Recently while playing League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena, one of my team’s opponents burst out after making a kill, “GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL!” A short moment afterward a second message issued by him appeared in my chat window, “Man, I miss playing Pokemon.” To which I responded, “You are playing Pokemon. You are grinding to catch ‘em all.”
Now, I’m not a member of the Pokemon generation. While I have dabbled a little bit in collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering, I’m a little too old for Pokemon. My only real familiarity with the Pokemon brand is half watching it with my daughter when she was little. I know that there is a video game in which, as a Pokemon trainer, you collect Pokemon. I know there is a card game in which you buy lots of packs of random cards in the hopes of collecting a variety of Pokemon. I know there is a show about a Pokemon trainer named Ash who, along with his friends, collect Pokemon.
That being said, I get the allure. There are hundreds of these little creatures to catch in digital form and in physical form (as cards or toys), all of which have their own unique look and unique powers. If I had been a little boy during the 1990s, I’m pretty sure I would have wanted to catch ‘em all. Or at least as many of them as I thought were cool and even then I wouldn’t have turned my nose up at those I thought were less exciting.
On reflection, I feel like I know why I would want to catch ‘em all. I feel as if I have been programmed from birth to collect, and even more specifically, to associate play and entertainment with collection.
I am not particularly familiar with the history of toy lines and how they were sold to previous generations, like the Baby Boomers and the GI Generation (heck, did the GI Generation even get to play, since they were so busy saving the world from Hitler and all?), but I do know that toys, cards, and comics have always been sold to Generation X and Y as collectibles.
Star Wars action figures were my first great love. My first figure was Chewbacca, who used to duel my brother’s Darth Vader with his laser rifle, as if the rifle were a sword. However, my real long term love affair with a toy collection was with 1980s GI Joe action figures. As a kid, getting the next action figure was always on one’s mind, especially given that opening up any new package was a reminder of what you were missing. On the back of the packaging of every action figure was a series of images of all the other GI Joes.
You could pick out the guy you just got and then stare longingly at the dozens of additional figures that you still lacked. GI Joe vehicles came with a pamphlet that one could flip through of images of the other recent releases of new GI Joe vehicles. I saved some of the backings of the figures and some of these pamphlets and frequently checked off the images of Joes that I already had collected and pages of vehicles I had also already collected. Of course, other things that I associated with entertainment contained checklists of a similar nature that had trained me to think in this way. Marvel Comics monthly “Bullpen Bulletin” page that was featured in each comic released in a given month also contained a checklist of the other comics released that month, so you could keep track of how close you were getting to having them all that month. Toys were as much about play, as they were about completing the collection. Comics were as much about reading, as they were about completing the collection. I wanted them all.
Hearing a reference to a collectible card line from my opponent in League of Legends reminded me that I am an adult whose frame of mind still remains fixed on collection when I play. League of Legends is a game in which you take on the role of various champions in the League of Legends universe, essentially virtual dolls going to battle. There are over 100 League of Legends champions currently available with usually at least one new one being released each month. Most newer champions can be purchased for 975 Riot Points (roughly $7.50—GI Joe figures were about $2.50 in most stores in my area during the 80s) or they can be purchased with Influence Points, points earned by playing games.
Now, I don’t buy champions with real money. Thus, instead I am forced to grind points out by playing games, eventually earning enough to “buy” myself a handsome new champion to play with (which is what I meant when I told my opponent that he was still playing Pokemon by grinding to catch ‘em all – in essence playing more is how you capture more in the game). And on further considering the Pokemon/toy collection connection that my opponent had made me think about, I realized that my behaviors surrounding League of Legends “figures” are much like the behaviors I exhibited when I used to collect action figures and comics. Between matches, I frequently find myself browsing champion portraits in the League of Legends store, clicking on some to consider their various abilities, and mostly just considering who I’m going to pick up next when I have enough Influence Points, much as I used to do browsing the packaging of my GI Joes.
Similarly, too, I sometimes look at the Champions screen, which includes the champions I own as well as the champions that I don’t, the latter of which are grayed out. It is my virtual checklist, my virtual wishlist. Looking at that list, too, especially the ones that I already own recalls to mind how I played with my own toys when I was a kid. I now own about 50 League of Legends champions. I probably regularly play with about a half dozen of them.
Much like when I used to get a new figure, a recently unlocked champion gets played with for awhile, before I return to old favorites—the guys that I really like. And honestly, I’ve unlocked a few champions that I have never played with at all or only for one or two games. I got attracted to how cool they looked or what I thought they might do, but then discarded them when they didn’t hold the allure, again, of my well worn toys. That being said, this moment of contemplation of what I have, how close I am to having them all, speaks to why I continue to unlock champions that I don’t even necessarily want to experiment with or play with at all.
In many ways it is only in part about the play. It’s about the collection. It’s about the checklist. It’s about grinding to complete the collection. The collection, too, justifies the grind. I play to play more and to play with more, to feel completely complete about what I have to play with and basking in the hope that one day will indeed have ‘em all.