Have You Played… Steam Trading Cards?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

And if so, do you still? And if so: why?

I’ve tried to understand the allure of Steam Trading Cards before, and despite briefly being entranced by this most intangible of Skinner boxes, I was left perplexed as to why so many people are so caught up in this game of pretend swapsies. Untold thousands are: if I put a card up for sale at the current going rate, it’s usually sold before the day’s out. People are buying these things feverishly, desperate to complete sets and…

…And then what? Is it an expression of fandom for particular games? Is it just to scratch some completist itch, a dissatisfaction that a number in the Steam interface is not as high as it can be? Or is it simply earnest pursuit of a freebie or discount code? Or is it something I’ve missed entirely?

I did trading cards as a kid. As a teen I even got pulled over by airport security because I had a big box of X-Men cards I was carrying around everywhere just in case I stumbled across a comics shop which might have booster packs, and the big block of foil shinies inside it triggered the scanners. But these were tangible things. I’d fan them all out on the floor and admire them, feel like I was building something. The Steam cards interface doesn’t even simulate something like that. Where’s the joy in it? Can it really just be compulsion and bargain-hunting, or does this all go so much deeper?

89 Comments

  1. PeopleLikeFrank says:

    Expression of fandom for me, plus a little completionist compulsion. I mostly just like that little badge there reminding me of games I liked.

    I should note though that between selling old TF2 items and taking advantage of some of the holiday sales to generate some Steam wallet balance, I’ve never paid real money for one. Not sure I’d still be in to it in that case.

    • Xocrates says:

      Same.

      I like having the badge for games I like, but I would never spend any of my own actual money for one – just what I get from selling excess cards.

      • neoncat says:

        Yep, same. I only go for pretty badges from games I like, with the proceeds from cards off games I don’t care about.

        • snowgim says:

          Me too.
          I only wish you could keep the cards after crafting the badge, they’re much prettier than the badges, but I can never resist crafting something I have all the components for.

          And re-colleting the cards wouldn’t help, since then I wouldn’t be able to resist crafting the lvl2 badge, plus that’s a waste of card money I could use to collect for another game.

          • The Borderer says:

            You do keep them, sort of. You can click on a card for a completed badge and it will show you a larger picture. You can save it and use it as desktop wallpaper if you want.

        • Shadow says:

          I do the exact same thing, seeing the badges mainly as tiny things to decorate my profile. The more rational people would be constantly selling their cards and (very) occasionally buying tiny games with the proceeds, but personally, I find selling a sizeable amount of items to be a clickfesty chore. Maybe by design, maybe not.

          But there’s a good number of people who are seriously into this, almost pathologically so given how meaningless it all is. People with extremely high account levels, which could only be obtained selling far too many cards they most likely couldn’t procure freely and had to purchase with actual money.

          It’s about the greatest pseudo-scam since Pet Rocks.

    • theslap says:

      Isn’t it still real money though, in that, you could use the proceeds from cards you sold on future purchases and thus save you money over all? I personally don’t understand the appeal of the cards or the badges but saying that you wouldn’t spend “real money” seems like false logic to me.

      • Premium User Badge

        Damien Stark says:

        Well if you’re going to bring Opportunity Cost into this, you’ve got to start charging the time you waste grinding stuff in games and factor in how much you could have made in wages with that time instead.

        The point they’re making is “I only give money to Steam when I buy a game”. Then if 2/3 of the games generate cards you don’t care about, you sell those and buy the cards you wanted for the remaining 1/3, breaking even or better.

      • Cantisque says:

        Keep in mind the majority of that money will just go to another player anyway, so games are going to get purchased if not necessarily by you. The game devs also take a small cut of the sales between players as well. Everybody wins really, especially Valve who take a cut for doing practically nothing at all.

  2. DrWayward says:

    Only today was I reading a comment on Steam on a game that didn’t have a trading cards talking about how gamers “expect them” now and “they add to the experience, even for smaller games”… really though?

    The last cards I collected were Merlin football stickers when I was in primary school (I didn’t even like football, but I enjoyed trading and the shiny ones and the feeling of sticking them into a book), so I’ve probably never been the right audience, but it’s sad that people are so expectant of something so pointless.

    It might seem like a small thing, but for one person developer teams on tiny budgets, its another cost thats being spent on something that isn’t the game.

    • JFS says:

      I fear many gamers are still in primary school, literally or mentally.

    • Shadow says:

      Trading cards surpass even achievements as fake experience “enhancers”. And that’s saying something.

    • epeternally says:

      Part of the appeal is that, if you’re not into collecting the badges, trading cards are free money. And you may not think that all those little five to ten cent cards work out to very much, but I’m up to almost $200 from selling them at this point, and it makes some of the cheaper bundles nearly pay for themselves. That’s why I’ll put a +1 in threads nagging devs for cards when I own the game, I don’t care about the cards, I care about the $.20-$.30. Yes, I am extremely poor :P but still, it adds up.

  3. kutya says:

    For me it’s a way of saving a couple cents on most games. I sell all the cards I earn in games the same day. So, it’s generally 0.5-1 Eur per game. Good someone buys that crap :)

    • Premium User Badge

      JiminyJickers says:

      Yeah exactly, I bought Running with Rifles completely with the money earned from selling them.

      I was laughing every time someone bought one of my cards. In my mind it is just so silly, but hey, free money!!!

  4. int says:

    I have and I do, but I only build badges during the big holiday sales for that extra card per badge.

  5. Zekiel says:

    I’ve dabbled in them (only spending Steam wallet funds acquired from selling other trading cards). I don’t really know why.

  6. philosoaper says:

    Yes.. getting booster packs, completing sets and selling off rare cards is helping to fund my steam library. It’s boring, but I’m poor.

  7. Joshua says:

    The main benefits are extra emoticons and profile backgrounds. Plus as you level up your Steam account, you unlock new customization options for your profile page.

    • Herr_C says:

      The main benefit of cards, badges and Steam levels for me is to use then as a quick benchmark for trustworthiness. If your Steam account is low level and you add me as a friend or want to trade with me, there is very good chance I’ll simply ignore you.

  8. jezcentral says:

    I think was done with the knowledge that refunds would have to happen soon. This gets people to launch the game, and start the timer on their refund limit.

    I have 72 of the damn things. (Badges, not trading cards). It ticks the box currently taken care of by Adventure Capitalist. :(

    • April March says:

      I still find that theory to ascribe a level of foresight to Valve rarely seen outside of conspiracy theories.

  9. chronium says:

    I do trading cards to make money. There are a ton of ways to get cheap or free games with trading cards that it is really easy to make enough money to get a couple of AAA games for free each year. It’s a nice money saving method that lets me put my paycheck to other uses.

    • Shadow says:

      A couple of AAA games for free? That’s 100-120 dollars worth of card sales. If we’re being generous, setting the card sale average at 20 cents, you’d need to sell 600 cards a year to make 120 dollars. In reality, you’d need closer to 1000 sales to make that figure. At about 4 free cards per game, that’s 250 games you’d have to milk per year.

      Are you sure?

      • Shadow says:

        Well, admittedly you can get AAA games at a discount months after release, so that makes the process somewhat more feasible.

      • chronium says:

        You can easily get $20 during each Summer and Winter sale more if you stock up on badges, and there’s the weekly boosters, and selling the cards from the free and 10 cent games that you can get weekly if you know where to look.

      • Nereus says:

        I’ve probably earned about $120 from card sales by now and I’m not even a game collector. A game collector could probably double that with all the bundles with cards (although the benefit is largely negated by all the games they buy but never even consider playing).

        • dontnormally says:

          How? How do you people do these things?

          Why? Why are all RPS’s articles on this topic devoid of these sorts of questions and answers?

          • bleeters says:

            Mostly because when word gets around, so to speak, the market in question floods with card sales and collapses.

      • chronium says:

        From my market transaction history my grand total from selling cards is $325.76 and after card purchases to finish off badges my total profit is $187.83 with another $50 of cards waiting to be sold or badges to be crafted for the winter sale.

        • SpiceySlade says:

          How did you find the totals? I have way too many to count them up easily.

          • chronium says:

            I use Enhanced Steam, which goes through your marketplace transaction history to calculate your totals.

  10. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I recently sold all my Undertale cards for ~$1 a piece which is miles ahead of what I usually get for them.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      For some reason Undertale cards sell for way more than any regular old card, which is good for people like me (us, I guess from your post) that really only use cards to make up some savings on the Steam account and buy a game or a DLC later. It’s a good ‘loop’, I guess – the completionist gets his/her own particular satisfaction, those who don’t care about cards get some money for games.

  11. Captain Deadlock says:

    Couldn’t care less about them. Haven’t collected sticker albums since puberty.

  12. Foosnark says:

    I’ve sold about $2 worth of them, and have others sitting around in my collection because they’re not worth the time to click a couple of buttons to put them up on the market.

    I don’t get the appeal.

    • jalf says:

      Yeah, same here. I’ve got, uh…. 224 cards in my inventory, and I just can’t be arsed selling them. If they added some kind of “Bulk sell” button, I’d get rid of them and earn like $5 or however much they’re worth. But as it is, I have a sneaking suspicion that doing actual work at my job for an hour would earn me more than spending the same time sitting and clicking “sell” on digital trading cards. So I don’t bother.

      As for collecting them? I really, really can’t see the point.

      • senae says:

        There are actually browser extensions that let you bulk sell cards, but if you list more than 200 in a year you need to give valve your tax info.

  13. Armoured Bard i5 says:

    To be perfectly honest I actually kinda like it. I don’t play around with them often but after playing a new game I find I enjoy sifting through my cards and seeing which packs can be completed. Maybe it’s a compulsive completionist thing?

  14. Spuzzell says:

    No, I haven’t.

    Hang on.

    I see the little notification pop up and then I close it, mildly annoyed at having to.

    That’s pretty much how you play this game, so I suppose, yes I actually have.

    • unacom says:

      I have too!
      We should do a multiplayer of that. Might be…
      …mildly annoying.

  15. silentdan says:

    I built a couple of badges to try to give the system a fair shake, and the only thing I got out of it that gives me any pleasure at all, is a Lemmy emoji that I’ve used twice in as many years.

    I don’t like the clutter in my inventory, so I usually sweep through once per month and just sell everything. I get a couple of bucks out of it, but honestly, it’s not worth the money. A buck or two for 15 minutes of my time is a fraction of what the neighbourhood kids get for mowing people’s lawns. I wish there was an auto-sell mechanism, because at this point, just looking at those damned cards makes me irritable. Steam clutters up my inventory against my will, and then I have to clean it up myself or live with the mess. Thanks for nothing, jerks.

    I’ve been buying more and more from GoG lately, and it’s mostly as a way to opt out of achievements, cards, and enforced mandatory updates. I love Steam for a lot of reasons, but also hate the way they push anti-features.

  16. Zankman says:

    If by “Play” you mean “Download an Idler program and have it play all my games and get all of my cards… And then sell them” then yes, I have “Played” Steam Trading Cards.

    I like Trading/Collectible Card Games, but straight-up just collecting them? Collecting anything, really? Nah.

    I don’t get it at all.

    Thankfully, many people do like to do this = there are a lot of buyers.

    I’ve surely earned around 15$ by this point… Given that most of the games in my Steam library are from Giveaways of various kinds, that means that I’ve straight-up earned close to 15$ from “nothing”. (I’ve bought like 2-3 games… Had I not won those many giveaways, those would be the only 2-3 games I have. Money, amirite?)

  17. ZIGS says:

    I’m just glad people go crazy for them. I sell mine and so far I’ve made close to 80€ solely off of them

  18. LogicalDash says:

    But these were tangible things. I’d fan them all out on the floor and admire them, feel like I was building something. The Steam cards interface doesn’t even simulate something like that.

    In fact it does, but you have to go to a page named Badges for it. That will show you the “got, got, need, got” view, very much like organized pages in a binder.

  19. FreeTom says:

    I completed the XCOM and Portal 2 sets and was then satisfied that my profile page was pretty enough. Ever since that I sell them all.

  20. iainl says:

    I raised the cards and sold them when it first arrived, as ‘free’ money. Then I realised that my box is probably eating that much in electricity, and it’s not a valuable use of my time, either.

  21. CelticPixel says:

    At the end of the year I typically sell all the cards from games I didn’t particularly like to buy cards and earn badges for my fav games of the year which I display on my profile.

  22. Text_Fish says:

    I just sell them. :S I guess I could probably leverage them a bit more, but up until just now I’ve never considered it a game in its own right — it just seems too boring.

    I have a friend who’s downloaded some doohickey that auto-plays his games when he’s not using his computer and basically farms cards. Maybe I’ll ask him what he gets out of it. or maybe I’d rather not know.

  23. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Hm played it, milked all the bad games for their cards then realized time expense, electricity and hardware attrition cost me more than I get back.

  24. Premium User Badge

    municipalis says:

    I’d estimate that since they introduced the feature, I’ve made about $60 selling cards. So as much as I don’t understand why anyone would pay for them, I’m certainly happy they do.

  25. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I thought HYP was supposed to be a series of recommendations.

  26. melnificent says:

    Made somewhere around £150 from selling steam cards.

    However, if there are really rare/neglected games then I’ll get at least a couple of levels and sell the backgrounds. Some of those go for silly money.

  27. SpiceySlade says:

    I have made a couple badges in Steam sales where I had a chance of getting free games. However, what I use cards for is, almost exclusively, to sell them and get money.

    I’ve ended up selling close to $200 worth of cards; I have a bit of a game hoarding problem, and it’s kind of self-perpetuating, as I of course buy more games with the money. Between bundles, sales, and trading cards sales, I have way more games than I know what to do with.

  28. tomimt says:

    I don’t care WHY people are so into Steam Trading cards. All I care about is, that I’ve sold enough of them to buy some of those “on the fence” titles I have during Steam sales.

  29. anHorse says:

    I used to sell the ones I did get

    Now it’s too much effort and they just sit there

  30. FriendGaru says:

    They’re silly and pointless, but I have a ridiculous backlog and I kinda like the way they give me an impetus to try something I haven’t gotten around to yet. When suffering from the malaise of an overabundance of choice, I often check my badges page and randomly boot up something that has card drops remaining.

    I actually think it would be a fascinating design project to be on a team dedicated to turning them into a playable game. It would have to be a CCG style game, but without having control over what could be added it would require a combination of procedural generation and crowd sourcing. I honestly don’t know if it would turn out well at all, but it would be a very interesting challenge.

  31. Chiron says:

    Other than selling them straight away?

    No. Waste of time.

  32. Moonracer says:

    It is mostly a pointless incentive, but sometimes seeing that there are X cards available to unlock will be enough to convince me to play one of the many games I have shelved for “some day”. Or when older games start trading card support it sometimes encourages me to go back.

  33. galaxion says:

    I looked at my inventory last month and decided to sell all my trading cards at the “going rate” so they sell quickly. I’ve quite a few games and I used an idler to farm the rest of the cards when playing on Origin.
    Anyways, as of today I’m nearly at £39 and I’ve decided to get the Steam controller.
    So, I kinda like the fact I’m getting hardware from selling some virtual items that I have no need for.

  34. Xzi says:

    I just gather them and sell them now, because it would be an awful waste not to with how large my Steam library is. I enjoyed the other aspects of Steam trading cards for a while…leveling up my profile to put new stuff on there, getting the emojis and background profiles I wanted, etc. It got old relatively quick, though, and I began wishing that trading cards would have some other meta-game purpose.

  35. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I like to keep the ones I get, as a sort of game souvenir. I sell the ones I get double.

  36. nigelvibations says:

    Casual collector here, with one strong vote for compulsion.

  37. Yserbius says:

    Let me ask Mr. Krabbs. Hey, Mr. Krabbs, why do you play Steam Trading Cards? “Because money”.

    I spend a few minutes every day buying and selling cards from a few select games. Occasionally I’ll look up Steam Tools to see if there’s any other game worth buying cards for. It works out to a few dollars a week, I’ve got about $20 in my Steam account that I’m holding on to for the sales.

    I have no idea why anyone buys my cards.

  38. Juan Carlo says:

    I quit selling mine like a year ago. I decided the whole trading card market is unethical and stupid and didn’t want to encourage Valve any further down their microtransaction path.

  39. Gordon Shock says:

    It’s just a nice diversion and allows me to make a bit of money that is big enough to transform into significant discount on a AAA game.

    Plus, if the developer’s take the time to do it right, cards can become gorgeous desktop backgrounds.

    • Gordon Shock says:

      Oh and if you feel like giving your cards away, my nick on Steam is the same ;)

  40. caff says:

    I can’t be the only one who’s questioned whether the 2p you make selling these is worth more than the time and mouse clicking you expend on listing them.

    Maybe 30 seconds of my life is worth less than 2p *cries*

  41. CutieKnucklePie says:

    Just a gamification of buying (games), in my opinion. Never seen the appeal.

  42. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    No, not really, no. I keep a hold of the cards I’ve gained through play, but otherwise..? It all seems a bit nonsensical (if not worse), really.

  43. Enkinan says:

    It would be really interesting for Valve to make a card game of some type to go with them.

    Especially since I have bought so many for no reason other than to not see the empty badge icon next to a game.

  44. sarah180 says:

    I’m going to be the counterpoint to everybody else here: I buy cards with real money to make badges for games that I enjoyed. I do this for two reasons.

    First, I like having a rare badge that indicates my love for certain games, for the same reasons that I might get a tattoo that nobody else can see. I like how that game made me feel and I like having a kind of connection to it that most people don’t have, even if it’s a rather pointless one.

    Second, I do it for the same reasons that I frequently do Kickstarters, preorders and collector’s editions. I want to support the development and community of the types of games that I like, which are not exactly fringe, but they’re not mainstream FPSes. I have enough income that a few dollars here & there on cards means nothing to me, but that money goes to someone who played the same game I did, and may help them buy another similar game or make them slightly happier that they did and cause them to say something to a friend. This is a tiny effect, but the sum of lots of tiny effects is what ultimately determines the kinds of things get made. Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity are great examples of how community financial support can lead to a fabulous game that wouldn’t otherwise have existed at all.

    So yeah, I view steam cards as a way for me to give money to people who are going to support the types of games I like, while getting a special trinket for my patronage—even if it’s a virtual trinket. (It’s admittedly not that special, but badges aren’t that expensive either.)

    • Distec says:

      I support you!

      I’m a shameless card/badge collector. Whatever twinge of guilt I might have felt when purchasing my first few cards has evaporated. I know these are empty doodads, but they’re cheap enough and I like collecting them. I don’t do it indiscriminately; the games that I really like or have spent endless hours in are the ones I go out of my way to level up, and I appreciate the small assortment of Steam knick-knacks that they give me. I’ll even go for the foil badges if they’re not ridiculously priced.

      The compulsion to collect badges certainly fires up during sale events. But otherwise, I’m fine placing market orders for cards well below their going rate and just letting them get filled throughout the year. It takes care of itself eventually.

      This reminds me… Probably need to stock up on some card sets in case Valve has a badge for their Halloween sale.

  45. Universal Quitter says:

    It’s always fun to watch people rationalize or defend their own behavior in a comments section. I think this is my favorite “have you played…” so far.

  46. Frank says:

    “an endless stream of game recommendations”

    That certainly doesn’t sound like a recommendation.

  47. neotribe says:

    These things show up in my Steam inventory and I have no goddamned clue what they are for or what I am supposed to do with them.

  48. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Don’t know if it counts, but I sell all my duplicates as a sort of lazy inverse completionism. Can’t be arsed to collect/buy for badges, but the duplicates are mildly annoying, so I get rid of them at 10¢ a pop or whatever Steam says the going rate is.

    Thus far, I have made about about a euro playing games I would anyway. It’s not unappreciated, but it’s markedly baffling and francly uninteresting to me.

  49. lomaxgnome says:

    I’d just like to thank all of the whales out there who buy cards and make badges for supporting my Steam habit for the past year and a half, without them I’d have drastically fewer games now.

    • sarah180 says:

      No woman particularly wants to be called a “whale,” but you’re welcome anyway! (Odds are low that I bought one of your cards, but I love the idea that people are buying awesome games with the money I spent buying a couple dozen badges.)

  50. April March says:

    I sell them.

    And I was mildly annoyed about the post-refund update that makes them only start dropping after the refund time has passed. Yes, it is a completely understandable change, if not necessary even. But before that change, I never found any need to “farm” cards. I did it, shortly, for games that I had played before they had been implemented, so I felt that I was “owned” those cards.

    Before the change, I’d fire up a game that I had and looked interesting, and if after playing it for thirty minutes I’d found that it was a loss of time I’d have a few cents’ worth of cards for my troubles. There are quite a few games on my account that would still drop cards but I can’t in good conscience open again, because I hated them. But I can tell that in much less than two hours. So now I can either give up on getting the cards, or “farm” a game until I get them. I feel slimy.

    “Why don’t you get a refund for a game if you hate it so much instead of worrying about a few cents’ worth of cards?” someone asks, and I stare at them confusedly, until I realized said rethorical person probably bought most if not all of their Steam games on Steam. Their world is unlike my own. They could never understand me. I turn around and walk away, a tear slowly rolling down my othwerwise stoic face.