It’s 9:20 on a Sunday night and I’m wondering how much I’m willing to give up to get a watercolor image of Alice and the Cheshire Cat as seen in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. I’m not after a piece of original art, a high quality print or even a postcard. What I’m trying to secure doesn’t even exist in the physical world. It’s a digital trading card, an image on my phone. And though I can look at the Alice card, it’s not mine. I don’t own it as part of my collection on the Disney Collect app. And it looks like I never will.
I’ve been collecting the watercolor cards as they appear each day, opening pack after virtual pack until hitting a lucky one that drops in a watercolor “insert,” as special cards are called, alongside more common images of, say, Belle and Buzz Lightyear. But I somehow missed the Alice card, and now I have to try trading for it. No matter what I do, though, I can’t get anyone to give up one of their Alice cards, even those who own several of them. I offer cards of comparable value to no avail. I offer a fistful of more common cards, knowing this is a fool’s gambit but hoping for the best anyway. It predictably doesn’t work. Then I take a deep breath and go to my small stash of rare cards. Will a Winnie the Pooh-themed card with a DayGlo-colored honeypot and the words “Get Hunny” emblazoned on it, um, sweeten the deal?
Sadly, the answer is “no.” Which means I’m not going to get the Alice card in time to complete the set and get the watercolor reward card, a whimsical image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse standing on a set of stairs. It’s extremely frustrating.
I check the app several times a day, returning to complete daily missions, collect free coins, use those coins to buy packs, trade with other collectors and perform other tasks, but some prizes still elude me. And the Disney Collect app is just one stop on my rounds: I also frequent the equivalent apps for Star Wars, Marvel Comics and baseball, usually bouncing from one to the other (then sometimes starting over again). And though I’d picked up this habit before the world went into lockdown thanks to COVID-19, being at home all day, all night, every day, every night, has intensified my involvement.
Frankly, I’m happy for the distraction. It takes up a small but not insignificant portion of my day, and for a few seconds, it helps shut out the scary world around me. And, for all my time spent on these apps, I remain a total amateur. There are those far deeper into this world than I, who’ve been at it far longer. For Gregg Keefer, it began as an extension of his other collections. Keefer, a stay-at-home dad who used to work in the toy industry, serves as one the hosts of the Hoard Illuminati podcast, a show dedicated to digital trading cards that’s an outgrowth of a larger collecting community. He first became aware of digital cards several years ago while shopping for physical trading cards at Target, part of a collecting hobby that includes non-sport cards, action figures, autographs and memorabilia. “I’m a collector,” Keefer says, “so I’m always scratching that itch.”
Using digital trading cards to scratch that itch requires a bit of a mental leap, albeit one no more dramatic than the leap needed to understand that cryptocurrency has real-world value. Yes, they’re just digital images. What’s more, most apps allow users to look at every card ever issued any time users want, if they choose to look at the complete collection. But there’s a difference between seeing and owning, even if ownership of digital trading cards is a bit more abstract than more traditional types of ownership. Once you buy into that shared fiction, one’s frustration at, say, not getting a particular Disney watercolor card makes perfect sense.
The hobby has roots in the physical collecting world. In 2000, the trading card company Topps launched eTopps, which allowed users to purchase cards that would be permanently kept in mint condition in a climate-controlled facility in Delaware, unless owners requested they be shipped to them. eTopps collectors, then, own cards they’ll almost certainly never see in person, much less touch.
Though some collectors remain active, eTopps stopped issuing new cards in 2012. That same year Topps debuted Bunt, an app for digital baseball cards that includes a fantasy baseball-inspired gaming component based on player performance. One app led to another, including the 2015 launch of Star Wars Card Trader, which attracted thousands of new users. Per Keefer, that might also have been the hobby’s high-water mark. “It’s never reached that kind of fever pitch,” he observes, “but it does seem to manage pretty decent ‘churn’ as old players fall away and new players are just hearing about it and checking it out for the first time.”
Some are drawn by particular types of cards. John, a computer engineer, has a particular interest in Star Wars cards featuring blueprints, schematics and movie posters. When I ask about his collecting strategy, he replies, “First and foremost, I collect sets that I find aesthetically pleasing.” Like others, he also “hoards,” trying to collect as many of a certain type of card as possible.
For Dan, a painting contractor, that means acquiring as many Han Solo cards as possible. “Having one character you focus on in Card Trader is the way to go,” he says, “because people will start to know you and trade with you for ‘your guy.’” He likens it to the collection of Will Clark baseball cards he began assembling as a kid.
Jen, another member of the Hoard Illuminati who came to the hobby by way of physical collectibles, offers a more detailed explanation. “It’s also sort of a fan thing, it can show how much you love a certain character,” she says. “Some people pick a random character out of boredom, a character that no one wants, just to see how many cards they can get. For me, since I have so many other collections, it just felt natural. There’s a competitive aspect to it as well, especially if others hoard your character. It gives you a feeling of control over your collection, too.”
That sort of focus also helps carve some order out of the chaos created by the availability of so many cards, chaos multiplied when other apps enter the picture. Topps also includes sets dedicated to soccer, football (though that one recently fell victim to a licensing agreement), The Walking Dead and other areas of interest. And though, as in physical trading cards, Topps is the big player, some vibrant indies have carved out spots for themselves as well. Neonmob, for instance, allows artists to create their own sets of cards and trade with others. Terror Cards focuses on independent horror films.
Collecting digital cards has the advantage of being free, though pursuing the frugal path creates limitations. I’ve made a point of never spending a penny on any of the apps, but that’s also part of what makes me doomed to amateur status. Users receive a certain amount of free credits per day and can earn more by completing tasks, like collecting a certain number of cards. But the committed users spend money on more elite forms of currency that allow access to packs with better odds of producing desirable cards — and sometimes guarantees of the same. This allows those who invest in the apps to accrue impressive collections faster, and to trade for even better cards.
For some, the social element of trading is part of the appeal. “I’ve made a ton of friendships through trading, and those friendships keep me engaged in the app when I’m not actively chasing,” John says. Gregg goes even further, telling me, “My community has gotten so big and so important to me. There are folks that I have one-to-one trades with and we keep active for days, talking about all kinds of stuff. I talk to a guy in China and heard firsthand from him in the Star Wars Card Trader app things about what was really happening with COVID-19, long before it became a factor in our lives. I’m in a Twitter group with folks all over the world, from Florida to South Africa and New Zealand. We get to know each other’s families and struggles, births and deaths.”
When I ask collectors about spending real money, I expect to hear regret. Instead, Gregg tells me he wished he’d started opening money sooner. “When I started, it was day one,” he says, referring to the launch day of Star Wars Card Trader, “and I shudder to think how many Vintage Hans or Gold Hoth Wampas I could possibly have gotten in those early days of the app.” He’s referring to particularly rare cards — the Vintage Han, for instance, can sell for a few hundred dollars on eBay. And, yes, there is an after market for digital trading cards. “In the beginning, I probably spent $50 in the app and another $50 or so on eBay, but I was also able to sell some of them on eBay to offset,” Dan recalls. “I think I came out about even.”
A bit more on the Vintage Han, a card that captures both the appeal and the contradictions of the hobby: It’s an image of Harrison Ford as Han Solo behind the controls of the Millennium Falcon in the first Star Wars movie. You’ve probably seen this still before, but the vintage card gives it the look of an old trading card, even wear and tear in the form of scuffs and folds. It resembles a well-loved card from years ago, one that’s probably been living in a shoebox since the 1970s, but it’s never been held by human hands. In fact, practically speaking, it doesn’t exist at all.
Yet, like the other digital cards, it exists as long as we believe it exists. When opening a pack or flipping through my collection, my digital Star Wars cards feel as real to me as the packs my dad would bring home from the grocery store in 1978. My digital baseball cards remind me of the summer of 1987, when I spent what money came my way on baseball cards, accruing favorite Cincinnati Reds players past and present. And now in 2020, card collecting has returned to me as a hobby I can pursue again, quarantined away and trading objects that no one ever has touched and never will — but, at least in that moment, feeling a little less removed from a world that’s sent us all into isolation, and a little more connected to everyone involved in the same wonderfully pointless pursuit.
I never did get that Alice card, though.