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The Zen of Collecting Worthless Collectibles

Updated on May 1, 2015

I recently got around to finally playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I had played every game in the series right after they came out until AC3. That game was terrible and franchise fatigue was not helping, so I decided to take a break. But now I'm back into it, and life as a pirate is going well; I’ve been enjoying sailing, ship fighting, and blowing up fortresses. But there’s something else about this game I have been enjoying that I wasn’t expecting to: collecting. I’ve been going after everything: sea shanties, chests, buried treasure, Mayan stelae, and even the worthless animus fragments. I actually had to take a step back recently to ask myself why I was spending so much time collecting things that were basically worthless.

I’m actually not a completionist. The last game I bothered to get 100% complete was the original Infamous, but that was only because Trophies were a new thing and I wanted to get at least one Platinum Trophy just to be able to say I did. In past Assassin’s Creeds, I never bothered with the feathers or flags or whatever. In fact I generally hate collectibles. Most of the time they are a complete waste: something that’s added in by developers as a pointless side activity. We would have to go all the way back to the early Crash Bandicoot games on the PS1 to find what other games I bothered to get 100% complete. But the difference there is simple. In Crash, Finding all the gems and relics were tests of skill. You had to complete some kind of challenge in order to get them, which made getting them all actually, you know, fun.

In Assassin’s Creed, the collectibles aren’t even hidden; they are clearly labeled on the map. You don’t even get the challenge of finding them. You’re just a human vacuum cleaner going around sucking up all the clutter left behind by the developers.

So why am I bothering?

Black Flag has enough interesting content that I could sink lots of hours into it without resorting to collecting. But the key here is that I feel very relaxed just going around picking up whatever collectible is closest to me. It almost has a Zen like quality to it. Collecting requires very little effort or even attention. Instead I can just enjoy the gorgeous game world without really needing to do anything.

Considering how games are interactive, mindlessly wandering around should be boring. But it’s not in this case. The reason why lies in why I bought the game. I’m a recent college graduate, and like so many others, I was unemployed for the first few months. The stress of the job hunt and the looming pile of student loans weighed down on me constantly. I could only do something else for so long before the realization I was unemployed, broke, and bored came back into the forefront of my mind. My days had fallen into a sad routine. In an effort to give myself something new to do, I grabbed a few games and traded them in for a cheap, used copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

I was immediately hooked by the game. It was exactly what I needed. Instead of constantly wondering how and when I would get a job, I could take some time each day to not think about my current situation and instead focus on a task that was simple, easy, and totally achievable: collecting random stuff. This temporary escape was exactly what I needed. I hate not having anything productive to do, and ACIV presented me with tasks that were easy to work toward while on break from the job search. Ironically, my interest in the game has not waned since finding a good job. During the day, I have to complete a series of detail oriented tasks, so when I get home, I don’t want to do anything else that’s difficult or requires a lot of focus. I like lying on my bed and sailing around the Caribbean listening to my crew sing sea shanties while looking for new islands to plunder.

I had a similar experience in high school when I picked up the cel-shaded Prince of Persia reboot. I’m probably one of the few people who really loved that game. While most people were complaining about how easy it was, I loved it for that very reason. At the time, my anxiety had risen to such severe levels, I was sent home from school a few times because I couldn’t calm down.

Prince of Persia was colorful, easy, and calming. I needed something like that in my life. Playing that game gave me a temporary escape from a world filled with uncertainty and things to fear. I could take some time to relax and focus on a task that was not only easy, but helped calm me down. And I’ve had a similar experience playing ACIV.

Games are often thought of as a waste of time; nothing you accomplish in a game truly matters because it isn’t real. But in many instances, games are used as a form of therapy. And taking care of yourself is never a waste of time.

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