Just the other day, a friend of mine happened to be around my place as I casually blasted my way through Liberty City in one of the two great DLC expansions for Grand Theft Auto IV, The Ballad of Gay Tony. I was pretty deep into the campaign, just having completed a daring theft in broad daylight, and was doing my best to shed the police as I rocketed through the city streets. After a rather long chase, I was able to lose the cops and slip out of the oh-so-familiar bubble of police and ease back into general obscurity. Without hesitation, I pulled my bullet-ridden, beat-up, cherry red Esperanto with a missing bumper into an alley, got out, calmly walked (not ran) down the street, and smashed the window of a freshly new car when no one was looking. My friend seemed puzzled by this as the chase car, though beaten to all hell, was in otherwise working condition. No shot-out tires, no missing doors. Hell, it even still had its front
"Did they add a new thing with TBOGT where the cops spot your chase car and resume pursuit?" He asked.
"No," I said. Because this wasn't a thing. There was no mechanic in this, or any variation of the GTA franchise that dictated this. There really was no benefit at all to switching cars like I did. In fact, the whole process really just put me at risk again, if a cop happened to turn the corner at just the wrong time and catch me in the act of stealing a fresh set of wheels. It hadn't even occurred to me that I was doing something out of the ordinary. It just seemed only natural that after such a vicious, guns-blazing escape that I would need to ditch this eye-sore of a car and ease myself into the world of nonchalance.
When I thought about it, it occurred to me that this wasn't the first time I'd found myself doing some irrelevant shit the game didn't ask me to do. This habit stretched back to games like Morrowind on the PC. This game first popped into existence when I was in high school. Like so many others, it was one of my first real tastes of strong sandbox, free-form gameplay. As such, it was one of those games that was ruthless played way beyond what was needed. I found myself eventually scaling my character up many, many fruitless levels; churning through dungeon after dungeon for loot. It didn't take long for all this loot to start to pile up. Selling it was becoming somewhat impossible, as most of the vendors carried so little gold, they couldn't even cover a fraction of the cost of the item.
Before long, even if I could manage to get a decent price for an item, it was a waste of time to sell it anyhow. Money had become obsolete at this point. I traded for meals with glowing scepters and tipped waitress with enchanted bracers. This shit was filling up chests in my illegitimately obtained home and it began to seem like such a huge waste for them all to be tossed in some forever closet somewhere in my otherwise dank and itemless home. So I began to leave them strewn about my living area, laying sword sets on tables and daggers scattered around shelves. Full sets of rare armor sat in discarded stacks like dirty laundry. After they started to fill up the space, it seemed only natural to organize them a bit. Before long, I had everything laid out in complete sets, organized in descending order of size, one for each table space. Armor was laid out on the floor in the same way it would be worn. Alchemy equipment sat scattered around tables in my study, as if it had been used, and books lay stacked, as if they had actually been read.
But why? Morrowind was a single player experience. I didn't belong to any forum communities, where I could post screenshots of my impressive collection. There was no rhyme or reason whatsoever to my compulsion of displaying my accomplishments in my character's home like it was some sort of museum to my exploits. It just seemed only natural that my character would be proud of his epic assortment of powerful weapons and would want them to be seen rather than stuffed away in some forever chest of infinite storage somewhere.
And it would seem I'm not alone here. Mods filled the Morrowind databases with player-crafted homes that had blank character models with which you could display sets of armor in style. Storage racks and glass cases designed specifically for propping up swords, maces, and daggers. One mod even provided the player with a shelving system with pots labeled for each and every alchemy ingredient you could ever need. Surely, there was no difference with leaving these things laying about. Hell, chests even left things in an orderly list for accessibility. There was no need for this extraneous sorting, but plenty of other players were compelled to do this needless shit just as much as myself.
I could cite a fleet of other examples I gathered from friends of mine, ridiculous actions they confessed to like staying overnight in the various inns in Oblivion simply because it got dark, riding the subway in Grand Theft Auto or giving money to the beggars and saxophone players. The needless organizing of inventory items by type and value, choosing the dialog options in Mass Effect that were the most benevolent but not the most profitable, and wasting Tetris pieces just to make the board symmetrical and un-jagged.
Senseless nonsense. These games hadn't asked you to do any of these things nor did they really reward your for your efforts. Yet you can still find me tossing dead guards into the canals of Venice even when there isn't a single guard in sight to discover my transgression before I'm already many miles and rooftops away. I will still give that beggar outside Megaton gallons of fresh water even when my karma is higher than Ghandi's. And I will buy booze for my character at various taverns simply because it amuses the shit out of me.
What causes this strange notion that compels gamers to burden themselves with senseless tasks, often without benefits in the game whatsoever and sometimes even coming with penalties? Is it a byproduct of immersion? Is this what game designers hope we will do? Did Bethesda plan all along that players would become so involved in their world that they would spend hours decorating their homes because they're so completely absorbed in the experience?
Or is it something else? Perhaps it is a silent cry from gamers for designers to really up the intricacy of their games. Gamers have always adored those moments where you perform an action as a lark something you never expect to actually accomplish anything, only to discover the designers had thought of it before you. Like shooting at an enemy's walkie talkie in Metal Gear Solid, thinking nothing will come of it, only to see it spark and fall apart in their hands as they try to call for backup. This realization that the people behind computers building this game not only know how to make a great environment and story, but also clearly think just like you do.
It seems like these strange habits aren't just side-products of undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder from years of button mashing, but actually gamers prodding the edges of the each game's design structure, looking for those subtle details that programmers took heed of or those little easter eggs that have been stashed. We all know players love to test the limits of a games systems, with those videos of player in Crysis stacking thousands of objects and then knocking them down just because they can. But there are those behavioral choices that show how we think as a players, how we spend our time digging deep in games we love, trying to find if their depth is real and not just a buzz-word. Because we want to see our immersion rewarded. We want the game designers to make games based on how we want to play and not the other way around.
Or maybe we all just desperately need to be medicated.