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“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” “I can resist anything except temptation.” – Oscar Wilde

I thought about those quotes as I bought about two dozen Steam Summer Getaway Sale trading cards from the Community Market. Two dozen cards costs me $5, which is a fraction of the $82 I have spent on games during the sale so far, but there is something unsettling about buying rewards for myself. It’s like buying my own gold stars or paying to have my initials entered in an arcade game. How is it that these purely aesthetic digital items, which are of no consequence at all, can have the same value to me as a couple cups of coffee? I have no idea how I would explain these purchases to a starving child, yet I made them anyway.

For those of you not familiar with how the Steam Summer Getaway Sale badge system works, let me explain. Certain actions unlock trading cards: spending $10, voting three times for a community choice sale, or earning badges for other games (sort of like achievements). A complete set of 10 trading cards are worth one Steam Summer Getaway Sale badge, or if you already own it, you gain another badge level (so far, I have discovered there are at least four). The badge provides users with a new profile background, a unique emoticon, and most importantly, a shiny profile icon. It is an ingenious and insidious system of operant conditioning. The desired actions (buying games and so on) are rewarded with a random collectible trading card. B.F. Skinner would be proud.

The added complexity is that gamers can buy and sell trading cards on the Steam Community Market. After earning a handful, I found myself at the Community Market thinking that 21 cents for a card wasn’t such a bad value proposition. I rationalized my purchase like this: If I did not spend a few dollars on trading cards, I would spend considerably more on games I’m never likely play. It’s better to spend 21 cents and receive the trading card I want than to spend $10 and get a random card. So I started buying them, and two complete sets and two badge levels later, I knew it was time to stop. I had yielded to temptation.

So what does spending $5 on trading cards say about me and those of us who are willing to buy them? It feels like I have somehow overcome Steam’s metagame of purchases, but it’s more likely that I only reinforced it.