On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
There are healthy ways to deal with stress and unhealthy ways to deal with stress. When backed into a corner, I tend to go with the unhealthy options. Which is how video games helped destroy my first marriage.
Back in 2009, the US had just elected Barack Obama, I worked 40 hours in a retail job that was killing me, and I had decided I wanted to 100 percent Fallout 3. I had already beaten the game, but I hadn’t completed it. There’s a difference.
Beating a game typically means going through the main story and seeing the credits. Completing a game, or "100 percenting" a game, means getting all its achievements, finishing every side quest, and scooping up every collectible. It typically involves completing the main game, all the side quests, and a laundry list of optional content. If you’ve ever played an Ubisoft-style sandbox game such as Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, it means hitting all the points on the map and clearing them out.
I wanted to tick every box in Fallout 3 and get that exhausted sense of accomplishment that can only come from spending way too much time with a video game. Some estimates said this process would cost me more than 120 hours of my time but I was ready.
It was going well and I was having fun, but somewhere in the sewers below Fort Bannister I realized I had a problem. I had killed all the Talon mercenaries, checked every computer terminal, and opened up every strong box looking of items to sell. After I’d neutralized the threats, I spent an entire day carrying the assorted loot back and forth to vendors across the wastes and converting it into bottle caps— Fallout’s coin of the realm.
I stripped the Talon soldiers of every spare scrap of clothing, every weapon, and every bit of ammo. Once I could carry no more, I teleported to a township, sold everything off, then went back for more, systematically moving through the corpses of the fallen to strip them of their gear to sell them for cash I didn’t really need. I don’t know how many hours I spent doing this, but it was too many. Even for a completionist, this level of compulsion was overkill.
In the sewers of Fallout 3, pawing through another set of clothing that’d sell for a pittance, I stopped and looked around my apartment. I had no idea where my wife was, I was stoned out of my mind, and I had a full shift the next day at a retail job I hated. Yet here I was, in front of a glowing screen, not dealing with my problems. I’d settled for the small dopamine—the brain’s reward neurotransmitter—kick that comes from accomplishing quick repetitive tasks in a video game.
I love video games and I typically use them to unwind at the end of a long day. But when life gets hard and its victories come too slowly, the thing I do to relieve stress often becomes another source of it. When life gets tough, I 100 percent video games. It’s just easier to fill out a digital checklist than it is to do the hard work of getting my shit together.
After that day, back in the early years of the Obama presidency, I never played Fallout 3 again. I lost the wife in a few months, quit the job, and started a new career. I’d like to say I got better.
But the patterns repeats. This is still something I do.
Most people can take or leave their video games. Other people treat games like a damn job. I’m one of the later, though I’m getting better. I’m semi-reformed. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong or inherently unhealthy about 100 percenting video games.
Everyone plays in different ways. My trouble comes when I either use the games’ simple tasks to avoid my life, or get to the point with a game where I feel like I’m clocking in for a job. If I’m fantasizing about ways to maximize my playthrough of, say, Assassin's Creed Unity to most efficiently gather all its worthless treasure chests, I know I’ve fallen into a bad pattern of behavior.
The grind to 100 percent is often tedious, boring, and unrewarding. In Assassin’s Creed II, players could collect 100 feathers scattered across the map to unlock a special achievement. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had 200 golden skull spiders. Grand Theft Auto IV had 200 pigeons to shoot. If it’s an open world game, it’s probably got a shitty make-work style task such as these baked in. It pads out time and keeps gamers like me engaged.
“There’s a sense of diminishing returns when you’re looking for the last three feathers or what have you,” Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, told me over the phone. Wortmann’s memoir is an intimate portrait of his OCD and the various ways he’s hurt and helped himself. One of the constants in his life is video games, there’s even a chapter of his memoir that uses the SNES classic Chrono Trigger as an extended metaphor for his life at the time.
He understands some gamers—himself included—complete a daunting checklist in a video game to get a sense of accomplishment. “In some ways it’s just the sense of completion and fulfillment,” he told me. “If things are going wrong with your life or you’re bored and nothing seems rewarding, it’s very easy for people to latch onto [a video game] and say, ‘I can do this perfectly.’”
He compared the behavior to gambling or alcoholism. “Once I make that big hit, I can finally stop…the tasks themselves aren’t very rewarding. It’s just a question of getting rid of that little blinking dot on the map. You’re doing the same repetitive tasks over and over, they’re not…as well designed or rewarding as the main mission. They don’t have narrative context.”
It’s very easy for people to latch onto [a video game] and say, 'I can do this perfectly.'
He’s right and that’s part of what’s so frustrating about being a completionist. For every game such as Mario Odyssey, where it’s fun to track down every single secret, there are a dozen games such as Assassin’s Creed Unity or Watch Dogs 2, where seeing everything the game has to offer means spending hours hunting down bullshit on a map.
The worst offender of the busywork style completion list is the Assassin’s Creed series, which often has a map populated with hundreds of treasure chests full of garbage loot and money the player will never need. They’re just there to blink on a map and push the player to find them.
For Wortmann, the reasons people like he and I get caught up in these cycles has everything to do with classical psychological conditioning. “That’s just the way [humans are] programmed,” he explained. “We have difficulty valuing long term, abstract rewards as opposed to short term, concrete ones.”
According to Wortmann—and 20th century psychologist B.F. Skinner—the human brain is prejudiced towards short term rewards and bad at shooting for long term, abstract goals. When a person looks to a video game to help unwind that string of easy short term rewards can become an addiction. “If you’re playing a game and you think, ‘I just want to play five more minutes of this,’…my brain is telling me not to deal with the world,” Wortmann said.
“No matter how worn out you are or how bored you are with the game, its stream of rewards can completely disrupt your ability to tell yourself ‘hold on, I’ve been playing this game for ten hours a day for a month. I’m not getting anything out of it.’ It stops you from being able to look at the long term.”
We’re in the early days of psychological studies of the effects of video games and video game addiction, but the science seems to back up Wortmann’s assertions and my experiences as a completionist junkie.
There’s a psychological concept called self determination theory. It suggests that humans have a hierarchy of needs represented by ABC. A is autonomy, we want to feel like we’re in control. B is belonging, we want to feel connected to others. C is competence, we want to feel we’re good at whatever we’re doing.
“It kind of is that simple,” Doug Gentile—a doctor of psychology at Iowa State University and a researcher into the effects of video games on the human brain—told me over the phone.
“We’re intrinsically motivated to do things that satisfy at least one of those three needs. To the extent that they satisfy all three of them they’re more motivating. And so [video game completionism] is satisfying the competence need. You can quickly turn on the game and feel like you achieved something. But also, you feel in control. You’re holding a controller. You get to decide what you're doing. We never have control over anything in our real lives.”
Gentile told me that games are great at satisfying our ABC needs, which is why people love them so much. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “The problem is that if you’re not getting those needs met elsewhere in your life, then the potential for the games to be addictive goes up.”
Gentile asked that I take everything he told me with a grain of salt. He’s currently studying video game addiction and he’s about to publish a study on the subject, but it hasn’t yet cleared the peer review process. Still, his early conclusions and the anecdotal evidence lines up with my experiences. Turning to video games in times of stress can become an addictive grind that makes the games themselves a source of stress.
His unpublished study followed two sets of 1,000 undergraduate students. “We do find that when the students say they use games as a way to cope with their stress it does correlate with higher addiction symptoms,” he said.
He explained that using video games to cope is a negative coping strategy. That doesn’t mean it’s bad necessarily, just that it’s a coping strategy that helps you avoid your problems rather than facing them. “After controlling for other negative coping strategies, if they use games as a coping strategy, there’s still a higher chance for addiction,” he said. “It does look like it’s something about choosing games to cope can set you on a path to addiction. We don’t know causality here, but it’s possible that it could set up people to be addicted.”
This makes sense given my own experiences. I use games to unwind and avoid my problems. If the game has a checklist built into it, and a simple seeming path towards 100 percent completion, I will follow it because it prolongs the play session and allows me to avoid my problems a little longer.
“If video game addiction is like other addictions, it also should have a pathway like that,” Gentile said. “For people who get addicted it starts as a coping mechanism. They’re stressed, they pick up a game to blow off some steam. Again, nothing wrong with that until they don’t have another way to do it, until they have to spend so much time that it’s causing more stress because it’s disrupting their work or family lives.”
There’s something that happens to me when I start a new game with a big map full of collectibles and quests. I get excited. I know I’ve got hours of easy achievements ahead of me, a whole list of easy dopamine hits from simple quest objectives and stupid collectibles. As the hours wear on though, the grind sets in and I keep pushing through even though I’m not having fun anymore. According to Gentile, that’s classic addictive behavior.
Does that mean there’s no hope for me? Will the thing I love to use to distract me from my problems always become another problem? No. Wortmann and I have both developed coping mechanisms to help us when our coping mechanisms become toxic.
For Wortmann, it was important not to lose video games. They’ve helped him far more than they’ve hurt him. I think that’s true for a lot of people. It’s certainly true for me. “It’s very easy to get trapped in circular thinking with depression and obsessive thinking,” he said. “One of the ways to break that up, I’ve found, is through gaming. So many of us, we have the tendency to run through bad memories or anxieties about the future, stuff we can’t do anything about. It can be a really useful way to break that vicious cycle of spiraling thought. Just by transplanting yourself into a different world for a little bit.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to both use video games to relieve my stress while avoiding the pitfalls of completionism and other obsessive behaviors. If a game stops being fun, I stop playing it. “A big part of it is recognizing that,” Wortmann said. “Just looking at a task I’ve done and saying ‘that wasn’t fun or useful or interesting.’ I could have a more rewarding experience playing another game for the first time and getting into the meat of that instead of doing these little, meaningless, checklist tasks.”
For Wortmann, it’s also possible to change your relationship to an addictive game for the better. “I had a very interesting experience playing Pokémon Go,” he said. Pokémon Go is the mobile version of Nintendo’s popular monster catching franchise, When he first played the game, the old obsessive completionist behavior set in. He tried to maximize all the game’s systems, capture all the Pokemon, and complete all the pointless dailies to get the best loot.
He broke out of the cycle by incorporating the game into his exercise routine. “It’s a perfect example of using games as a distraction productively,” he said. Typically, when he exercised before he’d get bored during a run and negative self-talk would fill his brain. Pokémon Go distracted him from that.
He’s healthier now than he’s been in years and he gives some of the credit to the game. “It’s improved my life in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do without that game that I’d ironically gotten tangled up in.”
Similarly, I still play Bethesda open world RPGs, but I’ve completely changed the way I approach them. When I got Skyrim, I knew that I’d be in trouble if I went in blind. I knew that the massive amount of quests and blinking map icons would draw me into the same old completionist pattern I felt with Fallout 3.
So now, when I set down to play a massive RPG such as Fallout 4 or Skyrim, I sketch out my character’s motivations during the creation process. While I’m tweaking the hair and costume of my new avatar, I always ask myself who this person is and what they want. When I get into the game and I’m approached with a new quest I ask myself what the character would do. Would they chase the rumor about the Thieve’s Guild or push on through the main story line? It all depends on the character I’ve created in my head.
The first time I played Skyrim, I took ten minutes during the game’s opening and conceived of my character as an Nord survivalist living off the land and avoiding cities. I used that rough sketch to inform my decisions in the game and had an absolute blast and never attempted to 100 percent the game.
I played a second time as a guy who wanted to go to the Bard college and ran from every encounter. I “finished” that character’s story in about 10 hours and never once touched the main quest line. It was way more fun than spending 100 hours on one character that’s trying to see every cave and complete every quest.
In the past year, it also seems like the game’s have gotten better at avoiding the things that make my brain itch and send me on a completionist binge. Assassin’s Creed Origins is massive and filled with things to do. It also doesn’t have a checklist buried in the menu system I can watch to know how much of the game I’ve burned through.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is another massive open world filled with content. But again, there’s no checklist that makes it easy for me to keep track of the collectibles. Mario Odyssey—with its hundreds of tiny secrets and replayable level design—seems as if it’d be a completionist nightmare but collecting all the moons is actually fun and well designed. It never feels like a chore.
“You’re not constantly shifting back to a meta perspective and looking at these checklists and these graphs,” Wortmann said of Origins and Zelda. “It produces a more rewarding experience. The pressure is off.”
That doesn’t mean that I’m immune either. I’m embarrassed to admit I recently got into a bad way with Star Wars Battlefront II. I don’t even like Star Wars Battlefront II but I played it for 26 hours and I know why. The game’s progression system is full of small achievements. Kill 100 people in a multiplayer, fill up a bar, and unlock a new weapon. It hooked me, until, one night at two in the morning, I realized I’d spent several hours playing a game I didn’t like to get a piece of gear I didn’t care about.
I uninstalled it and haven’t looked back. I always have to be on guard. “There’s still that compulsion—even knowing that it’s going to be tedious and repetitive—to get that extra checkmark,” Wortmann said.
According to Gentile, my compulsive problem doesn’t rise to the level of addiction because it’s not disrupting my everyday life. But it has in the past. There’s always that danger. “I believe, and there’s lots of people who disagree with me, is that this is an impulse control problem,” Gentile said. “You know you should go to sleep but you just got to get one more level. You can’t control that impulse. The problem isn’t with the game. The problem is that you need to manage that impulse.”
I’ve gotten better in the past ten years. I’ve got a career now and work with people I love. Most of the time, I can put a game down when I realize I’m using it to avoid my life and my problems. But the old itch is still in the brain. It’s always there, ready to strike. I just hope next time, I recognize it before I’ve put more than twenty hours into a mediocre Star Wars shooter.
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