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!