We Grind For Things We Don’t Need, To Impress People Who Aren’t Looking

It’s August, and I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2. I’m playing it with my brother – ostensibly, to have fun. But that’s not the full story. 

I mean, we could have done it any time, but we didn’t. We started playing at the beginning of the month, and why? Because the “Solstice of Heroes” event is happening. With it comes the time-limited chance to get exclusive goodies. By exclusive goodies, I mean shiny suits of armor to doll up our space-knights.

Destiny 2 Warlock Solstice Armor
Not actual Solstice of Heroes armor, but looks cool enough.

I’ve been trying to figure out why this is so appealing. There’s this quote that strikes true:

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” 

The author is Dave Ramsey, and I’ve never read his financial fitness book (Sorry, Dave!) but I like the quote. 

That’s the silly thing about these “get your armor/pokemon/potted plant while you can” games. The stuff you get is just for show. 

In Destiny 2’s case, the armor is partly a catch-up mechanism: it’s powerful, and it will prepare you to take on the expansion (due right after the event ends). But I’m also sure that any utility will be superseded by the rewards you get after playing the expansion for a couple of afternoons. So what’s left?

You’re left with a badge of “I was there, I did this.” And, fair enough, to get the armor, you do need to complete most of the game’s content – the exception being a couple of 6-person raids. It’s a neat way for Bungie to nudge you into experiencing the most of the game before the expansion hits.

So, who is the “badge” for, exactly? It’s only once in a blue moon that I actually pay attention to what other players are wearing. Everything kind of blurs in the moment of actual playing of the game. 

In the end, the person who enjoys the way my character looks like the most is… Me. But again, we’re talking about a 1st-person shooter game. I don’t get to see my character 90% of the time! So the utility of investing so much time in playing the game is limited to enjoying my character in the inventory screen, or in the brief character vignettes before each PvP match. 

(Those are cool, by the way – more games should do them, and Bungie should add more flavor to them.)

destiny pvp poses
All your hard work pays off the moment you get to look cool while slamming a banner on the ground.

The same is true for one of my all-time favorite games, too. For some people, World of Warcraft is all about the collecting. There are hundreds of pets and mounts to collect and thousands of pieces of armor. I can’t say I haven’t spent my fair share of hours collecting outfits, there. And yet again, after thousands of hours of playtime, I can count on the fingers of one hand the occasions where other players remarked on my character’s outfit, and vice-versa.

And if in Destiny you could say that the Solstice armor could get you up to speed for the expansion, in World of Warcraft the exercise is almost always cosmetic. After a very easily-reached threshold, upgrades are minor and only matter in the most hardcore of end-game activities.

We grind for things we don’t need, to impress people who aren’t looking.

Or do we?

Back to the point about doing these things for myself. Playing these games is enjoyable. You can reach a point where you’re just mechanically repeating the same action like the virtual version of an industrial revolution factory worker, sure. But I find that it rarely happens these days. The games have gotten smarter than that, the gameplay loops are more varied and enjoyable.

The cosmetic items are like a goal of a sort, something to aim for. There’s something intrinsically satisfying about striving for something. Ultimate utility be damned! That’s part of the appeal of video games. Aiming for stuff in real life can be more satisfying, but it also usually takes longer. You’re very rarely in a position where you can make meaningful progress toward life-goals in a couple of afternoons. But you can get the quick hit of satisfaction from a job well done and goals reached in a weekend, playing a video game.

There’s both a danger and a utility there. 

The danger: that you feel that that is enough. That it’s not worth pursuing more than what’s necessary to survive in real-life because you can get the satisfaction that comes from achievement more quickly and with less stress in a video game.

The utility: that video games addict you to work and achievement. That you are able to use those short bursts of video game goodness to inspire you and generate enthusiasm for setting and working toward real-life goals. They can help cultivate the right mindset: set the goal, grind towards it, re-evaluate goal & approach, repeat. A gamer has the raw material to develop the mentality of a doer, a person who makes things happen. That’s a life-skill.

And let’s face it, who should you want to impress in your life? Just the one person: you. Even if you’re usually going about your life in first-person.