water (I think puddles have been approved). I don’t want to at all lessen the nature of gambling addictions by claiming I developed a gambling addiction on these water-set casinos, because I realize how many lives have been ruined, and I maybe lost no more than $500 on any given night (mostly because, at this period in my life, I didn’t have much money to lose).
I’m sure the following is consistent with how a lot of people feel about gambling: The wins don’t feel that great and the losses hurt a lot. The problem for me is that I didn’t know what a “win” was. Most of the time, I found myself at the low stakes blackjack table, later moving up to low stakes craps (which, I learned, could become higher stakes quickly). But, if I were up, say, $100, do I stop? Or is this my night? Am I passing up a chance to walk out of there with a lot more money? Of course, it was never my night. Most nights, I’d walk out of there down a few $20s, trying to convince myself that I’d have spent that much if I had been out at a bar or something. Regardless, it was the thrill of “one more hand” or “one more roll” that kept me going. What if the next one is the one that gets me back to even?
Well, now it’s “one more pack.”
I moved to New York City in 2004. This is significant because, of all the things New York City offers, it doesn’t offer legal casinos inside the city limits. To actually gamble, I’d have to get on some sort of a bus or train and travel a substantial distance. After 11 years, it’s just never seemed worth the hassle.
I mention all of this because I do know what gambling feels like. It’s either that momentary high when something goes right, or that squeamish feeling in the pit of your stomach as everything falls apart. And I’ve been feeling a lot of that lately, as I play, of all things, an online Star Wars card trading game.
On the app’s download page, there is a warning: “Infrequent/Mild Simulated Gambling,” which I thought was funny the first time I read it, and now I think it’s funny that I once thought it was funny. The weird thing about all this is that, if someone asked, I would totally recommend this game. That’s how hooked I am.
“Do the cards do anything?,” is a question I get a lot. Like, does it work like Magic: The Gathering or something like that? No, it works like baseball cards. You buy packs and hope you get good digital cards. That’s pretty much it. The trick is, there are insert cards that are hard to obtain, at different degrees of difficulty. This is where the “gambling” comes in, because it takes a lot of packs to obtain these cards. And opening packs costs credits. And some credits are free, but a lot of credits cost real money. When you do pull that rare card, it’s the same feeling I used to get when I hit the point in craps.
Yes, at one point, after a few cocktails, I became frustrated enough with my Star Wars card trading game that I spent $99 on credits so that I had more chances at winning a digital card. A digital card! It’s not even real!
I’ve thought about this “real” notion quite a bit. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no difference between a digital card on my electronic device and one that’s printed on a piece of cardboard, as if cardboard is so valuable. (I realize with real cards there are also inserts that include things, like an autograph or a piece of a game worn uniform or some other fragment of something else that was once a desirable thing to own, but those are few and far between.) But I’ve also come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be getting drunk and spending $99 on digital trading cards.
I used to collect baseball cards. In the mid 1990s, the “insert card” craze started and this was about the time that I stopped collecting (mostly because I was in college and I came to the conclusion that I’d rather spend the little money that I had on cheap beer than baseball cards; it’s here that I will point out that I went to an, at the time, Big XII school). It was in the ‘80s that people started realizing that their old baseball cards had value, especially the first cards of players who would go on to have Hall of Fame careers. This led to people hoarding the rookie cards of anyone who had potential. This is also why, in an attic somewhere in Missouri, I still own 20 1988 Donruss Gregg Jefferies baseball cards. The problem is, those cards in the ‘80s were so mass-produced that the cards had no chance of retaining their value. This is why you can still walk into a nostalgia store and buy packs of 1987 Topps for about the same price as they were in 1987. Insert cards were created to introduce actual scarcity. “Hidden in one of out of every 40 packs, there’s a special card that’s already worth a lot of money.” This is highly addicting and is really no different than buying a scratch-off lottery ticket.
Sometimes it varies, but the consistently most popular card in the Star Wars card trading app is something called a Vintage Han. It’s a digital card depicting Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon that includes digital creases to make it look digitally old. It sells on eBay right now for around $200. (There are a lot of theories floating around as to why it’s so valuable: my favorite is that it was released on the first day of the game’s existence and so a lot of people who signed up after the initial media blitz scored the Vintage Han, then quit the game. So even though it says there’s 1,500 of them, only about half of those are in active accounts.)
The first time I saw a digital card on eBay, I think I said out loud, “That’s stupid.” I’ve now purchased multiple cards off eBay (in defeat when I couldn’t pull the card through regular means). And I don’t even want to admit the things I’ve done to earn credits, but I will.
The app gives you a small daily allotment of credits for signing in, but it’s not really enough to actually play. Credits can be purchased, which I’ve done, but it feels icky. The third option is to earn credits by watching advertisements or downloading apps or buying products or “speaking to representatives” about an assortment of embarrassing things.
I created a false identity that includes a fake name, a fake date of birth and a fake backstory. My fake name is Matt Sassypot (okay, that’s not even my real fake name, though it’s close; I just don’t want to reveal it and then I can’t use it anymore. I know, I have a problem) and Matt is a man in his mid ‘30s who is interested in getting his high school diploma, his GED, his college degree, reducing his credit card debt, and the idea of having satellite television. Just pretending I’m this guy for five minutes in order to earn 120,000 credits makes me incredibly depressed (mostly because these “schools” all sound like scams and I hope no one in real life is actually falling for them; the satellite television offers seem legitimate).
I’ve also bought a lot of products. In my apartment right now is in an order of chocolate covered bacon, which netted me 200,000 credits. I’ve purchased items at Sephora for my girlfriend. I sent flowers to both my grandmother for her birthday and to my mother for Mother’s Day, that got me 500,000 points combined. My father (who will probably read this) will also get some sort of basket of something for Father’s Day. Unrelated, I’ve also noticed that since I’ve started playing this game, my time spent on Twitter has decreased substantially.
I just reread that last paragraph and I just now realized: Holy sh*t, the Star Wars card trading app might be turning me into a better person.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.