Monday 16 May 2011

Let us not go hurrying about and collecting honey, bee-like buzzing here and there for a knowledge of what is not to be arrived at.

I was reading a post by Jeff Green on his blog, and the first few lines gave me cause to ponder:

Like many nerds, I have a bit of a collecting problem. As in: I like to collect things. (Game Freak gets a Genius of the Millennium award for recognizing this problem in us and creating Pokemon, by the way.)

Is this what we do in MMOs? Is ‘collecting’ the theme that developers should be focussing on if they want to get players invested and hooked on their game?

I’m certainly a collector, my book shelves packed with pen and paper RPGs, some of which I’ve played and some which I’ve picked up simply because I liked the publisher. Others books on those shelves I bought simply because they had curious mechanics or design elements and – like some sort of gaming horologist hunched over a desk and peering through a loupe – I wanted to carefully pick them apart and lay each piece out on a velvet cloth; observe how one part integrated with another, how all the parts made the whole; then I’d experiment to see whether I could replace certain parts and make the whole more efficient.

Somehow I avoided becoming hooked on Pokémon; perhaps I have a super powered resistance to it: faster than a speeding two year old child, can leap tall coffee mugs in a single bound, impervious to Pokémon addiction, yes it’s Supernerd! If so, then Magic: The Gathering was my kryptonite. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my loft is an old wooden chest, covered in cobwebs, bound in chains and padlocks, with ominous warnings scrawled across its surface in the spidery handwriting of one on the verge of insanity. Sometimes, at night, you can hear the chest thumping around up there, the devilishness contained therein trying to break its bondage and wreak havoc on some meagre mortal soul. I’m cured of my madness now having gone cold turkey, locked in a room by myself for a week I rolled feverishly around on sweat soaked sheets while hallucinations tormented me, the room spinning nauseatingly around the bed as my wardrobes tapped themselves onto their sides. The walls parted and I became lost in a forest, suffocated in a swamp, deserted on an island; I walked across barren plains as towering pyramids of cards arose to terrifying heights from the sand around me. The top of each pyramid was capped by a pair of cards that I didn’t yet possess, and I would scramble, slip and scuttle my way up the side, desperately clawing with outstretched arm, trying to reach those rare cards at the pyramid’s peak, but always sliding back down as the tower collapsed and buried me under the weight of common cards that formed its base. Even when the delirium had passed and I was able to return to society, for some time afterwards a business colleague could not offer their card without my sudden evacuation of the meeting room with screams of “DO NOT TEMPT ME, FIEND!”.

I look at MMOs and wonder how deeply the nerdly pursuit of collection is rooted there, even if not by design. It’s easy for certain elements of MMO society to single out and mock those who collect mini pets, cosmetic outfits, or indeed entire stables of alternative characters, but I wonder if the collective merely rails against its distorted reflection, like a cat hissing and threatening the larger strangely warped cat reflected in the surface of a body of water, which it does not recognise as being itself.

Some collect purple pixels, and others collect boss kills as trophies; some collect achievements, others collect gold; some collect multiple characters, others collect everything they can but on a single character only; and yes, some collect pets, and others outfits. It seems as though, at a primal level, we’re all collecting. Games such as Pokémon and Magic have managed to drill deep and tap directly into that well of fossilised gatherer instinct which is genetically ingrained in all of us, and MMOs are clearly starting to understand how rich that frothing geyser of addictive power can be.

I have another chest waiting in the loft, lid open and chains hanging loosely around its base, and when the first MMO arrives that targets collecting as a part of its central game mechanic, I will slam my PC into that wooden coffer, seal it with links of iron, and never venture into the digital domain again, lest I find myself forever lost to the depths of maddening soul-rending addiction that such a game would elicit.

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