Consumer Culture: Materialism

           Many games place a focus on gathering possessions, both physical and intangible, living and non-living. It can be a bit difficult to think of a game whose mechanics don't involve the collection of something, be it money, resources, armor, weapons, experience, followers, etc. Games such as MinecraftFallout 3, Pikmin 1 and 2, and The Sims are just a few examples of games that have materialistic elements. Though perhaps the concept isn't always at the forefront of these games, the focal point that drives the game forward, that ideology still persists within the background.

           Minecraft has no set goal. Players have to take it upon themselves to discover their own method of play. Though the game offers essentially an infinite number of ways to play, players tend to follow a common path. This involves building a basic house, mining for ores, making weapons and armor, and gathering crops and animals for food. All of these activities have one thing in common, that being the underlying idea of materialism. All require the collection of a resource in the game world. As players progress through the game, they tend to collect more and more, adding to their wealth of possessions. Their once humble homes transform into grand fortresses adorned with great halls and pillars, their small animal pens become pastures filled with dozens of animals, and their single chest of swords and a few stray bows is expanded into an armory. Once players have exhausted their ideas for activities and have acquired more than enough ores to suit their needs, the "end" goal becomes to simply collect as much ore as possible for the sake of bragging rights. Players dedicate treasure rooms to show off this accomplishment.

           RPGs probably have one of the largest focuses on gathering items than any other game genre. The entire concept of an RPG is to find, buy, and/or craft new weapons, armor, spells, accessories, among other things. Players must always better themselves in order to continue taking on the challenges ahead. The only sensible way to do this is to constantly acquire new gear. Take Fallout 3 for example. In this open-world, post-apocalyptic, role-playing-game, players start out with nothing other than some basic armor, a few beaten-up weapons, and some other miscellaneous items. Though the game doesn't directly order players to find better equipment, it leaves a strong implication that they must. And so, Fallout 3's core gameplay element involves scrounging around the wasteland, gathering up weapons, ammunition, money, armor, and sometimes useless junk like scrap metal or cherry bombs. Soon, players inventories are filled with countless weapons, hundreds of rounds of various ammunition types, a variety of armor, on top of thousands of caps. By the end of the game, players have more physical things than they know what to do with.

           The Sims franchise is very similar to Minecraft in that it has no specific goals, though it implies a path for players to follow. The idea is for players to find their sim a job, get promoted, generate great wealth, purchase things for their gradually expanding house, while also gathering friends and possibly starting a family. In this way, The Sims appears to measure player success based on how much money players have generated, how large their homes are, how many possessions they own, and possibly even how many good relationships they've developed with other sims. Though it is entirely possible to pursue other goals in the game, mechanics such as "buy mode", which allows players to purchase from an exhaustive list of items, seems to place emphasis on collection and materialism.

           Pikmin 1 and 2 have some pretty strong themes of materialism, which are in some ways more apparent than those found in the games I've already gone over. In Fallout 3 the goals revolve around completing the main quest and side quests, and underneath that construct is materialism. Pikmin 1 and 2 specifically revolve around the collection of something, portrayed through narrative and mechanical means. In Pikmin 1, Olimar (the player character) crash lands on an alien planet, and is tasked with locating and recovering the fragments of his ship so that he may return home. In Pikmin 2, the company that Olimar works for runs into debt, and Olimar is sent back to the alien planet to collect rare treasures in order to repay the debt. In both scenarios, the narrative is centered on item collection in order to achieve some goal. The same can be said of the main mechanic of both games, in which players amass an army of plant-animal hybrid creatures named pikmin. Players can command them to attack enemies, destroy path-blocking obstacles, eliminate environmental hazards, and most importantly, carry objects the player needs. The more pikmin a player has, the better chance they have at survival, and the better off they are in general, which promotes the concept of having as many pikmin as possible. In the case of Pikmin 2, players may continue to collect treasure even after the debt has been paid, just for the sake of obtaining every last treasure and unlocking a secret cut scene.

           What is also worth at least mentioning is that when players pay off the debt in Pikmin 2, the player ship is refitted with golden plating as a reward. This new plating doesn't give the ship any special new abilities or functions. It is purely aesthetic. However, this helps to reinforce the idea of materialism. It's not that it necessarily promotes the idea of it, though it does seem to idealize it. Though the new ship has no extraordinary capabilities, it is gold, which is supposed to be the reward in itself. It's supposed to lend some sort of legendary or high air, as if just having the golden ship makes the player better in some way, even though it is no more special than the regular ship. And that sort of ideology is what lies under materialism, that having more things or visually better things makes the owner superior or at least special in some way. This principle can be seen in other games, such as the Call of Duty franchise, where "top prestige" players can purchase golden skins for their guns. Golden guns have no additional functions or benefits, other than letting other players know of their owner's status.

           It's difficult to imagine a game that doesn't involve collecting in some sort of capacity. Many games have players gather something, and that isn't always a bad thing. Though it does raise the question: why do so many games feature goals that involve collecting something? Maybe it stems from the fact that when players engage in a game, they like to know how they're doing. The act of collection can act as a guide for players, to let them know where they stand in the game world. Tangible objects or numbers provide a concrete and immediate way to represent progress. If the player has x amount of gold or score, they can use that as a point of reference to determine if they are "succeeding". In Minecraft, players may measure success in the amount of diamonds they've managed to find. In Fallout 3, the acquisition of powerful weapons may let the player know they're in a good position. In The Sims, players might feel a sense of satisfaction once their sim has reached the top of their career and can afford the ritziest house. In the Pikmin games, observing as Olimar's ship is slowly put back together piece by piece (Pikmin 1), or watching as the player's funds gradually increase from discovered treasure (Pikmin 2) gives players solace that they're making steady progress. Regardless, the prevalence of materialistic themes in games suggests that perhaps we are too attached to objects. We allow them power and influence over our lives. We allow them to be the measure of our success. We allow them to dictate social classes and classify dividing lines that separate one group of people from another. We forget who is really in control here.