I was nine years old when I first saw my friend Jamie’s Pokémon card collection in the school playground. Gazing at the colourful illustrations, I burned with envy — this was the closest I might get to having my own army of pocket monsters in real life. I begged my parents to get a few packs of cards, but I never found anything as rare as Jamie’s prized shiny Chansey card.
Today, that Chansey could be worth around $3,000. That’s a great deal less than the rare holographic Blastoise which sold at auction last month for $360,000, roughly the price of a studio flat in an outer zone of London or a brand-new Ferrari. In 2021, their 25th year of existence, Pokémon cards are enjoying a resurgence in popularity almost matching their late-1990s heyday. This is partly down to the pandemic, which has left many stuck at home with extra disposable income, to take up a new hobby that combines investment with a pleasant waft of nostalgia. Streaming platforms YouTube and Twitch have cultivated communities of Pokémon card traders such as Leonhart, who quit his job as a lawyer to open card packs full-time on YouTube (the sealed packs contain a random selection of cards which could be valuable or worthless: hence the on-screen drama), and ubiquitous streaming star Logan Paul, who says he has spent $2m on his card addiction.
Collecting is not a new hobby, of course. A survey by the UK’s Royal Mint found that 83 per cent of 2,000 UK adults had collected something in their lifetime. That might be stamps, football stickers, coins, autographs, comic books, retro video game cartridges, and perhaps watches or vintage automobiles for the wealthy. It is easy enough to understand the appeal of collecting. A rare vinyl record could be a financial investment, purchased to be sold later at a profit. A bandanna worn by Jimi Hendrix onstage is a way to connect with an iconic moment in cultural history. Collectible toys may have emotional resonance, reminding collectors of their childhood. We want these items because we ascribe value to them, whether monetary or sentimental.
Yet collecting is also a core mechanic in video games, and this is harder to explain. Games ask us to collect coins, stars, bolts, weapons, even scalps. While in online games, virtually tradeable items can acquire real-world value, most digital collectibles are fundamentally worthless — but we gather them anyway. The implication is that there is something compelling about the act of collecting itself, not just the final possession of the object.
Collectibles in games usually function as secondary objectives outside the main story, extending playtime for those who want to spend more time in a particular virtual world. Yet they can also be the main event — the Pokémon video games, with their compulsively acquisitive slogan “Gotta Catch ’Em All”, have proven enduringly popular because of how they tapped into the human collecting drive, with each entry in the series giving players a hundred new beasties to catch. It is no coincidence that series creator Satoshi Tajiri was an avid collector of insects as a child.
The late 2000s saw the widespread adoption of “achievements” and “trophies” on gaming consoles, essentially virtual badges that are attached to your user profile that mark challenges completed in games, ranging from defeating all enemies with a specific weapon to absurdist tasks such as completing a mission while walking backwards. There is an element of social competition to achievements as you can see which ones your friends have earned, but primarily they appeal to completists who will not move on from a game until they have “one hundred percented” it.
So what is it about collecting that provides such a draw? Psychologists are divided on the question. Perhaps it is the tantalising pleasure of wanting. Freud believed humans need to have objects of desire in order to stay mentally balanced (he also couldn’t resist relating a collector’s urges to their bowel movements). Jung argued that collecting harked back to the atavistic hunter-gatherer instinct, invoking the thrill of the chase. Seen this way, video games become engines of satisfaction, drip-feeding players serotonin with each new Pokémon added to their collection.
My beloved collection of Pokémon cards met an ignoble end. I ended up with a few hundred, each tucked neatly into a pouch of my plastic binder. In a world that seemed vast, overwhelming and unknowable, my little collection offered a pocket of order — a corner of the universe over which I had mastery. One day I took my cards to the playground and left them in a treehouse by mistake. When I rushed back to find them, they were gone. I was crushed. Though the cards are long gone (and I doubt my paltry collection would today have been able to pay for a Ferrari), I never forgot their lesson — that there might be a little part of this world that I could call mine, where everything actually made sense, if only for a moment.