An old friend of mine reached out to me a while back for an evening of gaming. As a fan of games and evenings, I couldn’t resist indulging in a bit of sunless controller fondling. We ended up playing a bit of Uncharted 4, and everyone apart from myself were oddly resistant to focus on the main story. If there were an NPC to talk to, they’d want to divert our efforts over towards them so as not to miss anything. They weren’t ashamed to admit it either, and one guy let loose a flurry of reasons why skipping content in a game makes the experience worse. At the time, I thought these guys were mad because nothing we’d skip was important. Then I remembered how I play Metroidvanias.
If there’s one thing gamers are not happy to do, it’s skip content. Even if there’s little to no reason for you to go searching the rest of the dungeon, people are uncomfortable with leaving tombs unraided. There’s this strange anxiety that emerges from leaving content unseen in a game, even if it’s more frustrating to explore than move forward. It may feel worse to miss out on something in a hidden chest somewhere, but this strange desire to get all the things runs a lot deeper than mere completionism. It’s ingrained into our very psyche like humanity’s universal appreciation for McFlurries, but let’s not gloss over the details.
Life is like a McFlurry: A swirling mas of entropy where a benevolent God-being could eat you and several star systems with a single scoop of a plastic spoon
Exploration has been a common gameplay trope over the years, and gamers love discovering everything they can. Whether it’s the dungeons of Skyrim, the maze-like castles of Dark Souls or the old school worlds of Metroid, there’s something fun about uncovering new areas. It’s an even better time when that secret room you found contains extra loot, and game design textbooks advise that all risks – including unadvised exploration – should have proportionate rewards. If you veer from the main path, you might encounter Sephiroth in a bush, but what other goodies is he keeping in all that shrubbery? Gold? Items? A secret area? The appeal is plain to see, and it’s fun to engage in that system to get the well-deserved satisfaction of knowing that you’ve achieved another goal. These goals are the heart of completionism.
One reason games satisfy us is that they allow us to achieve goals. These goals can come from a quest giver or from our internal desire to git gud. Taking on side quests isn’t a necessary component in a game, but we may feel a desire to complete them all the same. Why? Because you want to finish the game to a certain extent and not just play the main section. Perhaps you enjoy the combat, maybe you want to see where this side-plot goes, but something has motivated you to put in more than what’s needed. If you’re insane, you can go for 100% completion and grab that sweet PSN trophy. It’s a desire for mastery over the game’s architecture, not unlike wanting to become better at the game itself, but that drive isn’t purely ambition.
It’s the difference between enjoying Crash Bandicoot and finishing Crash Bandicoot
On the one hand, we want to complete things in a game because we feel like we’ll enjoy doing so. On the other hand, we may feel like we’re not getting the full experience by skimping out on optional sections. Knowing that an area has been locked off because you triggered an event can induce a pang of anxiety because that area could have contained immense riches! Or, you know, it could not. Oooooor it COULD! What if I don’t check it out!? I could miss out on something cool! Ensuring no corners are left untouched because we’ll be missing out on something is a relatable motivation, and I know I’ve experienced more than a few times. There’s a side of completionism that’s not driven by excitement so much as a fear of missing content and regretting missed opportunities. Believe it or not, games are far from the only place this anxiety kicks in.
One of the most interesting phenomena of the last two decades has been the fear of missing out (FOMO). The term gained popularity as social media’s influence skyrocketed, describing “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. In other words, you get anxious that you aren’t doing those cool things your friends are posting about because you’re at home watching The Yogscast ‘poon Left Shark for the hundredth time. It’s the concern that you could be spending your time more effectively, efficiently or productively than right now, whether that’s concerning working or partying. Seeing people post about their great nights out on Twitter is the perfect environment to cultivate that line of thinking, but FOMO isn’t limited to 280 characters.
If only I was out partying with Sarah instead of sitting here, unoccupied… Life is suffering.
In the same way we want to see all the tweets in our feed or the latest film people are raving about, we want to experience all the content in a game. At the heart of FOMO is loss aversion, the idea that we’re far less satisfied when we lose something than when we gain something. We try hard not to miss out on content because we might not be able to come back to it later while simultaneously taking for granted what we’re already achieving. If there’s any possibility that going down this corridor will lead to riches, then a player is likely to do it to avoid the potential loss. Rather than move on, we’re more prone to explore and grab the goodies, even if they’re no good. It’s why we hoard health potions that we never use, because we know we’d rather not experience losing the opportunity to acquire and use them at the right time. And what happens next? Positive reinforcement.
These decisions aren’t irrational by any stretch, and games reinforce this behaviour through their design. Remember how I said games reward risks? If you go exploring a corridor that leads nowhere, there’s a good chance there’ll be some treasure at the end. We’re already wired to avoid losses, but games double down and make us more eager to check every room by making sure there’s a payoff. By supplying a reward (be it a new sword or currency), the game is conditioning you to keep trying. You won’t always find a great reward off to the side, but that works better than receiving consistent rewards. By keeping things up in the air, the probability of a loss remains high enough for that FOMO to kick in, and that is why people keep wanting to talk to NPC’s in Uncharted 4. Even if the diversion goes nowhere, it could have! All of this might sound like a stretch of logic, but you best believe that developers know all about this.
And it’s not the good ones
If we need to look anywhere for validation that developers are leveraging FOMO in their favour, we need only look to the mobile market. Mobile games do this a lot to drive up revenue and rekindle player interest, such as running huge events that require great time and monetary investment to be competitive. There’s certainly an element of interest and commitment already made by the player, but it’s that sense of FOMO that drives them to compete in the event before it’s over. After all, it’s a limited time thing, so you better do it while it’s still on to get those rewards. The mobile market is more saturated than a 16-year-old’s underwear, though, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only place utilising FOMO for player retention.
There are plenty of examples where a fear of missing out isn’t just well-founded, it’s the norm. HITMAN’s elusive target missions are a perfect example of a design that works the FOMO angle to the fullest. These missions stay up for a couple of weeks, and you can only attempt them once within the period they remain active. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever, so you best hope you aren’t on holiday somewhere when an elusive target is announced. There are similar events in games like Monster Hunter and WoW that require you to complete things within a specific timeframe for sweet goodies. There’s no doubt in my mind that the purpose of these missions is to create as much desire as nerves in the player and keep them coming back. It’s a deliberate choice that’s proven to work, but why not just design better games?
Better games?! Where’s the fun in that?
Leveraging FOMO isn’t so prevalent because it works a little of the time; it’s a more effective motivator than a rewarding game experience. Remember loss aversion? If we gain things, our reactions aren’t as strong as when we lose something. FOMO is related to the ‘grass is greener’ effect, because humans are wired not to appreciate what they have. If we’re presented with danger, we become defensive, but we’re placid in the face of acquisition. It’s the old cliché of making the most of what you’ve got, but there’s an essential lesson in playing games to extract here: Missing content is totally fine.
We have a natural drive not to skip segments of games, but that’s just the nature of the medium. These are interactive experiences that can have ridiculously expansive worlds, so you’re likely to miss a fair chunk of it anyway. You have to remember that the developer made this an optional part of the game, which implies that it’s not a fundamental part of the intended experience. Sure, you might miss some loot or skip a side-story, but if it’s optional, it’s optional. Hell, Fallout doesn’t care what you experience; it leaves you to your own devices and has your choices guide you from there. If you manage to complete the main quest, well, that’s great, but that’s just what you decided to do. The important thing is that the experience you have in the game is satisfying in of itself, even if you don’t get every wheel of cheese.
… Or, you know, git gud?
As much as completionism can be driven by an ambition to finish everything or a desire to engage with the combat some more, it can also be motivated by an aversion to loss. The fear of missing content is hardly irrational, and it’s quite natural to experience, but it points to a strange part of the human psyche. Even if it’s not going to benefit us hugely, there’s a part of us that gets nervous about not completing everything in a game, but it’s not the end of the world if you skip content. You don’t need every health potion, you don’t need to explore every room, but we seem to get nervous about missing the opportunity to do so. Maybe you’ve experienced this, perhaps you haven’t, but I think we all agree that Mcflurries are an overpriced godsend.