Recently I gave an interview with VICE Netherlands about completionism tendencies when playing video games. If you’ve ever played video games, you’ll likely recognise this feeling: wanting to collect all the collectibles, complete all the open quests, and basically just “100%” the game.
While preparing for the interview, I delved into the literature for some background research about what may underlie the completionist tendencies that many gamers have. As a self-care side note; don’t worry, you’re not any less of a gamer if you’re fine with putting the game down whenever you’re done with it (whether it be after 2 hours, or 200). (:
Back to completionism. I know from personal experience that it can be extremely satisfying to complete reveal all the parts of the over-world map, collect all the treasures (I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed) and all that jazz. Some games just have an enormous amount of collectibles, and it can be very tempting to go full ‘gotta catch ’em all’. But why do we have the urge for completionism? Why do we enjoy seeing 100% on our save files? What makes it so satisfying to have all the boxes ticked?
From my neuroscience background one thing immediately came to mind. In games, we are often somehow rewarded for gathering/attaining 100% of a certain thing. The positive reinforcement system in video games and its impact on the chemicals in our brain is well-documented. For instance, a 1998 scientific paper published in Nature found that video games do indeed stimulate the human body to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is heavily involved in making us feel good.
Apart from this positive motivator for completionism, however, I also stumbled upon a negative motivator: the Zeigarnik effect. The effect is named after the Lithuanian-born psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, who found in her studies that people were a lot better at remembering tasks that had not yet been completed than tasks that had. In other words, unresolved tasks remain stuck in our brains, creating a sort of tension that’s hard to get rid of unless the task is resolved.
When the tension is resolved, it makes us feel great (likely because even more dopamine is released!). In fact, University of Sheffield researcher Tom Stafford has once stated that he thinks the king of classics, Tetris, is an evergreen video game for this exact reason: with every block that appears on the top of the screen, a new unresolved task is offered. We take care of the block, the task is resolved, and we feel great! The fast-paced continuous waterfall of tasks and resolutions keeps us in a loop of tension and reward, explaining Tetris’ continued appeal over the years.
The Zeigarnik effect thus further sheds light on why we enjoy completion so much. All of a sudden, I realised that this effect does not only apply to video games, but also social media! Many young people I’ve talked to about social media have expressed the feeling of needing to get rid of the little red notification bubbles just for the sake of getting rid of them.
Although having a name to go with the feeling doesn’t explain anything necessarily, I still feels as though I can understand myself and others a little bit better with this knowledge. I’m already looking forward to telling my future study participants about the Zeigarnik effect next time we discuss their social media experiences. (: