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Analysis: The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding
Analysis: The Psychology Behind Item Collecting And Achievement Hoarding
May 29, 2009 | By Kris Graft

May 29, 2009 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

[Item-collecting has been a staple of video games for many years. What is it inside gamers' heads that makes us want to accumulate items and chase after Achievements? Gamasutra's Kris Graft speaks with the experts...]

You may recall the eccentric Collyer Brothers. Homer and Langley, heirs of one of New York’s oldest families, lived in a Manhattan mansion in the first half of the 1900s.

There, the two became reclusive, boarding up their windows and accumulating over 100 tons of what most would classify as “junk” until the entire house was packed to the ceiling – anything from bundles of newspapers to the chassis of a Model T to 14 full-sized pianos.

They were compulsive hoarders, and I think there’s a little bit of Collyer in all of us gamers. The Obsessive Compulsive Foundation explains that in compulsive hoarders:

“Acquiring is often associated with positive emotions, such as pleasure and excitement, motivating individuals who experience these emotions while acquiring to keep acquiring, despite negative consequences.”

Sound familiar? The "negative consequences" of chasing after the 120th star in Mario 64 or all 100 hidden packages in Grand Theft Auto III may be more subdued than those of filling your entire house with orange peels and old cans of refried beans.

But game designers know that it’s pretty damn easy to tap into this deep-rooted need to collect and accumulate. And like happy suckers we buy into it all the time, some to a greater degree than others.

Item collection has been a staple of video games since Pac-Man swallowed his first cherry. Since then, we’ve collected stars, coins, rings, nuts, bolts, packages, armor, weapons, Achievements and so on. Games like Call of Duty 4 take exploration out of the collection equation, and use experience points and graphs to indicate how close we are to obtaining that next weapon or Perk.

False Sense Of Accomplishment?

All of this “stuff” is tied to the player, whether it’s a high score with your initials beside it, your Gamertag with its high gamerscore, your PlayStation 3 Trophy Room, your save file that says you recruited all 108 Suikoden characters, or your World of Warcraft or CoD4 account that’s filled with the best weapons and items. Such accomplishments, as frivolous and intangible as they may seem to outsiders, are meaningful to gamers.

One of the aspects of gaming today that most obviously appeals to our inner hoarder are Achievements. We joke around that video game “Achievements” are a misnomer, because what is it exactly that you’re achieving, other than sitting on your ass all day trying to kill 100,000 Locusts in Gears of War 2?

In collecting these digital gems, are we just filling ourselves with an empty sense of accomplishment when, in fact, we’ve accomplished nothing? Not necessarily, says Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, co-director at the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, and author of the 2007 book, Grand Theft Childhood.

“People work for intangible rewards all the time,” she says. “Money and love, for example. A paycheck may seem ‘solid,’ but it represents an abstraction. And what’s more abstract than earning an ‘A’ in philosophy?... Small things can be quite rewarding. A smile from a cute girl may be a small thing, but it can make a teenage boy’s week.”

And the months (for some, maybe weeks) it took you to earn the Seriously 2.0 Achievement in Gears of War 2? “Delayed rewards are often more valued. Over years of formal schooling, we learn to delay gratification,” Olson says.

If you really need more encouragement or justification for your compulsive digital item-collecting or video gaming in general, there’s Chicago-based psychologist Dr. Kourosh Dini, who authored the book Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents to give you that extra push:

“If you're trying hard to do something complex [such as video game play] – that is essentially a brain exercise. While others may see you as just sitting on a couch, learning is happening. Lessons like how to communicate with teammates, being empathic with other players in trying to understand their next moves, exercising logic skills to solve puzzles, among others are learned.”

He adds, “We do have a need for feelings of success. Achievements are unique and difficult enough that most players will choose a small handful and distinguish themselves that way. This is the same sort of process that happens in deciding who want to be as we grow.”

"I'm Better Than You"

The proliferation of item collecting or Achievement hoarding isn’t necessarily because we have an obsessive compulsive demon lurking under our skins. Whereas many real compulsive hoarders accumulate real-world items such as old newspapers or lists because they believe they’ll need them at a certain point in the future, many gamers chase after the item carrot for bragging rights.

Olson said in a survey on young teens and video games, she found that over half of boys (57 percent) and more than one in four girls (28 percent) strongly agreed that that “to compete and win” was a reason they played electronic games.

Gamerscores and Achievement lists that are connected to a community of millions facilitate this need to point out that “I’m better than you”. Ultimately, it all plays into chasing that sense of fulfillment. But for others, it really is about accumulating, accumulating, accumulating, sometimes to the detriment, or even the demise, of the hoarder.

Within the walls of his fortress of trash, a paranoid Langley Collyer had booby-trapped a maze of tunnels created from junk throughout his and Homer’s mansion. Langley set off one of his own tripwires, sending a mountain of papers on top of him, burying him alive as he was bringing food to Homer, who was blind and unable to take care of himself.

Homer died of starvation -- authorities didn't find Langley’s body until three weeks later, just ten feet away from his brother, covered in garbage. So don’t feel too bad if you’re jonesing for that next sword, star, or Achievement. I suppose you could be worse off.

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Sean Parton
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Interesting article, even if the conclusion is a bit morbid.

Now excuse me, as I proliferate my next game with loads of collectibles...

Mike Siciliano
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Nice article. Has an interesting opening and citations to some books that perhaps I should read. How about a few interviews with addicted, achievement-driven gamers though?

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Trophies and achievements are just a way to extend the game a little bit because they're a game themselves so it's like having a game within a game with every game that you play. All any game is is a set of objectives or goals, just like achievements. So there's really nothing new with achievements except that your total score is displayed to everyone. I wouldn't say this overall score is any depiction of skill and everyone knows that it isn't. The gamerscore holds no actual skill value to any player, people gain those things because they find them fun to try to get, not because they want to be better than others.

Bart Stewart
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In this short analysis piece talking about people needing to collect things, I would say the most important words are these: "some to a greater degree than others."

I believe it's crucial for game developers to understand that, just as not every person is motivated by the same psychological motivation, not ever gamer has the same definition of what's "fun." Those who are motivated primarily by a need for security -- physical, financial, social -- are most likely to care about assuring that security through collecting things. In a game setting, these individuals will naturally look for activities with elements of ownership like having the high score on a leaderboard, collecting all achievements, and owning complete sets of high-end loot items.

There are reasons to think that people with security-seeking and sensation-seeking motivations constitute at least 60-70% of the general population (at least in the West). As gaming becomes more and more a part of Western culture, it's not unreasonable to think that these proportions would apply to the population of gamers as well... and that seems to be the case. Achievers and Manipulators (whom Richard Bartle calls Killers) together appear to be a definite majority of gamers.

But there are still meaningful numbers of people whose fundamental motivations are knowledge and self-growth, whose gameplay interests naturally run to system-discovery (Exploration) and emotional connection (Socializing) respectively. While most gamers may be entertained by gameplay content wrapped around competitive item collection or fast-paced twitchy excitement, making such forms of gameplay obvious targets for commercial game designers, what about the gamers who are completely uninterested in Collyer-like accumulation and Kneivel-like stimulation?

I'm all for making games that feed the security-seeking desire of many gamers for amassing large piles of stuff, and the sensation-seeking desire of other gamers for high-adrenaline experiences. Those are perfectly valid playstyles, and obviously there's a good market for games catering to those playstyles. Happily, there are plenty such games available, with more being announced every day.

I just hope the gameplay interests of knowledge-seekers and connection-seekers don't get forgotten completely in favor of coming up with yet another iteration on Skinner boxes. If there is a little Collyer in all of us, in some of us it's a very, very small part of who we are and what we enjoy.

Nollind Whachell
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For the most part, most Achievement systems within games today are nothing more than indirect competition mechanisms to reward individual bragging rights. What I would love to see is more community-based achievement systems however. For example, I believe WoW for one expansion had it so that certain materials had to be collected before a portal was opened to the new expansion area. Taken to the next level, it could allow community interaction via solo play, so that an individual could contribute and be recognized for contributing materials (i.e. collecting lumber to build a warship), or via guild play, so that a guild itself is recognized within the world for it's outstanding community achievements. And yes by achievements, I mean something much more so than what's seen within WoW, as most of those achievements usually don't influence or affect the gameplay in any way.

Raymond Grier
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I've been one of those people obsessively trying to collect everything in my games for years. I remember my brother telling his friends a year ago how I don't give up playing a game until I've finished it, as if it was abnormal. Well now that most games have all this extra stuff in them, not always worth the time and effort and often the challenges are extremely tough or time consuming, I find I am no longer bothering with most of these extras. It's as if I'm tired of them, like the developers are tiring me of game play in general by tricking me into playing extras hours of uninteresting game time to fulfill those non-achievements.

the amount of extra content needs to be realistically tied to how fun the main game play actually is. If the main game play is only going to entertain me for a few days but the challenges might take weeks to finish, I'm not going to finsih those challenges adn I'm going to feel bad that they put extra stuff in the game that I can't access when they could have used their resources to do something more worthwhile for me.