Owning possessions in the ‘real’ world can help bring feelings of happiness and contentment. But how can psychological well-being be established through digital ownership of items on games?
Being in control of our money and spending puts us in the driving seat and gives us agency over our decisions, which is empowering and improves well-being. If we look at the effects of physical item ownership and well-being, the key concept is around ‘object attachment’. Having a poor self-concept can sometimes result in unhealthy attachments leading to behaviours such as compulsive buying or hoarding.
Digital games offer an online platform for these behaviours to transcend, which can be a dangerous situation for many; after all, you do not need to have physical space to be able to amass many digital objects. But the thriving game shops on popular online video games such as ‘Fortnite’, a free-to-play Battle Royale-style game, highlight that there is clearly a desire for people to purchase online items, sometimes at a very high cost.
Many video games currently on the market approach item ownership in several different ways, often dependent on individual operationalisations of the term ‘item’. Players can collect items to be used to create more important resources, buy or earn items that change the appearance of the player character, or collect individual items that are designed for aesthetic purposes such as decorations for a virtual home. Virtual item ownership can increase player enjoyment of the game, with some players observing the creation of emotional attachments on a sentimental level.
Games such as Animal Crossing New Horizons (ACNH) encourage players to collect virtual household and other general items such as aesthetically themed furniture to display both in their virtual home and on their virtual island.
ACNH especially encourages players to connect through both local and internet-based methods to observe other islands and trade items within them. It is these interactions that may promote positive psychological well-being within the game.
If we consider the relationship between the player and the video game mechanics of ACNH through the lens of self-determination theory, the game can promote psychological well-being by fulfilling three universal psychological needs: autonomy (independence of action), competence (mastery of action), and relatedness (performing social actions with others).
ACNH allows the player to choose the virtual landscaping, the opportunity to scavenge for materials that allow the player to create virtual items and allows the player to freely decide which themed items are more desirable based on personal preference, which should fulfil the psychological need for autonomy. Meanwhile, if a player is aiming to find or create a particularly rare item within the game and completes this objective, this could fulfil the psychological need for competency. Finally, the act of trading and social interaction could be fulfilling the player’s psychological need for relatedness, completing the triad, and fully promoting positive well-being through play.
By designing the game around the economy of item ownership and creation, we argue that ACNH promotes player behaviour that would theoretically increase positive psychological well-being by fulfilling psychological needs. ACNH is but one example of a video game that encourages need-fulfilling behaviour and was particularly salient both in the consumer market and in the field due to a significant increase in players of ACNH during the Covid pandemic.
By encouraging players to engage in virtual item ownership, it is quite likely that video gaming can promote positive psychological well-being based on self-determination approaches. However, it may be useful to explore this phenomenon through other positive or general psychological theories. The wider question should also be explored across the multitude of video games currently available to test whether this phenomenon is applicable across the video game spectra.
George Farmer is a PhD student at the University of Westminster studying the relationship between video games, stress, and mental well-being.
Poppy Gibson, EdD currently leads the innovative Blended Accelerated BA Hons in Primary Education Studies at Anglia Ruskin University (Essex).