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Super-mechanics for engaging your audience: Item collection

Using the pillar of Gamification in AEX Design

One of the aspects or as I call them, pillars, in audience engagement and experience design (AEX) is gamification. One of the tools within gamification is game mechanics, and among them are a few super-mechanics, such as ‘item collection’. I call these super-mechanics because they are so prevalent in not only a lot of games but also within the real world.

Just as a side note, for clarity, in this form, we’re talking about gamification as taking mechanics and elements that are traditionally found in games and placing them in a non-game context’s. Rather than the form of gamification that alters a non-game experience into more of a game or game-like experience.

The mechanic of item collecting can be part of a game but it can also be what you add to the experience to add a layer of engagement for your audience. In essence, we enjoy collecting stuff, there are very few experiences in and outside of games that don’t have some aspect of collection.

That said, you need to be careful with this super-mechanic, as item collecting can become an incredibly obsessive activity. As with any mechanic that you use, it should support and augment the experience, it shouldn’t take over and detract from the experience that you want your audience to go through.

What is item collection?

The name should be self-explanatory, it’s collecting items. But it is a bit more than just that. Item collection is a catch-all term for anything that can be collected, and that has inherent value to the individual doing the collecting.

Let’s consider a few examples of where item collection can be found. Within games, it is the activity of collecting resources to build something else. Collecting gear so that new areas can be explored or new enemies can be challenged. And probably one of the most popular versions is to collect creatures, cards and items that represent progress.

In the physical world, people collect cards, stamps, figurines, stones, and gems, and to push it to the real-life world, people also collect shoes, clothes, books, DVDs (at least at one point) and if we think about it, we also collect money so that we can afford to collect other things.

What I want to express with this is that item collection is everywhere. We cannot escape it and that is why it’s a super-mechanic. It is an inherently intuitive mechanic that everyone understands. It takes a minimal amount to explain and it can have quite a strong and far-reaching effect if used well and correctly.

Using item collection

So, item collection is a core activity that everyone knows and understands. It is also an incredibly easy mechanic to implement. It doesn’t require much alteration to add it, as the simplest way to add an item collection system into an experience is by ascribing an item as an outcome for an activity or action that the audience undertakes. In other words, a reward.

In essence, you allow your audience to collect items as they progress through the experience, this reward system adds one layer or level of engagement to what you do. To make it meaningful, the items that your audience collects should have a value that is referenced to the activity that they undertook.

Let’s say we have a coin collection system in place. For ease of understanding, low-level activities gain the participant a copper coin, mid-level is a silver coin and higher levels give gold and platinum for example. And high-tier super-activities are diamond. And that’s it, it’s that easy. Your audience will want to gain more coins and higher-value coins as they progress.

If you want to add more engagement to the system, then you can have a part of the item collection be a mystery. This creates curiosity in your audience and they will want to discover what’s being hidden from them. Perhaps unique coins with special engravings on them that reflect the activity of where they were gained.

And one final layer or level that you can add is by allowing your audience to merge or remake the items that they have collected. For example, 10 copper coins turn into 1 silver coin. And naturally, if we do something like coins then these could be exchanged for something else as well.

The possibilities are many and varied, that’s why it’s a super-mechanic in my opinion.

Examples of item collection

Some basic conceptual examples were given before, but you may need some more concrete examples of what item collecting looks like in the various mediums and the variety of forms it can take. Should you wish to incorporate it in any of your experiences.

Within games, video games, board games and so on, I’d be hard-pressed to name a game that doesn’t have some form of item collection mechanic in it. Survival games, RPGs, strategy base-building, CCGs (collectable card games), and even FPS (first-person shooter) games have some form of item collecting in them.

If we look at games like Pokémon, we’re collecting creatures to do battle with. Minecraft we’re collecting everything in that world to progress further, resources to build, explore and so on. World of Warcraft, EVE, and Fortnite, all have gear collection and resource collection so that more dangerous areas can be explored, and more powerful enemies can be challenged. And then games like Valheim, V Rising, and ARK, all have you collecting a variety of items to survive and gain power. The list is genuinely endless.

In the physical world, we have games like Magic the Gathering, Yui-Gi-Oh, and Warhammer, all of these are about collecting things so that you can keep playing. Even postage stamp collecting, model trains, planes, and more.

And then as I mentioned in the real-life world, I certainly collect books, and at one point I collected DVDs. I know people who collect shoes, and clothes. Some of us collect knowledge, some organisations collect information. And we are all obsessed with collecting money of course. Item collection is everywhere.

Final thoughts

Item collection is everywhere because we’ve been exposed (or indoctrinated, take your pick) to the need to own stuff. Our world, due to whatever socio-economic or socio-political forces, has led us to a state where having things is important. And ascribing value to those things is equally important.

We enjoy the fact that we can receive and collect something that was given as a reward and represents the effort we put into it. This is the effect of sunk cost, inherently worthless items, like a digital image of a badge, can have as much value to us intrinsically as a solid gold statue that could represent the same thing. The material value is of lower consequence when it comes to item collection. The true value is what we ascribe to it about the work done to gain the item.

All item collecting systems are by definition methods of representing progress achieved. Many gamification definitions will likely tell you that badges, achievements, points etc. are the basics of gamification. The fact is that all of these are part of the super-mechanic of item collection. Points: you collect points to progress. Badges: your collect badges to prove your progress. Collecting lumber to build that base, collecting med-kits to stay alive longer, collecting credits to unlock that next feature, collecting money to afford that next vacation.

Item collection is a core super-mechanic that will push your audience engagement to the next level.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

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