My husband and I like to play video games together. As rewarding as it may be to get into a state of flow with one wholly absorbing game, or to connect online with chatty remote friends, it’s just as much fun to sit in a room with your significant other and either entertain or piss them off with your antics.
Big open-world games are best for this. For weeks after its launch, we played Far Cry 5 (on the not-quite recommendation of my colleague Boone Ashworth). My husband enjoys the implausible physics—bouncing planes off rooftops to pick off bad guys, driving horizontally into waterfalls—while I … I like something else entirely.
I love to scrounge. I love to futz around a bunker, looking for tiny hidden keys, then getting inside and turning around and around and around, looking for little wads of hidden cash. I love to get out of the car and dawdle across the countryside, stealing backpacks with my dog Boomer. Last night, I took out some cult followers and found myself clambering over their ritual sacrifice, a naked, grotesque, rotting corpse hanging on a tree with a flower crown on his head. “There must be something interesting stuck to this guy!” I thought merrily to myself.
It was getting out of control. Whether I’m stuck in the armory for 15 solid minutes in Elder Scrolls, reading every library book in The Witcher, or trying to find my exact favorite gun in PUBG, I love to scrounge. I call it “grocery shopping.” This is both the best and the most irritating thing I do (besides charging off in the wrong direction or accidentally shooting you in the back of the head). Why do I do it? Should I stop?
A Dark Force
If you grew up, as I did, surrounded by people playing Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft and painstakingly assembling their stuff, you might be forgiven for thinking that scrounging—or the more commonly known word, “looting”—is an integral part of gaming.
It’s really not. Scrounging and looting have shown up in even the earliest games, but it’s generally acknowledged that looting as we now know it first appeared in 1996, in Blizzard’s Diablo. In trying to devise a system where players could dive right into the kill-and-scrounge cycle, creators David Brevik and Erich Schaefer realized they had filled the landscape with a bunch of ringing slot machines.
Loot boxes operate on the principle of variable ratio reinforcement, which is the same principle used to glue people into their seats in casinos. When you’re hunting around, looking for tiny little boxes, sometimes you get something really good. Other times, not so much. Both outcomes are a powerful incentive to keep going. The dopamine hit of the wins softens the sting of the losses and serves as a lure. The next time you parachute down into a remote hamlet and start hunting through empty houses, you will definitely find something great. After all, it happened several rounds ago!
For me, it’s also related to completion bias. Harvard researchers noted that people have a tendency to focus on completing smaller, more mundane tasks rather than larger ones. You get a dopamine hit when you’re able to check items off a list. In my case, I’ve maximized my inefficiency. Rather than completing actual story missions, it gives me a sense of satisfaction to search one specific building in a town or find the loot box of just this one player that I killed. It’s really frustrating to leave it behind. I risked my life for this, dammit!
I thought it was a universal impulse—to hunt, squirrel away, and store—until I started asking around. Anecdotally, most people that I know find that obsessive looting and grinding slows down the pace too much. There’s no doubt that finding key equipment can make for success—in PUBG, I need an Ump or a Scarl, specifically—but once you’ve got what you need, you need to move on fast.
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Of course, you can get around the boring part of working for your loot by simply paying real money for premium loot boxes. Some forecasts show that in-game loot boxes and purchases will bring in more than $20 billion by 2025. The randomized nature of the loot box, hidden or not—the very thing that makes it so appealing to me—has also led many, in the US and the UK, to argue that they should be as regulated as gambling.
I also think play-to-win boxes should be regulated—not on moral grounds but on the basis of being extremely annoying. It’s not worth it to me to pay real money if I play only once or twice a week, but I hate logging on and getting instantly and mercilessly slaughtered by a bunch of people wearing matching team dinosaur costumes. Creeps.
How Far Is Too Far?
Of course, you can’t have large amounts of money floating around without people going a little crazy, and I’m not the only one who finds it hard to know where to draw the line. I get that it’s slow to grind away to acquire different characters and different abilities. It might make sense to pay a little more to get a specialized camouflage suit or gun that would give you an edge.
But people can take it too far. For example, I found myself reading about how gold farming—where people in developing nations grind to acquire in-game currency to sell for real-world currency—is moving to the blockchain. I like acquiring things, but it’s not the main point of a game for me. Not only do I not want to pay for loot, I also don’t want to pay for desperate people in Venezuela to get it for me.
If paying for in-game purchases has a dark side, looting and grinding has its own bad reputation. But after months of pandemic practice, I’ve come to see it as an enjoyable part of a game. Just as mindlessly repeating scales can improve a beginning pianist’s muscle memory, searching for loot or killing one or two NPCs for minor gains improves my coordination and trains my eye to look for moving or twitching pixels.
On nights when I can play for only an hour or two, it’s not worth the frustration of starting a whole new mission that I will swear at myself to finish before going to bed way too late. It’s better, and more satisfying, to cap off my evening peacefully by roaming around the countryside with my virtual pet by my side. In the end, the only person who gets to decide whether scrounging is fun or not is you. And I do always happen to have enough ammo when I need it.
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