Game Cultures of Collecting

The cost of mod­ern­iza­tion has dri­ven peo­ple into cities where we earn increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ed liv­ings. A per­son feels as alone in their car crawl­ing along in grid­locked traf­fic as they do on a crowd­ed sub­way, head­phones serv­ing as a seal against the noise and the crowds. These and other daily neces­si­ties of city liv­ing result in our liv­ing dis­tinct and dis­con­nect­ed lives, in which per­son­al rela­tion­ships suf­fer and are replaced with the allur­ing sim­plic­i­ty of sur­round­ing our­selves with objects ‑both phys­i­cal and vir­tu­al. Videogames fit this behav­ior neat­ly. Like Narcissus — who stared at his reflec­tion for an eter­ni­ty until he became a flower — gamers prac­tice a form of self-obsession by proxy. We spend hours focus­ing on improv­ing our vir­tu­al avatars and accu­mu­lat­ing in-game pos­ses­sions. This is reflect­ed in all stages of play, from char­ac­ter cre­ation, to armor upgrades, to in-game col­lectibles. As we build our avatars, we in turn build our­selves. If, as mem­bers of con­sumerist soci­eties, we are urged to define our­selves by our pos­ses­sions, it only fol­lows that we inter­pret the pos­ses­sions of our in-game avatars as exten­sions of our own iden­ti­ties.

What makes col­lect­ing trin­kets in a game appeal­ing? Why do we often prize and pri­or­i­tize such an activ­i­ty above its alter­na­tives? In our lives there is very lit­tle that we can con­trol. Only in games can we find some degree of fair­ness. Markets swing­ing a few per­cent­age points in either direc­tion can cost us our sav­ings. People, in their end­less com­plex­i­ty, can sur­prise and dis­ap­point. Finally, time moves irrev­o­ca­bly for­ward, and the prospect of death stares at us both from a remove and around the cor­ner at once. Games can usu­al­ly be mea­sured, and we can usu­al­ly assume that effort put in will pro­duce pro­por­tion­al and fair results. Even more impor­tant­ly, games pro­vide us with a sense of growth with­out need­ing to ever con­crete­ly sup­ply evi­dence of it. By leav­ing a trail of bread­crumbs to fol­low, games offer us a kind of men­tal tread­mill; a device with which to act out our need for self-improvement through rote accu­mu­la­tion.

In his essay The Cultures of Collecting, Baudrillard writes:

The sin­gu­lar object never impedes the process of nar­cis­sis­tic pro­jec­tion, which ranges over an indef­i­nite num­ber of objects: on the con­trary, it encour­ages such mul­ti­pli­ca­tion, thus asso­ci­at­ing itself with a mech­a­nism where­by the image of the self is extend­ed to the very lim­its of the col­lec­tion. Here, indeed, lies the whole mir­a­cle of col­lect­ing. For it is invari­ably one­self that one col­lects.

Most iden­ti­ties with­in cap­i­tal­ism are scaf­fold­ed upon accu­mu­la­tion; whether it’s the cinephile, with their library of clas­sics, who can cite a given director’s entire body of work; or the fash­ion for­ward, whose clothes are a glo­ri­ous façade with which to present them­selves to the world. To col­lect is to clothe and shield your­self, to jus­ti­fy the use­ful­ness of your exis­tence by root­ing your­self in an innu­mer­ate col­lec­tion on an arbi­trary theme. Games also encour­age these man­ner­isms, being media objects, like movies, that lend them­selves to cat­e­go­riza­tion and col­lec­tion. However, in games we can observe a sec­ondary man­i­fes­ta­tion of this behav­ior: the col­lect­ing of vir­tu­al objects by your dis­placed self in the world of the game.

The recent­ly released No Man’s Sky by Hello Games sat­is­fies many of the con­di­tions laid out above. In it, you play as the Explorer, both in name and func­tion. Your task: to explore and doc­u­ment a vast and vir­tu­al­ly infi­nite uni­verse. Much of the hype built up around the game prior to its release was owed to this promise of end­less col­lect­ing. For if “the image of self is extend­ed to the lim­its of the col­lec­tion,” the ideal col­lec­tion has no limit. Since life is itself an act of con­stant expan­sion — of out­look, of mem­o­ry and rela­tion­ships — to butt up against the bound­aries of your iden­ti­ty is to glimpse your own mor­tal­i­ty. When No Man’s Sky inevitably revealed the finite nature of its uni­verse, gamer out­cry was as fierce and urgent as you would expect from a group that so des­per­ate­ly hinges its sense of self on man­u­fac­tured enter­tain­ment.

[Skyrim inventory screen]

Hoarding your inven­to­ry in Skyrim

Another use­ful exam­ple of collection-focused play is the role-playing game genre. Games from Bethesda Softworks such as Fallout or Skyrim explic­it­ly demand that you place your­self in the shoes of the avatar you pilot around the game world. When the screen flash­es white and the num­bers whir by sig­nal­ing quan­tifi­able progress, that sense of accom­plish­ment is shared mutu­al­ly between your in-game char­ac­ter and your­self. As you scroll through your character’s inven­to­ry and add up the vast boun­ty of your hoard, the line dis­tin­guish­ing your lived real­i­ty and your in-game iden­ti­ty blurs and fades away, sub­sumed by the reflec­tive waters of arti­fi­cial suc­cess.

In games, we are always striv­ing towards that ethe­re­al notion of suc­cess. Some games fos­ter the sen­sa­tion through abstract goals rather than quan­tifi­able met­rics. For exam­ple, some play­ers val­orize mechan­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing expe­ri­ences — as the abil­i­ty to boast to oth­ers about over­com­ing those chal­lenges allows for a more sat­is­fy­ing feel­ing of achieve­ment. When mar­ket­ing the orig­i­nal­ly cult game Dark Souls to a wider audi­ence, devel­op­er From Software chose to embrace and mag­ni­fy its rep­u­ta­tion as a dif­fi­cult, unfor­giv­ing game. But dif­fi­cult is far from impos­si­ble. And solv­ing a dif­fi­cult task only serves to rein­force con­fi­dence in your own capa­bil­i­ty. Thus this edi­fice of per­ceived dif­fi­cul­ty is just anoth­er tool by which the object ven­er­ates the col­lec­tor.

Maurice Rheims writes: (The Glorious Obsession, St. Martin’s Press, 1980)

For the col­lec­tor, the object is a sort of docile dog which receives caress­es and returns them in its own way; or rather, reflects them like a mir­ror con­struct­ed in such a way as to throw back images not of the real but of the desir­able.

In life we col­lect many things, and sor­rows num­ber among the suc­cess­es. As we move through the daily gaunt­let of social liv­ing, objects of all kinds attach them­selves to us like bar­na­cles to an ocean liner. In many cases these objects rep­re­sent mem­o­ries of pain, or fail­ure; of times when life was chal­leng­ing or over­whelm­ing. We carry them with us, whether we want them or not. In games, how­ev­er, objects pos­sess the clean edges and reflec­tive sur­faces of pure­ly pos­i­tive affir­ma­tion. To extend the nau­ti­cal anal­o­gy: they promise a calm sea amid the storms; a break from the chop­pi­ness and irreg­u­lar­i­ty of daily life. In their stiff and facet­less way, they offer to shore up our wound­ed con­scious­ness­es, act­ing as a form of ther­a­py. Being the friend­ly pet, games do not bite back or leave scars in their wake. Their pre­dictable out­comes allow one to side­step the three-dimensional stress­es of the real world. And there is heal­ing poten­tial in the solace they offer to our over­worked spir­its.

Baudrillard warns how­ev­er, of the seduc­tive pit­falls of this self-administered rem­e­dy:

But we should not be fooled by such talk of recu­per­a­tion… We can­not but see this reflex of retreat as a regres­sion; this sort of pas­sion is an escapist one. No doubt objects do play a reg­u­la­tive role in every­day life… this is what lends them their ‘spir­i­tu­al’ qual­i­ty; this is what enti­tles us to speak of them as ‘our very own’. Yet this is equal­ly what turns them into the site of a tena­cious myth, the ideal site of a neu­rot­ic equi­lib­ri­um.

While ther­a­peu­tic, the prac­tice of iden­ti­ty pro­jec­tion through vir­tu­al proxy requires invest­ing in a closed loop. The sen­sa­tion of growth from time spent on that men­tal tread­mill is ulti­mate­ly illu­so­ry; your avatar may bal­loon in stature, hoard all with­in reach, but you remain unchanged. In our iso­la­tion, the illu­sion con­struct­ed by the vir­tu­al, while appeal­ing, offers us a hol­low prize. The social rela­tion­ships which carry the poten­tial to cause deep and last­ing pain are still vital to under­go tan­gi­ble growth. The tasks that can end in fail­ure or embar­rass­ment make our minds stronger in turn, and our iden­ti­ties more bal­anced and whole. This is more than a rec­om­men­da­tion for tough love. We lan­guish in the fur­naces of daily life just as we dete­ri­o­rate on the Elysian fields of vir­tu­al self-satisfaction. To sur­vive, one must drink from many wells, and inure one­self to the poi­son of sim­ple solu­tions and masochis­tic aus­ter­i­ty in equal mea­sure.

Yussef Cole

About Yussef Cole

Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also deeply enjoys thinking and writing about games.