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I Embraced My Son’s Weird Yu-Gi-Oh! Card Obsession and I’m Into It Now

It's not about monsters or trap cards or attack points. It's about loving the things your loved ones love.

Roughly 90 percent of my non-work life is currently occupied by a card game called Yu-Gi-Oh! that my younger son adores. He’s four-and-a-half and therefore has a limited interest in and a limited ability to grasp the complicated set of rules that govern the universe of Yu-Gi-Oh!, which was first developed as a manga in the late-1990s. Still, the cards based on the television show based on the book based on the fantasies of Kazuki Takahashi are scattered around my house like autumn leaves.

My older is a six-year-old Pokémon partisan. This division of the monster kingdom, I imagine, was reached through an unspoken negotiation based on a mutual desire to minimize resource conflict. This is the single most impressive act of fraternal cooperation that has ever taken place in my house. My younger son has no interest in Raichu and Blastoise. My older son has no interest in the Winged Dragon of Ra or Crimson Nova the Dark Cubic Lord.

As a father, and the one responsible for bankrolling and building the collections one $3.99 pack at a time, I naturally went through a long period of Yu-Gi-Oh! resentment. This was not only about money and the mess but also because there are many seasons of each TV show — all lazily animated — that my children insist on watching. Each episode is 21 minutes exactly. I know this because they each get to pick one episode and I get to count down the 21 minutes like a prisoner with but a few weeks left on his sentence. Some mornings I wake up in a cold-sweat with the minor key riff from the Yu-Gi-Oh! theme song in my head.

My antipathy is also stoked by how my younger son, in particular, uses the cards. I am a follower of rules. If there are rules, especially for a game like this, I follow them with a maniacal precision. I clinging to them in the hope that they’ll make sense of this universe, both Yu-Gi-Oh’s and my own. My youngest does not follow the rules. Unlike his older brother, thanks to whom I have mastered the rules of Pokémon, he hasn’t even inquired about them.

The Yu-Gi-Oh! “game” my son plays involves endlessly sorting and arranging cards on the ground. It’s very adorable how he does it, sitting criss-crossed applesauce with the cards in front of him. But it is not the goddamn game! When I do engage him in this travesty, he makes me to play with my imaginary deck.  These are cards that do not exist except in my mind. This is frustrating since his deck is literally right in front of me and is also very real. Needless to say, he makes the rules. He wins every time.

My relationship with Yu-Gi-Oh! — a phrase with which I never thought I’d start a sentence — has, however, shifted of late. Whether he’s been studying on the side or simply has watched enough of the television episodes, my youngest now has a passable knowledge of the inner workings of the game. Maybe he’s just learned phonetically how to say things like, “I play Subterror Behemoth Dragosuarry in defense mode to end my turn!” Whatever it is, the kid is getting it and I certainly didn’t teach him. This adaptation or evolution or whatever is fascinating to me.

Part of it is, I suppose, that he is working his way through Piaget’s cognitive stages of development. Watching his understanding expand to include not only the basic laws of his life — hit his brother, he’ll get hit back; leave your toys out after bedtime, they get hidden; gravity — but those of an imaginary Japanese one is actually thrilling. It’s like living in an episode of Nova mixed with, well, Yu-Gi-Oh! I guess. And, because this is something that I’ve manifested nothing but indifference too, there’s some pride at stake here. The kid is off on his own adventure, battling monsters and engaging in cardboard heroism. Godspeed!

But there’s more too. My son loves Yu-Gi-Oh and I love my son. And while love isn’t always transitive, it might be in this case. It sticks to the thing, clings to the card, so that each time I squint to read the god-awfully small foil writing on the tops of them, each time I can infer that a given face down card is a monster because only monsters can be in defense mode, a fizzy blurble of love floats into my life. Today it’s Yu-Gi-Oh!, tomorrow it will be some other shit neither he nor I really understand. And it doesn’t really matter what it is anyway.As long as there’s an excuse to sit with him, I’m there for it.

For now, to sit, cross-legged in front of him, trying to understand his understanding of the game, to speak the same language of monsters and trap cards and face downs which is all gibberish to me but deeply meaningful to him, is all I wanna do. Some dads bond with their sons over football. Some go on bug hunts. We have Neo Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon and I couldn’t be happier.