Friday, November 17, 2006

Gotta Catch Em All!

Consumerism is something I think we all accept as part of our lives.

We can sometimes blame it on capitalism or sometimes on our particular version of product advertising in this country, or even live in a state of denial and say that we consume because we need the crap we see on TV. There is something fun about consuming, though. I'm not sure if I think it's natural or the result of some social something-or-other, but I am embarrassed to admit that getting stuffff (extra f's to emphasize the uselessness of said stuff) is a great joy. Only my poverty keeps this in check. That, and video games. Few forms of entertainment have been able to make such wonderful use of this drive to collect than video games. Equipment, abilities, items, power-ups and level-ups have long been a recurring element of gaming. From Doom to Soul Reaver, Metroid to Diablo, Blaster Master, Gradius and every RPG ever, games often require you to amass items and abilities, and there is a certain enjoyment to collecting them for the purpose of having them. What is interesting is that the desire to find virtual items is similar to the desire to purchase, and looking at how the desire to have manifests in gaming gives interesting insight into the desire to consume in general. The compulsion to consume exists in a greater or lesser degree for each of us, and brings a different degree of pleasure for each. Some gamers will pass by treasure chests in favor of advancing the story. Players may ignore every side quest that does not required to understand the plot or finish a level. But the desire exists frequently enough to warrant a little examination.

I love stuffff. As a kid I collected everything that resembled a dinosaur, had all the ninja turtle toys and attempted to get the play sets, collected stickers, coins, stamps, rocks, animals (short lived thanks to parents), knives, cards, comics, and I do believe at one point any object which I figured I could one day in the future use to fashion a robot including spark plugs, springs, circuit boards and wheels. I had this great fantasy of being the sort of person who has anything you could possibly need when you need it, no matter how obscure.

There is a certain security that comes from collecting which is created by the ability to have a tangible record of the past. By taking photographs we ensure that the past did indeed happen. When we collect things we not only find a way to pass the time and feel productive, but we have a log of all the productive things we've been doing and what fruits our labors bore. Each time we collect another level we are reminded that we're doing well. Every treasure chest means we're going the right way. It's comforting, being able to see and label those landmarks. Buying new furniture makes a new apartment feel like a life change rather than a new space. Souvenirs can be anything as long as they remind you of the place you got them in or the people you were with. It's fun to see armor and weapons and effects build up on characters. One of my favorite parts of Super Metroid was to start a new game after beating it, just so I could be reminded of what the old Samus looked like. It made me the experience of the game feel more solid when I could really see the changes that had occurred in the course of the game. I still want to be able to see all of my books and DVDs in one place, just to compare the ones from my childhood to the ones from a few months ago. Comparing them makes the changes I've gone through as a person more definable, more real.

The letdown comes when we take a look at the receipts our lifestyle has left us only to realize that we've wasted our timeHowo...how much money have you spent on Magic cards? Wow, that sure is a loStamps.stamps. In the realm of video games these emotions are played upon in very interesting ways. There is a fair amount of disagreement as to how much hoarding of stuffff is too much. I tend to draw the line at utility in most games. Collecting stops being fun when I can't possibly need what I'm going for. When another level means nothing, when I have the best weapon I'm likely to get, when collecting these damn in-game cards means all that's going to happen is I'm going to get more cards WHOOPTY DAMN DOO, it's time to put the packrat to sleep. It becomes necessary for a game to provide constant obstacles in order to make searching out collectibles make sense. If nothing else we are going to need something to try our new toys out on. Yet the compulsion to collect and the joy that comes from collecting sometimes is surprisingly strong. People begin inventing reasons to collect.

My favorite delusional reason: it's an investment! BULL! You are never going to sell those cards so take them out of that damn plastic sleeve! You don't need two copies of that comic cause it's never going to be worth enough to bother selling. Interestingly enough, video games took this excuse to such an extreme that it actually became a practical reason. Kids in my highschool started saying they weren't wasting their time because they planned to sell their character. Every day after school they would sit and play Everquest with the express intent of selling the login id on eBay. To my knowledge they never actually did since they had become too attached to the character in the mean time (we'll sell the next one, we swear). This has even gone so far that there are warehouses in China and Korea filled with people playing World of Warcraft for the express purpose of selling gold, characters and items. Video games have actually allowed compulsive collecting to become profitable!

Yet even as I poke fun at people for collecting useless things, I remind myself how much fun I still have going to Amoeba and filling my basket with cd's I already have on my computer. Like it or not, collecting stuffff is fun for many of us. And so at long last has come a game who's entire purpose, whose ENTIRE purpose, is collecting. Enter the extravagant and glorious Katamari Damacy. The very fact that the game is so rediculous absolves us from the guilt of collecting frivolous things. There is no chance of deception, this game is next to meaningless. And that's what makes it great! How can you feel bad for collecting useless things when thats all there is in the game? It's bright colors and stylized graphics continually pound in the message that that this game wants you to just have fun! Somehow it's a great feeling to be plopped down in a bizarre, vibrant world of recognizable objects and pick them up one after another, eyes ever focused on what's in front of you, rarely pausing to consider what you just got. Sifting through the managery of junk you've collected back in the menue screen becomes immediately and depressingly boring. The whole fun is in obtaining.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being that I believe video games stimulate our primal wants and desires, I believe “collecting” is a representation of our hunter gatherer instincts. The most successful of our ancestors had a subconscious desire to explore, collect, and accumulate. The vestiges of these desires are still prevalent today, and they are easily expressed through games.
Allow me to digress into the realm of evolutionary psychology once more simply because I know you hate it. Thousands of generations ago, the most powerful members of a tribe were able to acquire the greatest amount of wealth. They in turn, were able to expend more resources in order to secure the success of their offspring. For this reason everyone wants wealth. Today, this most often manifests itself as money. We work at “collecting” money so that we can get the stuff (sports car) to get the really cute girl.
Of course wealth can be interpreted in many different ways. As a child, toys are the greatest symbol of wealth, hence our meticulous dinosaur collecting. When we extend this desire into the realm of video games, it is reflected in the desire to collect levels, items, and power-ups. By attaining the hidden Ultima sword, I am enforcing my genetic validity on a subconscious level. This is reflected in a conscious thought such as “Man, I’ve got the rarest sword in the game! I’m such a badass now! God I kick this game’s ass.”
Games are a very easy and watered down escape from real life. It’s so much easier to get a level 100 pikachu than to actually make CEO. Temporarily, we are lost in a game’s pseudo world and get wrapped in the false accomplishment of attaining virtual wealth. I am perhaps more guilty of this than all of you. In high school, I fell prey to the highly addictive Pokemon. I literally did want to catch them all. To this day I can’t logically rationalize why I did it. Some vestigial part of my psyche was pleased, regardless of the real world consequences.
Before I turn this reply into an after school special, let me simply state that Item collecting is a powerful and highly successful aspect of video games, albeit insidious and time consuming.