Nearly every early 90s kid idolised Ash, the protagonist of the cartoon show Pokémon. Collecting and showing off a set of Pokémon cards and aiming for that magic number of 150 was the closest many of us would get to becoming ten-year-old Ash. Hence, the ‘Pokémon card economy’ was born, and a unique version of this intricate barter system existed within each primary school.
A common problem with barter systems is the lack of a common denominator when it comes to value, since each type of card is treated as an independent good. How does one decide what is a fair exchange for a Bulbasaur? Value is of course entirely subjective, and this holds particularly true when it comes to Pokémon cards. There are two key features that determine the worth of a card: novelty and uniqueness. Many traders pursued all types of Pokémon and if you were the only holder of a rare Alakazam, you could dig up a trade that delivered a mega punch. Alternatively, flooding the market with the same card quickly lead to inflation and decreased the perceived rarity of the card, thus detracting from the card’s value.
Novelty of a card can be interpreted as simply meaning personal preference. Some students, for example, regarded Charizard as their favourite card and often paid a hefty price for one. The composition of the card – whether it was shiny or ‘looked cool’, for instance – raised the card’s novelty factor along with its subsequent value and strength in the marketplace. Furthermore, the appearance of a certain species of Pokémon in the television show would quickly lead to the associated card rising rapidly in value. New appearances on the show came on a daily basis and as such, these ‘novelty shocks’ quickly dissipated for the average primary schooler.
A trade typically took place when two self-interested individuals arranged a transaction that amounted to each party clearly becoming better off. This was dependent on which type of Pokémon trainer you were. A few simply amassed as many cards as possible, holding quantity over quality. On the flipside, some wanted only to collect the rare cards but most, being inspired by Ash, began searching far and wide to catch each existing Pokémon card. Regardless of how one’s utility interacts with a particular deal, in many cases it was in one’s interest to trade. How was it decided whether a trade was acceptable?
The concept of Nash bargaining is a widely used theory when it comes to exploring the mechanics of trade whereby a particular transaction was dependent on the bargaining power of individuals. A quick-tongued merchant plucked from a Turkish bazaar, for example, would likely be able to strike a better bargain than the average bus driver who speaks very little during his day. Similarly, in our scenario of different primary level traders involving students ranging from shy preppies to sixth graders all thrown into the mix, there is potential for significant dispute over what is considered a fair trade. Advocates of free trade are likely to contend here that as long as each party is willing, then market forces have succeeded and both are better off. However, issues such as theft and regret of trading decisions quickly led to tears, a colourful array of swear words and even fists being pulled out, which in turn led to some form of parental market intervention and regulation.
As such, the central governing body (also known as the school staff) realised that it had to make certain decisions regarding the overall welfare of the young citizens within their school. Some schools swiftly extended a vice grip on security and hardened their law enforcement measures. Such policies saw more teachers on yard duty patrolling playgrounds, with cards being stored in safer areas as opposed to minimum-security plastic tubs which were the traditional storage means in classrooms. In other schools, radical parties were seen to win by a rockslide, and an extreme complete ban was declared, outlawing such commodities altogether.
What were the consequences from such a toxic policy? Naturally, an under-playground market emerged, leading to more radical measures being taken to showcase and trade in secrecy.
However, at the end of the day these cards were coloured ink on paper, and it was only worth flaunting them around school if you believed in their value. Once everybody got over the Pokémon fad, the novelty factor faded and just as quickly as the cards came, they were gone, only to be replaced by the next big thing, be it Beyblades or Tamagotchis. The era of Pokémon cards was a highly memorable time for me and whilst these cards led to a few too many tears and arguments, I believe we were still happiest when left to fly free. Tiffs and arguments in primary school were often forgotten that same day. From Ash’s difficult journey I learned that I too needed to carry my wits about me if I desired to catch’em all and become a Pokémon Master.