Why collectibles make video games so addictive

If you’ve played video games you have probably spent hours on end running around collecting various items and rewards such as coins, gems, heart pieces, armor, weapons or even high scores or achievements. Why spend all that time collecting things that aren’t real? Sure, that magic armor is useful in the video game world, but what about rewards that don’t even help you progress through the game, such as trophies and achievements?

Master Chief from the hit video game series, Halo. Photo from Creative Commons.

First let’s look at people’s behavior outside the gaming world. Even in real life we tend to collect all we can. We’re constantly striving for the latest iPhones, cars, clothes, shoes, movies, games, etc. Even if you’re not a compulsive hoarder you’ve probably tried to clean your house and realized you have too much stuff, a lot of which you never use and forgot you even had. Despite that, we would never turn away the opportunity to acquire more.

Surprisingly, people treat virtual objects the same way. South Korea’s top court ruled that virtual items can be sold legally because they take real work, effort and skill to acquire. Lee Sang-eun is one gamer that buys virtual items for the role-playing game, Lineage. “I feel a little awkward paying money for something that only exists on the computer screen. But it’s a simple trade of money for someone’s labor. I mean, it’s real work,” Lee said.

Some gamers would turn their nose up to buying items in the game. Mostly because there is something rewarding about putting the time and effort in collecting things yourself. It makes things that are intangibly meaningful to gamers because of the work involved to achieve it. However, it’s not a false sense of accomplishment according to 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.”

Collecting things is all about status. In real life, having a bunch of stuff shows that we work hard enough or have a prestigious enough job to afford more than we need, so people perceive us as high status individuals. In the real world we have to keep up with the Jones’s, and the same is true in the gaming world. Just imagine Jones as the guy with the high gamerscore, 20th prestige in Call of Duty, and brags about getting every collectible item in Grand Theft Auto.

Game developers know this and that’s why every game for the last 25 years has included various items you can collect through the course of the game. Because gamers see acquiring these items as a way to increase their status among other gamers, addiction-based games will have you running around for hours trying to collect these things even if they have nothing to do with the game’s objective.

Some gamers would deny collecting things for sake of bragging rights, but it’s not always a conscious decision. We have an innate need to be accepted among others in a group. Acquiring things makes us feel good because it’s a way to achieve that goal. Our brain says if something feels good, do it again. That’s why we are constantly striving for more and why some people feel the need to collect everything the game has to offer.