Gamers have been scrabbling for collectible items since the earliest days of the medium – heart pieces in Zelda, Mario’s gold bullion, the glowing rooftop orbs in Crackdown.

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In a lot of cases – particularly the old-school platform generation – the reasons behind the inclusion of such collectibles was obvious, at least on a design basis. More items equals more playtime, or extra lives, or a steadily-built defense against enemies. In other words, collecting was essential to succeeding in the game.

More recently, however, games have begun to incorporate collectibles in a very different manner. The scope and ambition of such items has evolved. You don’t have to collect all the character biographies in Arkham Asylum or the audio diaries in BioShock – but if you do, you’ll be treated to greater story expansion and an all-round more immersive experience.

The thing is: Narrative or aesthetic support isn’t enough to explain the phenomenon. Collectibles wouldn’t be so ubiquitous unless there was a deeper, more ingrained appeal. Let’s take a particularly modern example – the Xbox 360 Achievements system, or its slightly less prestigious PlayStation Trophy sibling. The traditional notion of high-scoring has been cleverly dissected into a series of bite-size chunks; merit-badges that dedicated players can gather, a whole new breed of virtual collectibles. But what is so compelling about all this? Why do some gamers – not all, but many – feel a niggling regret when they see a lacking gamerscore or hear of items that remain ungathered?

Somewhere there’s an innate part of us that loves to collect. A motivation. An entrenched reason. A psychological quirk. So – just what is going on in our heads?

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Of course, as soon as a subject like this is brought up, there’ll be the inevitable lazy outcry: The reason gamers like collecting is because they’re nerdy and obsessive, right? We’re going to go right ahead and assume you don’t need The Escapist to tell you this is nonsense. Nor that such a “collecting is sad” judgement obviously wouldn’t apply to your girlfriend’s wardrobe full of shoes or your boyfriend’s cabinet of football memorabilia.

There is a far more intriguing rationale at work here, and to find it we need to delve into the often-confusing world of psychology. This is something that Jamie Madigan – Personnel Psychologist for the US Government, lifelong gamer and the man behind the Psychology of Games blog – has been doing for years. “The most interesting thing I’ve found is how easy it is to draw parallels between studies of human behavior in other contexts to people playing games,” he explains. “What motivates people to play games are the same things that motivate them to engage in sports, work, art, and lots of other pastimes. There’s still a lot that’s unique about the psychology of videogames – human-machine interactions, for example – but a lot of what makes gamers tick can be inferred from what’s already known about the field.”

In other words, the same motivation that compelled your grandfather to collect stamps when he was a kid is still alive and well, staking its behavioral claim in the digital era. It’s often been postulated that this desire could be a throwback to our Neanderthal hunter-gatherer roots – something with which Madigan disagrees. “I’m not sure that would be the lens I’d use to examine things,” he says. “Evolutionary psychology is interesting, but it generally fails at explaining specific behaviors that are happening right now.”

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Mark B. McKinley – Psychology Professor for more than 40 years, and himself a dedicated collector of clocks and timepieces – has a number of alternate (and surprisingly practical) explanations regarding the collection bug. “Some people collect for investment,” he says. “Some collect for pure enjoyment. Some collect to expand their social lives, attending swap meets and exchanging information with like-minded souls. Some collect to learn and preserve history. Additional collector motivations include psychological security, filling a void in a sense of self. Collections could be a means to immortality or fame. For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life; calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector. One does not eat just because of hunger.”

A varied slate, then – all of which translate in various degrees within the world of gaming. Yet McKinley refers exclusively to physical artifacts – an “old-school” tradition of collecting. What about the virtual world Achievements mentioned earlier? What explains the satisfaction gained by killing 10,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead 2 or popping a triple-kill during a Halo: Reach jetpack jaunt? “It’s feedback,” Madigan elaborates. “It’s an indication that the things you were doing were good, and here’s your reward. A kind of virtual food pellet. It’s also a signal of our status and accomplishment to other players who see them, which helps satisfy our innate drives to get ahead and get along when interacting with others. Building collectibles towards some larger reward also lets us experience irregularly scheduled rewards at a much higher rate. Humans like irregular or random reward schedules, or at least they’re often more powerful in shaping our behaviors than “predictable” rewards. Getting a little burst of dopamine from finding a collectible plays on some hard wiring in our brain that’s designed to keep us doing what we were doing when the pleasurable thing showed up.”

And – of course – there’s just good old brattiness. “There’s also a school of thought that people want to add unpleasant or arduous tasks to their list of accomplishments just because they are unpleasant and arduous,” he adds. “Kind of for bragging rights.” Which raises an interesting question – could this desire to collect mutate to the extent that it proves harmful or antisocial?

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Not really. “We should not confuse collecting with hoarding, as collecting is a good thing,” McKinley outlines, dispelling all comparisons between the average gamer and, say, the Collyer Brothers (reclusive New York madmen whose OCD-collection frenzy saw them die while trapped in an apartment crammed with garbage.) “Researchers haven’t agreed on whether people who have hobbies are happier and more balanced because they collect things, or they collect things because they’re already happier and more balanced. Either way, collecting, from the self assessment standpoint of the collector, is nearly always seen as a positive in life.”

This doesn’t discount the fact that the urge to collect is a powerful force – so powerful, in fact, that it prods things towards an ethical issue. In the same way advertisers used to drop in subliminal messages during cinema screenings, could videogame makers be exploiting our psychology in order to glue players to their product?

“Those irregular and random reward schedules I mentioned are key,” Madigan says. “World of Warcraft and others like it have honed this to a science with random loot drops. Team Fortress 2‘s crafting and trading system for hats is another great example because it makes every drop a potentially valuable one.” The ethical standpoint is a far more obtuse issue. “I generally steer clear of discussing ethics of those kinds of things. I’ll just say that the game developers may be using psychological levers to nudge people in the direction they want, but they’re not loading them up on a cart and rolling them along against their wishes.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a brave new world for publishers to explore here. Crackdown 2 recently launched a demo that allowed players to carry over achievements/points should they buy the game. The same was true of the relationship between the Dead Rising 2 prequel and the full game. As a prime source of consumer incentive, expect to see a lot more innovation and experimentation in this area.

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It would seem that the appeal – and lucrative nature – of virtual collectibles is only going to grow. Mainstream prospects like Facebook now enable the trading and assimilation of virtual goods, and Avatar Accessories are pulling in big bucks on the Xbox.

As for the direct involvement of such collectibles within the framework of proper gaming, maybe sometimes it’s counterproductive to overanalyze things. “I’m not really into achievement hunting,” Madigan admits. “The only exception I can think of was collecting all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed 2.” And the psychology behind that? “I think running and climbing around in that game was inherently fun.”

C J Davies is a journalist and screenwriter based in London. He exists online over at www.cjdavies.com.

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