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Letting Go Of Completionism

I used to never put a game down until I’d completely conquered it, even if things got so ridiculous that I found myself dodging 100 consecutive randomly timed lightning bolts. Nowadays I’ve stopped going for the full-clear in games from Final Fantasy to Arkham Asylum, and I’m enjoying my gaming hobby more than ever.

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Game Informer #236]

Credit (or blame) World of Warcraft for my change of heart. There was a time in 2009 when interpersonal drama blew up the group I was raiding with. Without a steady crew to conquer the game’s toughest challenges with, but unwilling to quit and give up the game that had brought me closer than ever to out-of-town friends who had moved away after high school, I was left to my own devices. At first, completing challenge achievements in five-man dungeons kept me going. For a time after that, bringing my stable of alternate characters up to level cap occupied me. I checked one side goal after another off of my list – and World of Warcraft does nothing so well as providing a lengthy checklist – until I did the unthinkable. I began fishing.

Traipsing around the world and finding rare fish was fun for a time despite the brutal tedium of the fishing minigame itself. Grabbing a couple buddies and taking a shot at the ultra-competitive weekly contest in Booty Bay had its moments. Eventually, though, nothing was left but to earn my coin from the wishing well in the hub city of Dalaran.

Imagine rolling five dice every twenty seconds, trying to get all five matching for a Yahtzee – on each number, one through six. The first Yahtzee is a great moment. The thirty-third, when you get a set of threes when all you need is the sixes to finish your set, is maddening. Fishing up that damn coin broke me.

I saw too deeply into the Matrix; the process of checking off that final box was too transparent in its deliberate spacing out of rewards for performing trivial actions. I had always known it on an intellectual level, but internalizing the fact that I was a rat in a Skinner box, conditioned through a steady drip of inconsequential rewards to perform a task with no intrinsic merit, triggered a deep revulsion in me.

Ignoring the voice in my head that urges me to engage in gaming activities I don’t enjoy just for the achievement, trophy, or simple feeling of completion is now trivial. Sifting through the entirety of Arkham Asylum in detective vision, mining every planet in Mass Effect, skipping arbitrary chests to get the Zodiac Spear in Final Fantasy XII: no thanks. Those are games that I love all the more for my avoidance of aspects that have negative appeal to me.

At the same time, I happily die over and over in New Super Mario Bros. to get every last star coin and play Civilization V again and again to get the achievement for winning with each leader. The difference is that the pursuit of those goals is great fun for me, rather than being a monotonous chore endured in order to check an item off of a list someone slapped together to pass Microsoft certification.

You and I may love the same game for different reasons. My nephew adores playing Minecraft in creative mode on a server with his friends, an experience that quickly bores me even though I adore single-player survival mode. Why, then, should either of us force ourselves to slog through the parts we don’t enjoy just to say we’ve “beaten” a particular game?

I nearly didn’t complete Mass Effect – one of my absolute favorite games of this generation – because the sidequests were so awful. It took me three tries to beat Final Fantasy XII – likewise an all-star of the PS2 era – because I kept restarting after realizing I’d opened the wrong chest hours of playtime previously. Letting go of the completionism bug hasn’t just freed up more time in my schedule for a wider selection of games, it has led me to some of the best experiences I’ve had with my hobby.

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