Friday, October 11, 2013

"Why Do We Always Want More?" Or, "The Cart Before The Horse" - A Purchasing Habit Analysis

Hi, my name is Pete, and I'm a plastic and cardboard addict. ~ Pete

After going rounds with X-Wing and Attack Wing, I was considering the driving motivators which cause me to continually drop giant fistfuls of money down a white-hot money pit, knowingly and enthusiastically. I'm an educated guy, and I know that if I were to take the $400.00 that I've spent on the games, combined, and put it in a 8% yield IRA without any additional money added, in 30 years, it would be $4025.00. When I look at things like this, I sigh, and I laugh a little at the people who talk about buying a game as "an investment". Sorry, but there's very few games in history that can return 10x the amount paid, outside of collectible card games where one card may be worth a great deal in a short period of time. That said, you need to buy a lot of packs to get that one special card, and you need to know which cards will be valuable down the road for that to pan out. So, that whole "investment" argument is something that people do to make themselves feel a little less stupid about their actions, my own included.

So, then I considered what it would be like if I were to simply buy a "base set" game, and then never buy expansions. The cost of a base game is generally an order of magnitude less than the final price paid during the "active lifespan" of a game, and if the base game is good enough to buy every damned thing that ever becomes available for a game, then isn't it really about just trying to extend the useful life of a game? If the base set is so damned good, and so good that you're willing to spend several times its original cost to extend it, is it really all that good to begin with? If it's that good, why does it need a sea of new bits thrown at it perpetually when the bits don't really add anything new to the base, but rather, just add more of the same?

This is the "cart before the horse" conundrum, in my opinion. Either you need to accept that you're simply an addict who is justifying your need to collect things by the base game's intrinsic eminence, or that you're a lunatic. When you look to games that are in everyone's "top ten" lists and "game of the year lists", very few of them are games that have, or require, expansions. They stand on their own, and you can enjoy them for years without requiring any additional investment. Anyone can see this, so again, is it not putting the cart before the horse when you buy a base game that has expansions available? Is the game really that good if games that don't need expansions to support it are rated equally by "the masses"? Shouldn't games that offer expansions, or games that are immediately identifiable to have expansions available in short order, be rated lower than those that can stand on their own without needing any extra material?

I think that the punchline here for all of us is that we all know that a game is an "experience product" and we're paying for the experience of playing it. So, by extension, we're buying these expansions to either extend or enhance the experience, not have a new experience. I cannot really name a collectible game that was truly made better by buying another card or ship or character, really. They open up the options available to a player, but does that make it better, or does it simply make it more varied? I believe it's the latter, and then, extending that thought further, does it not imply that if we're looking for variety rather than improvement, that we should simply buy another stand-alone game instead of buying more deeply into a collectible game? If games are an "experience product", and buying games is, at its core, attempting to have new experiences, does it not stand to reason that extending an experience is less valuable than having another totally different experience? Should we be buying two additional X-Wings and two additional TIE fighters instead of simply buying Merchants and Marauders instead for the same price?

This isn't a new idea, I'm sure, but it's something that I've been personally debating for a very long time. At the end of the day, perhaps I'm just realizing that I'm an addict, having spent a small fortune on all manners of collectible game. Not long ago I calculated the amount of money I've spent on collectible games and was aghast at how much money I'd have had to spend in 2040, had I simply put it into a 5% yield mutual fund instead of buying collectible and expandable games. We're talking nearly a hundred of thousand dollars here. I literally could've put one of my kids through two years of school in 2023 had I not spent the money I did in 2005. Even if I had simply invested in generic miniatures that could be used for several different games and occasionally purchased new rule sets, I'd have still come out way ahead.

Back to the original point, though, it seems to me that unless an expansion truly delivers a different and unique experience, based on the idea that games are indeed "experience purchases", logically speaking, it's simply not worth buying. The temptation is incredibly difficult to resist, as I found while buying two of every ship in the Star Wars X-Wing line. I mean, with so many unique squad builds, the experience had to be totally different, right? No, no it wasn't. Playing against the Falcon with TIE Interceptors or playing against two TIE fighters with an X-Wing, both found in the base set, wasn't different; it was the exact same experience, it just happened to have different models and strategies to achieve the same basic goal, using the same basic rules. 

After realizing that, I started doing the math, and that scared the shit out of me. I had spent $90.00 on three base sets, and another $190.00 on the expansions. Just last week I picked up a couple more ships, in fact, adding more onto that tab. I found myself asking myself what these extra ships really offered in terms of "the experience", and sadly, I was forced to face the facts. They don't offer anything but diversity of models on the play field, and I had been sucked into yet another game with snazzy models for over $300.00 total. Playing with TIE fighters instead of TIE interceptors is just as much fun, and it's really not that much different. Again, if I put $300.00 into an IRA, and if I retire at 65, at a 5% return and adjusted for tax and inflation, I'd come out with just under $1000.00 cash at the end. What a fucking sucker. I mean, seriously, it is the acme of compulsive behavior.

To the end of changing my behavior, last week, I sold off the lion's share of my X-Wing stuff. I sold two base sets and almost all the expansions; I have one base set, one X-Wing expansion, one TIE fighter expansion, one Y-Wing expansion, one TIE interceptor expansion, the Moldy Crow expansion, and I just picked up a TIE bomber and a B-Wing. I did so at a loss, as one might expect. With the money, and with another hundred bucks sprinkled on the fire, I bought Star Trek: Attack Wing, and I mean all of it, including two each of the Dominion ships. Then, with Ebay proceeds from selling other things, I bought the "Dominion War OP Month 1 Participation Prize". That ran me another $30. It makes you wonder just what kind of fucking insanity has riddled my mind that I would do that, knowing that all of these collectible games add very little with each iteration, and knowing that I just did the same damned thing with X-Wing. 

Now, maybe you'd be surprised to know that I'm not the kind of guy who needs to be able to "talk about games" with my friends, or the kind of guy that feels some value in being able to talk with others about the merits of any one given game or expansion bit. I don't need to be "in the know", I don't need to be "smarter" than anyone else. I'm just me; plain old, flawed me. I don't post things much on Fortress: Ameritrash, and I virtually never do anything on BoardGameGeek. So, I'm wondering to myself, "wherein lies the value of these things if they don't indelibly change the game for the better in meaningful ways, but rather simply provide diversity, and incalculably less diversity than just buying several different games"? I don't know, and if I did, I probably wouldn't be having this "coming to Jesus" moment with myself about my predilection toward buying into collectible games balls deep without truly mastering the base game well enough to really need to extend it, if you can call that a need. The fact that I just called it a need indicates the pervasive nature of my addiction. Food, shelter, and water are needs. Buying metric fucktons of plastic for a game isn't a need.

I am an undeniable game addict, and as much as I'd like to not be, I am. It's part of me, it's always been a part of me, and that's that. If you go to the American Society of Addiction Medicine website and look up the definition of addiction, there you have it:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
 Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Granted, I'm not going have any sort of disability or premature death, and the substances are plastic and cardboard, but the fact remains that buying shit you don't need that doesn't add much actual value to a game surely looks, smells, and feels like an addiction. What other possible explanation could there be? Buying lots and lots of expansions for a game, no matter how great that game is, makes no sense. If it doesn't change the experience in a dramatic and undeniable way, it makes no sense except that it's an addiction. 

I know a great many addicts: alcoholics, heroin addicts, meth addicts, pot addicts. They're not hard to find, no matter where you look: Church, work, neighbors, or just on the street, there's addicts of various things everywhere. Maybe we're all programmed that way, or at least programmed to be susceptible to it. I'm here to tell you: people don't buy hits of heroin because they're looking to have a different experience, they're buying it to have the same experience over and over again. They're looking to get the same "high" as they did the first time, which is both hopeless and increasingly more expensive a pursuit. Is this not the EXACT SAME THING? Are we who buy into collectible games not merely reaching for the same experience of awe and joy we had when we first played the game? The experience of learning a game for the first time, exploring it, mastering it? Is it not just taking more chrome onto the game to achieve that same mental "high", giving us more options to master? Really, are we not all buying these things with the action-reward impulse at its core?

I always find myself showing off the new models I buy to the wife or my daughter, talking in grand terms like, "Wow, can you believe how pretty this thing is" or "The paint on this thing is superb! Those little Chinese wage-slave kids sure can paint, baby". I cannot, in honesty, tell you if I have ever said, "Wow, this ship really changes the game in a substantial way. I mean, this ship will make it an entirely different, better game that without it, it would just not be as good." It's obvious to me, at this point, that it's about new and shiny, not better and different. That's troubling to me, because I've always considered myself to be the kind of person that evaluates purchases with deep skepticism and critical thinking. Honestly, I am, but not in the case of games, and especially not the case when it comes to collectible game expansions. In those cases, I am a blind addict, no more, no less. The sooner I accept it and start looking at what I do from that perspective, the sooner I'll be doing things smarter.

Luckily, board game addiction is, generally, relatively benign although I have seen guys I know overwhelmed with their addictions, and it destroyed them. One guy I know had so many models from a specific game that his wife ended up leaving him. He was dragging her to tournaments, essentially forcing her to take part in his addiction, and she had enough of it, packed her shit up, and got out of dodge while the getting was good. What truly scares the shit out of me is that this individual was a professor of Psychology, with a focus on pathological behaviors, at one of the nation's most prestigious universities. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. This could be any of us, if we're not careful.

I guess, at the end of the day, I'm not entirely sure that I'm comfortable with this hobby anymore. It not only allows for this kind of behavior, it actively encourages it. Instead of forums being support groups, they're enablers. I see myself buying insipid trinkets in the hope that I can reclaim the feeling that I had when the X-Wing box first arrived on my doorstep, punching and sorting chits with the joy of a kid opening presents on Christmas. Maybe that's the root cause of all of this: being trained by society that opening things is totally fucking awesome. Maybe it's the consumerist culture here in the United States. I'll probably never know, but the whole point of this exercise, and this article, is to tell everyone, or maybe just tell myself, that we need to be on our guard when it comes to game buying in general  but more specifically  collectible games. Each successive wave generally doesn't provide you with unique experiences, it simply extends the experience that the base game provided, and therefore buying these things isn't buying a new, totally different game, but rather attempts to cling onto the love you have for the base game by showering it with gifts. And worse, maybe we're doing it for its sake, but not for ours.


Applejack said...

Collectible games are a scourge on gaming. They're usually the first games a new gamer gets into, and the type of game that drives many away from gaming. I used to play "Magic: The Gathering" maybe fifteen years ago, when I was in high school. My friends played and so I played too. I don't play anymore, but I still have all those old cards. I spent hundreds, now I might as well throw them in the trash for all they're worth.

A few years ago, I got into FFG's "A Game of Thrones" LCG, which I liked because the expansions were fixed unlike the random booster packs of "Magic". I bought a lot of expansions for that game too, now I don't even play it anymore. I'm going to sell what I have soon.

Apparently, I don't learn because I'm playing "Android: Netrunner" now. I have a core set and the "Creation and Control" expansion. I was giving serious consideration to buying another core set and the entire "Genesis Cycle". You know what? I'm not going to do that. To hell with it. I like the game, but I can have fun with the limited card pool I have. Heck, I think I can have more fun with a limited card pool, at least it will force me to use my imagination as to what sorts of decks I could build rather than copying the latest tournament winner. I refuse to buy a 'data pack' every single month. If I still like "Netrunner" months from now, I'll get the next deluxe expansion, which come out twice a year. I think that's a reasonable purchase.

I may well buy an expansion or two for a game I like, I know I want to get the "Elder Sign" expansion because it's supposed to make the game harder (which is a good thing), but I'm going to buy new games for the most part. Games I've had my eye on but never got around to buying. I want to own "Cyclades" and "Cosmic Encounter". I always wanted to play one of Dan Verssen's 'Leader' series games. There's a bunch of VPG games that I think I'd like. There's too much that's new that I want to spend what limited cash I have on enhancing the old.

Anonymous said...

Nice write up/article/blog post... I am very much an addict but am doing my best to change. I am trying to spend-diet and ween myself off of collecting games and do my best to play what I have. I have also place many items collecting dust up for sale on BGG... It is a start...

The amount of money put into this hobby of collecting plastic pieces, cardboard tiles, cards and boxes is truly frightening and Kickstarter has not helped. I found it interesting that you did not mention KS as our enabler and possibly main supplier.

The more troubling issue I've been noticing is that many games are getting republished after years of being out of print... Often with minor rule changes and updated components... This causes absolute pandemonium in an addicts mind. Talk about wanting to re-live the first experience.


Sofia said...

Nice blog thanks forr posting