Video games are art. Video games can tell complex stories about the nature of the soul or bring players to tears with their honest belief in heroes. They also have numbers in them. Lots of numbers. And I am a big buffoon who loves when numbers go up.
I’ve been denying this simple fact for a long time. After all, numbers are used as part of the treadmill to keep players mindlessly locked to their games. The importance of numbers and statistics is key to things like lootboxes. In many mobile phone games, strong characters and items are found through “pulling” for rare items. This can often mean using in-game currency that’s purchasable with real money. A player’s desire for the biggest, bestest numbers and statistics can draw them to participate in an exploitative monetisation model created specifically to wring every last cent out of them.
I know all this. I am intimately aware of it and find it disgusting. Mobile games are a hellscape. I also love it when I get a rare weapon or stat-increasing “wrymprint” in Dragalia Lost that boosts my Might level to further heights. Because even if you are aware that you’re living in Idiocracy, we’re all still giant apes who happened to beat up all the slightly dumber apes. If I have the largest Might level, does that not make me the bigger and most powerful of all the apes?
In games, numbers are abstractions of certain qualities. The more, the better. Striking a critical blow in Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t just mean that you hit the enemy, it’s an indication that you really hit the big meanie super hard. You big, tough Warrior of Light, you. In some cases, like in the Fallout series, having big numbers in stats like Intelligence unlocks special dialog options that allow better rewards or easier progression. You’re not just smart, you’re exceptionally smart. A goddamn genius. Meanwhile, a low number in Intelligence can lead to limited options and (sometimes questionable) dialog options. You want more, you need more.
I can’t begin to decipher the ancient impulse that leads humans to believe that having more of a thing is better. Some of that is probably tied to survival instincts. In the times where our near-ancestors had to deal with absolutely bonkers shit like sabertooth tigers and roaming raiders, you probably wanted the biggest dudes and the biggest spears to avoid getting eaten. This somehow got codified into the notion of wealth, where we stopped collecting each other’s goddamn skulls as proof of how big we were and did the totally sensible thing of deciding that shiny stuff would do. Humans fucking love shiny stuff. That’s a part of video games too; see the colourful item rarity systems in games like Diablo 3. Anyway, the point is that capitalism became a thing. You got wealth by (supposedly) being tough or adventurous or cunning—all of which are largely code words for being a dubious arsehole—and your collection of wealth was a bigger number than the other guy.
Look at all these loot shooters. These games are predicated solely on the idea that folks will run the same content over and over again to up their statistics. You have Destiny 2, The Division 2, Anthem, and soon there will be Borderlands 3. All of these games are fundamentally peddling the same experiences, all enticing players who lust for more loot that is quantified with bigger and bigger numbers. A homogenous AAA slurry is slurped up until we get a sequel with a bigger number at the end of the name. Numbers have ruined the gaming landscape.So here I am today, fully aware that numbers are the basis of questionable practices and systems that exploit many people. Systems that dangle the prospect that people could also have more stuff as the best possible thing that can happen in our lives. Systems that turn our catelog of art (at least at a certain level) into a grey wasteland where everything is the same. That’s stupid and I hate it. Meanwhile, I spent an entire evening checking to see if the Dragon’s Dogma servers were up because I wanted to see how many rift crystals my companion had collected by helping other players.
I have over one million rift crystals now. One million! That’s a big number and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I grinned like a buffoon as whatever societally ingrained Pavlovian response kicked off in my brain. I salivated like a slobbering dog at the mere idea that one million could become two million.
I can’t keep lying to myself like this. I am a friggin’ dope who loves the big numbers. Don’t just give me Excalibur, give me Excalibur+1.