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.
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.