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In asking why people play games, we should not ignore that not only can people have different preferences that dictate the kinds of games they play, but also different preferences that dictate their approach to the same games. And one such approach that can sometimes be maligned is the completionist attitude: the desire to get “100%” in a video game.
Now the first problem is that “completing” a game has a few different meanings. The most basic sense of completion comes from having finished the main content of a game – usually a story mode or campaign of some kind. Sometimes it’s fairly straightforward and getting from beginning to end is a process of simply playing the game and following directions as given by the game. Sometimes the game has all sorts of extra content that might distract the player from the main questline. But as long as the player gets to the end, that is all. There is a sense of completionism that can apply to just finishing a game. When many players tend not to even get to the end, the drive to beat a game can be considered a completionist attitude.
But I want to go further, and look at those who don’t merely beat the game, but strive to do everything. Of course, even then there’s not a very clear definition of “everything.” Games can have a variety of goals given internally through the game, externally by the developer, or by the player themself. This throws a bit of a wrench into the analysis, because all of them can equally be regarded as going for 100% completion, and yet they don’t always line up.
Sometimes games will lay out challenges for players. Beat a certain boss within a certain time limit. Perform a particular attack a specified number of times. Deal X amount of damage in one blow. Those kinds of challenges can either be little boxes that a player can check for their self-satisfaction, or can be accompanied by in-game rewards of some sort.
The rise of achievements (or trophies for those familiar with the Playstation variant) then lead to players completing challenges given to them not by the game, but by the developers themselves. Sometimes these challenges would overlap with the in-game challenges, but there was and is no guarantee. Sometimes an achievement can include finishing all in-game challenges, but even that is not universal.
And of course, players can sometimes define for themselves what they consider to be 100%. Perhaps the world is filled with unique equipment, and so you want to collect everything, even when there is no reward for doing so or even specified challenge to do so. Or maybe the world is populated by special enemies and you want to defeat them all, even if you’re never actually asked to do that. Generally these goals revolves around doing something that can be considered special – just attacking enemies, for example, would probably not count for this purpose – and as such something that can be “completed.”
However, I am going to set this particular problem aside. Whatever the way in which “100%” is understood, the underlying motivations will overlap enough that we do not have to worry about the distinction between internal, external, or player-derived challenges. Instead, we can focus on the question: why would players bother with these challenges at all?
The Drive to Complete
There is not actually a single reason why people go above and beyond in finishing a game. There are a few different reasons that can be separated or combined as they pertain to the individual player.
For example, some portion of the drive to not just complete but “perfect” a game can be attributed to compulsion. A player may feel a sense of psychological anguish at the knowledge that a game isn’t fully completed, and so be driven not necessarily by a desire to have fun, but by a desire to remove the source of the anguish. The exact portion of players who are driven by such compulsion is unclear, but it should not be ignored.
However, because it exists does not mean that all players are driven by compulsion. Some players can also see the pursuit of 100% completion as a sign of status. Being able to say “I got all of the achievements in this game,” or to show off the sheer number of games that have been completed (we can think of the “Gamerscore” mechanic attached to achievements on the Xbox consoles), can all be ways to use completion as a form of bragging rights.
And of course, players can also find themselves pursuing achievements as a way of increasing engagement with a game. If a player enjoys a game, they may feel upon finishing out main questlines that they do not feel done, and wish to play more. They would like an “excuse” to play more, as we might put it. Achievements or similar player-derived goals thus provide this excuse, giving a reason for the player to continue playing and getting enjoyment from the game without that enjoyment feeling “pointless.”
These drives do not have to be mutually exclusive. Individuals can have any combination of these drives at the same time, and they can be stronger at certain points than others.
However, it should be noted that even when such drives are present, not every game will be subjected to completion. Even when we might say that players can feel an urge to complete games in general, it is just as important to look to how the games themselves fuel that urge. Both in a negative and positive aspect.
Firstly, the drive to complete video games will often depend on what it means to complete them in the first place. What does “100%” actually look like? The more amorphous that definition is, the harder it is for any player to be driven to seek out some sense of “completion.” In a sense, this is why those achievements exist in the first place: they lay out a clear set of goals that can be acknowledged by all players as a marker for 100% completion.
But that fact can also serve as a double-edged sword to these drives. If the clarity they offer is a positive aspect, the actual substance of the achievements can pose problems. On the one hand, the challenges posed by achievements can be extraordinarily difficult, to the point that many players simply won’t be able to succeed. This can create an extreme sense of frustration, and especially for players driven by compulsion can create more problems. On the other hand, the challenges can be too easy, often serving as a manipulative tool to appeal to people who see such achievements as a form of bragging rights.
Unfortunately, there’s not really an ideal place for this challenge. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to remove such achievements entirely. However, even then we would still have challenges posed from within the game that can still pose the same problems. But at least those in-game challenges would be less frequent. Meanwhile, the majority of completionism would be able to result from player-derived goals, which would remove some of the more toxic elements of the completionist attitude and allow players to engage with games for the sake of their enjoyment.
There are plenty of reasons why people play games that are common to the point we might even call them “normal.” But there are also a variety of drives that are less common. Sometimes these drives can seem counterintuitive at first glance, suggesting that people are not having fun while playing games. But it is by diving deeper into these drives that we can see how fun can be derived in unique ways.
The completionist attitude is no different. On the surface, it can appear as a destructive tendency to push oneself beyond the point of enjoyment and into the point of self-torture. And certainly there are times when that can be the case. But it is also true that genuine fun can come about as a function of aiming for 100% completion of a game. And we should be trying to understand how that function works and what can better help facilitate that enjoyment.