I’ve noticed something curious about how I cope with my depression. When I feel down, I sometimes find myself cruising through Amazon, updating my wishlist with things I can’t afford. I’ll go so far as to figure out what sort of budget and lifestyle I’d need to keep to be able to afford a luxurious, but unnecessary item. Lately, the objects of note are the PS3 Super Slim and an iPhone 5.
Before, I used to give into these impulses. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve bought over the years that I never used or needed. Somehow, I convinced myself the item would be integral to own, or that I’d find use for them if I simply possessed them. Retail therapy, my friend calls it. Only it’s not therapy at all.
Fascinatingly, the mere idea of owning a shiny new toy is intoxicating, sometimes more powerful than actually owning the item. It wasn’t uncommon for me to purchase a sleek, sexy piece of tech…but then literally be poorer for it, if not keenly aware of a hole in my life. Before I could think about it too much, I was on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. I am not alone in this; it doesn’t take a mental illness to make us slaves to our possessions.
My transition into adulthood as a recent college graduate has forced me to be more cognizant of my finances, more iron-clad about how much money I save. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about willpower, it’s that the second you start giving into impulses, the easier it becomes to do next time. This is why you shouldn’t miss a workout if you are on a schedule, shouldn’t break diet if you are trying to lose weight, so on so forth.
Yes, I still spend an absurd amount of time fantasizing over what I shouldn’t own, but it hasn’t gone further than that–yet? I think it’s also possible that what I’ve been playing lately has helped keep me from indulging, given the nature of the games. Notably, they are loot-centric titles, like Borderlands 2.
I’ve gotten all sorts of ridiculous loot in Borderlands before. Pistols that set people on fire. Assault rifles that might as well be rocket launchers. Rocket launchers with scopes belonging to snipers. But the first gun that made me pause was a simple shotgun–nothing special. Decent damage. Two shots per clip. Kind of inaccurate, but hey, it’s a freaking shotgun–what do you expect? If I get in close enough, that doesn’t matter anyway: the enemy’s face would be blown straight off.
The thing that set this gun apart to me was that after I emptied a clip, I’d toss the shotgun forward. This bewildered me–what the fuck was my character doing?! I need that gun! But then I noticed that when the gun made contact with something else, it’d explode. Woah. And then somehow, defying all logic, a new shotgun would materialize in my hands. The same shotgun.
I was shocked; moreso when I learned that this trait was common to all guns under this brand. Brand is important in Borderlands 2 in this way, at least design-wise. An interview with Kill Screen reveals that Gearbox made the brands not just to differentiate between guns, but to create brands that would be strong enough to make players loyal to them:
We had a lot of wants to represent different ideas-very specific manufacturer flavors that we wanted to get across. We’ve got eight different manufacturers. How do we make all the different players feel loyal to a particular brand? I had to give that a visual style and describe that through shapes, through colors, make the weapons look like the way they’re gonna play.
This alone opens up the interpretation of Borderland’s guns as objects of consumerism. Which is appropriate, really. We live in a culture that believes that the objects we buy operate as extensions of ourselves. We can ‘infer’ a lot about a man that smokes Malboros, a man that owns an iPhone, and a man that wears Pay-Less shoes. All these items carry a type of lifestyle, and identity with them–or so the marketing tells us.
And what would a gun from Borderlands say about its owner? Let’s take a look at the earlier described shotgun, which was Tediore brand.
Tediore was founded on the principle that no family should be without the protection that an affordable, lightweight firearm provides. Whether you’re planning on taking little Billy out to the fields for his first pheasant hunt or you need to chase some trouble off your front porch, Tediore will be there for you. Over the years, Tediore has built a reputation among the working class men and women of this land for providing fast-reloading weapons that anyone, on any budget, can afford. So the next time you’re headed down to the Save-N-Save, why not put a little piece (sic) of mind in the cart and grab yourself a Tediore? Tediore’s pistols, shotguns, sub-machine guns and rifles can be found at major retailers nationwide.
That’s the Tediore sale’s pitch, positioning the brand as as something reliable that everyone, even the working-class, can afford. As I said, there’s technically nothing noteworthy about the shotgun I found. Tediore is a common, kind of plebeian brand. It’s not the type of gun you’d want to be seen with, at least not when you can have something more high-brow and powerful, like an rare Eridian weapon. Absurdly, learning the gun’s spiel has made the brand less desirable to me.
What piqued me about the gun was that it makes planned obsolescence into a game mechanic, and a cool, useful one at that. The guns don’t have to be disposable, but they are. You don’t get upset when a plastic cup isn’t useable anymore, you just get more. The cups are supposed to be disposable, it’s a feature, and we like that about them. Same thing with Tediore. And as long as the gun that rematerializes in my hand is as useful as the one I had before it, I won’t be heartbroken about the fact that I’m throwing my gun away.
If I happen to find a gun that’s better than the Tediore, that’s fantastic: I won’t hesitate to toss my old gun away, regardless of how good it still is. There’s a better one out there, and that’s all that matters. Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the phone I own right now. Sure, it’s a little old, and yes, it’s not nearly as cool as an iPhone, but it does what I need it to. I still wouldn’t hesitate to upgrade to an iPhone 5 if the opportunity presented itself. My phone is an Android, not as well-designed, not as chic. I want what the iPhone would say about me more than anything else, and I suspect this reasoning to be true to most of us, regardless of what luxury item we talk about. It’s just a matter of how many reasons we can come up with that say otherwise.
Curiously, there are a lot of elements of Borderlands 2 that I dislike. There’s the girlfriend mode fiasco, something that could give me an ideological imperative to ignore the title on principle alone. Then there’s the constant humor, which felt tiring mere minutes into the game. Finally, the shooting bits are no different than most FPSes out there; if Borderlands 2 has something going for it, it’s the fact these familiar mechanics have been repackaged in a way that makes it possible to ignore that somehow. The cel-shaded look makes a big difference.
Even so, I keep playing. Here’s why: Borderlands taps into a compulsion so strong, it haunts me outside of games–the constant need for new objects. This, I believe, constitutes the true addictiveness of loot-centric games like Borderlands 2, Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3. The amount of loot is a bullet point used to sell the game, and the fact that these guns are randomized only makes the whole thing that much more tantalizing.
I don’t know what I’m going to get next in the games, but it’ll be good–and if it’s not, that’s okay. There will be new gear to ogle in a minute or two. I go forward with the faith that a new, better item is down the horizon. It is no mistake that games like to drip-feed us new items that make us a slightly stronger, better character than before: that’s how we actually think about item purchases. Games that give us less options for item equipment, or that don’t switch those options up every so often, aren’t as interesting because they go against what we think would make us ‘happy:’ being satisfied.
If we wanted to get all Marxist-type radical about this, there are thinkers out there that believe that a consumerist society such as ours creates subjects who can be considered “disordered shoppers.” We don’t consume in the interest of utility or pleasure, because the things we buy can’t make us happy, and yet we still buy well beyond what we actually need.
So instead what happens is that we find ourselves in a vicious circle where we’re promised we can be happy if we just buy this one thing, that thing fails to do anything for us, but we’ve bought into this delusion so hard, it’s not long before we’re trying to find something else to fill in the same, possibly bigger void. Academic Rhonda Lieberman who coined the idea of the disordered shopper notes that we live in a society where “one’s symbolic ‘wholeness’ or potency is represented and measured by one’s ability to consume.”
Somehow we’ve taken our ‘disorder’ and made it into something we enjoy: an important pillar of an addictive game which, if done well enough (and thanks to how we privilege gameplay over everything else), doesn’t need a strong narrative to go along with it. The loot is enough, despite being unfulfilling. If loot was fulfilling, then we wouldn’t constantly need to chase more and more, would we?
I don’t think Borderlands 2 can make me whole any more than a PS3 or an iPhone can. But until I figure out what can, they’ll have to do.
About the Author:
Patricia Hernandez is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, a site devoted to writing critically about games, as well as a weekly contributor to Kotaku. She can be emailed at patricia (at) nightmaremode (dot) net.