Friday, October 3, 2008

Videogames and the Culture of Collection

Try this mental exercise: pick an enjoyable game and try to describe its objective. After trying this out myself, I found that many of the titles I came up with boiled down to the act of collecting. The stories were different and the characters were diverse, but a huge number of games seem to revolve around amassing possessions. Be it stars, crystals, pocket monsters, pendants, statues, jiggies, hearts, or good old fashioned loot, game culture seems to be a culture of hoarding.

Here, I'll suggest three reasons why I believe the collection element is so strong in games, while also offering some thoughts on the benefits and limitations of this particular gameplay tradition. A disclaimer: the bulk of my thoughts concern action/adventure/RPG-style games, but we should not overlook the prevalent role of collection in other genres such as racing and sports.

1. "Can a Pixel Feel?": Collection as Plot Devices
Storytelling in videogames has historically been a tricky undertaking, and the difficulties of creating meaningful characters persist today. Constructing a layered narrative that succeeds in fomenting the development of complex characters necessitates both artistic and technical skill. Even if a developer can craft an enjoyable story, technical restrictions can limit player attachment to the virtual characters. Advancing a story is difficult if your characters can only perform three frames of animation, or if disk space limits the amount of dialogue you can write or record.

8-bit era Link was not the most articulate chap (not that he is a motormouth today), and his strength as a character could not be relied upon to move the story of a game forward. Thus, it is necessary to introduce items that move the game along. The task of collecting becomes the primary focus for the player and their avatar. Collection serves as the metric by which story and character progression are measured. Gaining new weapons and stat points denotes character growth, and the number of items collected signifies progress in the story (e.g. If you have collected 50% of the stars, the game is half over).

2. "Is that it?": Collection as a Gameplay Style
Relative to movies, television, theater, and even some novels, videogames are meant to be long engagements. The shortest blockbuster games are easily twice as long as Hollywood blockbuster movies. Collection adds to the amount of time a player spends in a game, immersing them in the game's world.

I will use movies as an example again: From an economic standpoint $60 dollars for a block-buster game is about six times as much money as the equivalent big-budget Hollywood movie costs. It feels good when I know that when I pay six times as much for a game, I'll get six times the hours of enjoyment from my purchase.

These extra hours must be filled with something, and oftentimes the character arcs simply cannot support dozens of hours of focus. This is no slight towards writers or directors; creating a compelling plot with empathetic characters is difficult to do for any length of time. By inserting long stretches of collection-based gameplay, character and story development is spaced out, giving videogames their unique artistic pacing.

Additionally, adding collection gameplay exposes the player to the complete work of the game developer. If a game necessitates scouring an entire virtual world looking for hidden treasure, the developers can rest assured that their hard work has been witnessed and that the player is given the opportunity to enjoy every aspect of their art.

3. "Greed is Good": The Societal Drive to Collect
Videogames are products of a world dominated by twentieth century capitalism. Compound this with the heavy influence of Euro-centric cultural norms, and collection in games takes on a more culturally reflective image. Game players and developers are immersed in a largely global culture of accumulation: accumulation of money, accumulation of resources, accumulation of consumer goods, etc. Is it any wonder our art reflects our society, or that our society draws influence from our art?

When a game asks us to amass a stockpile of items, it is playing into a familiar theme for most gamers. Our non-gaming lives are defined by societal rules that dictate that the person with the most "wins." We are conditioned to understand collection as a necessary, if not worthwhile, goal and our games conform to this societal demand. While the merit of this is debatable, the success of the collection tactic within games is a testament to its efficacy.

Consider the Pokemon franchise as the ultimate example of modern western capitalism distilled into a neat package (or possibly trapped within a Pokeball). The point of the series is to collect resources (Pokemon) and grow these assets (by investing time into improving and trading them) in hopes of edging out your competitors. "Gotta catch 'em all!" is arguably the most descriptive and most fitting slogan ever created in gaming. This slogan can easily be read as "Gotta buy 'em all!" since, as we have seen, the Pokemon videogames themselves have created a thriving meta-game. Not only must players focus on accumulating Pokemon in the game world, they must also accumulate a variety of Pokemon games if they hope to compete their collections.

Do not mistake this final point as some neo-socialist diatribe against capitalism and its evils; the world is painted in a rainbow of greys. It may be embarrassing to admit, but Pokemon games are damn fun.

Collection has its place, and I would be sad to see it fall by the wayside. I believe it is one aspect that truly differentiates videogames from other artistic mediums. Games can play into this convention honestly and succeed, but they are also free to put a spin on the collection trope. Take Katamari Damacy as an example, in which collection is taken its logical conclusion. The game is charming and fun, but it also delivers a sly critique on both gaming culture and its place in society.

Collection in games sometimes worries me in that it represents the temptation of stagnation. Today's games are increasingly detailed in regards to both artistry and technology. I do not think collection should exist simply because it has historical precedent, fits well with traditional game design, and is a familiar mode of existence. Games that need not be scavenger hunts should jettison this convention in favor of pursuing new storytelling and gameplay directions. It is hard to understand a character if all you know about them is that he really needs to get ten more MacGuffins in order to save the universe or something.

Ultimately, I seem to find myself in the ironic position of focusing on collecting video games while worrying that they focus too much on collection.


  1. I'm curious about the boundaries of the term collection. Certainly, gaining stars, cards, and all manner of other supposedly physical objects in a game can be considered collecting. But what about skills? and character advancement? For example, once you get to 70 in WoW, the only type of character advancement you can get comes in the form of objects. Intangible items, such as skills or whatnot, could be considered to constitute collections. So is there really any difference between collection and advancement? You could say that in an rpg, the only element is "collecting" exp, which lets you "collect" more skills, or abilities, etc... Getting more philosophical, in real life could we say that growth is nothing more than maintaining an accumulated "collection" of experiences? Maybe this is just me confusing the categories of physical vs. intangible collections, but collecting seems a very fuzzy concept all of a sudden.

  2. @ Will

    I think an important difference between the collection of items and the collection of skills, gear, etc. is how these things can be applied to your progression through the game environment.

    Experience points enable you be become a stronger character literally, and thus better able to accomplish tasks set before, some of which have narrative consequences. The same can be said for gear, which allows your character to progress through higher level encounters which fit into a larger narrative.

    Collecting doodads that how no relevance to your progress through story or narrative is just a time sink. Not that collecting can't be fun of course.

  3. To take this collection talk in a slightly different direction, lately I have been rather puzzled at all the comments I am reading about collecting things being a chore.

    For example, the various flags in Assassin's Creed were complained about by people who thought there were too many (and perhaps there were) or whatever. The same happened with Crackdown's Orbs. Those are just two 360 examples, that's not including Pokemon as alluded to in this post or say, the Stars/Shine Sprites in Mario games.

    Granted, with my examples these objects that need to be collected tie in with Achievements (and Trophies if you include PS3) and as such, some people just want to hurry up and get their achievement to boost that score and move on but even with taking that into consideration, it still disappoints me to read so many complaints about collecting things.

    Personally, achievements or not, I have always enjoyed collecting things in my games and I don't see that changing any time soon. Be it the aforementioned Shine Sprites/Stars in Mario games, the Heart pieces in Zelda or the Hidden Packages in GTA; I have always enjoyed searching every nook and cranny for them. The reason for that is obvious and has also been alluded to in this post, it allows the gamer, or me in this case, to see a game's world in its entirety and this exploration aspect of a game is something I really enjoy. I find it odd that people complain about collecting things, yet always expect a lush and beautiful world to explore when they discuss an upcoming game. Irony, much?

    Anyway, as long as the collecting is done in moderation I don't have a problem with trying to find the objects (even if they don't give you anything in the end) and I will continue to collect them in the future.

  4. @Nismo

    You bring up a good point regarding people's expectations of an expansive world and subsequent protestations that they are forced to explore it.

    As is the case with everything in life, you can't please everyone, and moderation is the key.

    Like you, I'm fine with collection, I just worry that modern games may use it as a crutch when it may not be necessary.