This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
It’s just gone three in the morning and I’ve been playing Nintendo’s 2017 title The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for hours on end. This is the sort of video game I tend to enjoy: big, expansive and open-ended. But despite having logged over 300 hours – or 12 days of my life – in the game, I am yet to complete it, and it all has to do with something called Korok Seeds.
The seeds are a kind of secondary in-game currency, used primarily for upgrading your arsenal. There are 900 of them in total to collect, and they’re spread all over Hyrule, the imaginary kingdom that provides the setting for pretty much every Zelda game published in the the past 35 years. Am I enjoying my seemingly endless search for them? No. Am I able to stop myself ploughing even more hours into looking for them? Also no.
I’m not alone when it comes to compulsively playing games way past my bedtime. Gaming is absurdly big business in the 21st century and, as more and more of us decide to spend both our money and our free time on the hobby, the rate of addiction is on the rise. Video game addiction (VGA) has been formally recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other public health bodies as a specific, stand-alone form of addiction since 2017. Studies conducted by the WHO found that one to three percent of gamers could be classified as having an addiction.
Hoping to discover more about what makes an adult so desperate to collect 900 virtual seeds as to actually give up sleep, I contacted Nastasia Griffioen, a 29-year-old currently doing a PhD on the influence video games have on our behaviour. Griffioen works with the Games for Emotional and Mental Health lab (GEHM) in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which brings together scientists and researchers from around the world to study the relationship between gaming and mental health in children and young adults.
As a gamer herself, Griffioen is familiar with the impulse to just ignore your better judgment and keep playing for a totally futile reason. “The urge to completely finish all of a game’s tasks are connected to a psychological concept we call the Zeigarnik effect,” Griffioen tells me.
Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist best known for the research she conducted in the 20s on the pressure that finished and unfinished tasks exert on our brains. Her studies demonstrate that we’re more likely to remember the things we’ve yet to finish than those we have. “Game developers use this phenomenon to keep you hooked,” Griffioen explains. “Think about all the in-game tasks that can’t be completed in one go – they’re the ones that dominate our consciousness.”
The Zeigarnik effect ties into what is known as completionism. “By this, we mean that they don’t just want to finish the game’s story, but that there’s also an urge to collect every possible object in the game, to complete all quests and to discover every distant corner on the map,” says Griffioen.
Completionism is sometimes referred to as “trophy hunting”, after the various kinds of in-game rewards that gamers earn for completing tasks and challenges. There are websites and forums out there that give these so-called hunters a space to discuss strategies, swap stories, and show off their achievements.
This compulsion towards completionism is used by developers to keep players engaged for as long as possible. It’s a reward system: I’m still rooting around for those Korok Seeds because I read on forums that collecting all 900 gets you a prize. That prize, whatever it is, has made me curious.
Griffioen thinks the theory of conceptual consumption, which has been extensively studied in marketing, could be important to understand gaming, too. This is the idea that, since most of our basic needs like food and shelter are quickly met in the modern and privileged world, our attention has shifted to finding an outlet for our psychological needs – and hence consuming concepts. “The rarer an in-game experience is, the better if feels,” Griffioen said. “You know that not many gamers will collect all those seeds, so if and when you do, you’ll have an experience that makes you one of a select few.”
According to Griffioen, gamers can be divided into three main groups. “You’ve got casual gamers, such as myself. I play a game for as long as I enjoy it and then I move on,” she said. Then, there are the completionists like myself. “Finally there are speedrunners, people who want to complete a game as quickly as possible,” Griffioen continued. “To do this they enter into a flow state, becoming immersed in the game to such a degree that time passes them by.”
Griffioen explains this state of flow is sought after by many gamers and offers benefits to people’s mental health. “The media report a lot on the negative effects of gaming, but this flow state has demonstrable positive effects in battling anxiety and depression,” she said. “Our brains often think too much about ourselves and the world, and the flow state can help regulate those impulses.”
I know exactly what Griffioen’s talking about. When I’m not swearing at the game, I find seed-searching a very meditative – albeit time-consuming – experience. However, I wondered if there’s something more sinister behind my gaming style – are completionists more likely to develop a gaming addiction?
“There are so many gamers who play like you do. You don’t run any more of a risk of addiction than anyone else,” Griffioen says. “You should, though, be aware of how much influence the game has over your life. That, of course, is how we define something becoming an addiction. Does it negatively impact other parts of your life?” This, of course, includes sleep.
Griffioen thinks that my tendency to keep gaming even when I’m no longer enjoying myself is not necessarily a sign of addiction. Even if you do find that gaming is encroaching on other areas of life, you still have the power to do something about it. “I would consider playing less as time goes on, making a pact with yourself to play less frequently, and having some self compassion. Just don’t play on for too long when you notice that you’re no longer having fun, and you’ll be fine.”