The psychology of being a completionist

by hexacoto

I do admit, I am somewhat of a completionist – On Final Fantasy IX (the only game I’ve ever faithfully declared to have liked) I have completed all of the Chocobo Hot and Cold, Gotten 99 of every item that can legally be obtained so, fully mastery of all abilities and summons for all characters, completed all mini-quests (Ozma and the stupid critters included) and this: Tetra Master, 1 of every card, with 1 of every arrow-combination but 2.


For a minigame with no tangible reward, I spent so much time on this.

And then there are other games where a similar streak runs too.

My point is this: What is the satisfaction derived from such seemingly pointless, even menial, tasks?

There must be some sort of achievement obtained at the end of this task, why else would we even undertake the effort? Even the most psychopathic of axe-murderers have a motive that made sense to them at the point of chopping victims into itty-bitty pieces.

  • Reward motivation: This one is a no-brainer. The satisfaction of hearing the ping of ‘Achievement unlocked’ or ‘Medal achieved’ is immense. Achieving all of these medals or achievements is a goal that drives people to complete a game, but if actions are motivated by the bettering of self, what do achievements really achieve? The benefits of a 100% offer no tangible benefits in real life applications. One could cite bragging rights as a self-perceived superiority over the other mortals who are unable to dodge 200 lightning strikes in a row, but are ranked players any more self-confident than non-ranked ones? The reward system releases dopamine which makes us feel good when we nail that last secret costume, but given that the reward system is designed for us to continue doing what is beneficial to the self (reinforcement), perhaps our addiction to the rewards in gaming is simply arbitrary and for the sake of it.
  • Hoard mentality: This is about the creepy old man down the street who keeps every single newspaper he’s ever bought (and subsequently dies in a freak fire at home) and that ex who stores your nail clippings. The inherent need to cache quantity is visible across different species, and is seen in squirrels, octopuses, honey badgers etc. Wanting to accumulate as much achievements and hi-scores can be seen as a product of this mentality. This could explain why some people punish themselves playing games just to beat the high-score, even when the gaming process clearly ceases to be fun anymore. Also, research has shown that in Bejeweled, people respond positively to the mounting numbers and rising tones in the games as combos build. The addiction to big numbers could explain why breaking that 9999 HP/damage limit is oh-so-satisfying and watching Lightning deal 600 thousand HP damage gives one the willies. Although that is probably mitigated when faced against an enemy with a 7 million HP.
  • Irrational fears: Unfounded fears can play a role in explaining why people strive for that 100% completion. I get uneasy when I know I have dirty dishes lying in the sink waiting to be washed and I just have to do them before I go to bed (not really but you get the idea). Why is it that some people are unable to put down a game until they feel that they have sufficiently completed it to a point (in the case of FF9 for me, EVERYTHING)? It’s akin to having to reveal all unrevealed parts of a map in an RTS even though you know there might be nothing of note there, but the off-chance that there just miiight be impels one to do so. The fear that one might have left something out constitutes part of the fear of the unknown, and knowledge gleaned from revealing those patches of black confers relief. Irrational fears are usually a stepping stone to something bigger, such as “If I don’t skip on every 7/9th of a step a piano would fall on my head”. While gamers don’t expect pianos or anvils or any heavy object to flatten them, the ‘leading-to-something-bigger’ is manifest in a mini scale here. Perhaps if one doesn’t complete this game, this makes them feel ‘incomplete’ as a gamer and hence less competent. Or that not getting maxed out stats makes the saved data ‘imbalanced and ugly’, and there’s a certain beauty and symmetry to maxing everything out.

There might be other reasons for why people are impelled to go for that 100%. Of course, the idea of a completionist psyche does sound pretty kuku to a lot of people, but then again hey, we gamers are supposed to be murderers and psychopaths from violent video games so what’s not to expect, right?

Originally written on 30th November 2010 on