Borderlands, cheekily named the original First Person Role Playing Shooter, combines the loot reward compulsion with the visceral combat of the FPS on a planet consumed by maniacs and heartless corporations. It’s a marriage of peanut butter and jelly for RPG fans exhausted by the inane concept of turn-based combat. But with bare-bones narration, mostly gleaned from written quest briefs, Borderlands inevitably holds the player on advancement and self-deceptive gun lotteries.
I take frightening pleasure in unnecessarily depleting an entire clip into the level 17 pterodactyl that caused me endless grief for the last 16 levels. The hours of frustration watching my arsenal harmlessly bounce off the over-leveled enemies is also a reminder of the grinding required, and the need for stronger guns. But the clank of the rifle’s hammer on the empty chamber after killing the once unbeatable foe is the same satisfaction of draining a glass or pounding the final inch of a nail; closure is what we crave. But closure does not keep me playing Borderlands. As quickly as I found a ludicrously powerful scoped shotgun with acid tipped bullets, or killed the level 17 flying death, I find myself cowering from the level 23 marauder and cursing my now ineffectual arsenal.
But before I quit in a huff, the shower of goodies and new weapons from the pterodactyl’s corpse draws me near, golden credits and weapons, is not unlike the tinkling of slot machines. The sound of coins hitting the metal trays is enough to stimulate the senses. All you can hear on the floor is the constant glitter and chimes of other people winning money. No matter who you are when there’s a chance to win big, no matter the odds, your brain thinks, “Maybe I will win.”
I always despised chronic gamblers. I heard stories of men and women taking their paychecks to the casinos on Friday night and fettering their grocery money away for the next week. The compulsion seems greedy and foolish from the outside, because I had never felt the euphoria of making money appear out of ivory dice, an invisible alchemy that turns gold into plastic chips.
The human brain has no automatic way of understanding odds. It’s the same reason people buy lottery tickets. Unless the odds are absolutely zero, we have no concept of 10% or 0.00010%. Borderlands scratches a similar itch. If we understood that there are only six types of guns, and that they can only be marginally better than what we have now, we may not continue to open the chests.
Psychologist Mark Griffiths researches the attraction to lotteries and suggests humans naturally look for positive outcomes. If you told someone the chance of getting cancer was one in fourteen million, they’d sleep easy thinking it couldn’t possibly happen. Yet the same person, if told their chances of winning the lottery were one in 14 million, they’d think, “it has to be someone, so why not me?”
The psychology of the near miss is also a misconception. If the lottery number is 37 and yours was 38, it’s easy to think you were so close. The potential of winning reinforces our desire to try again. But each number has the same chance of winning.
Casinos exist in all their lavishness because people don’t win their money back.
My best man gave me $20 when we entered the casino. Most members of the bachelor party entourage were experienced, knowing the common tongue among the red vested staff who huddled over playing cards at the black jack tables or loudly spouted numbers to the disappointment of most, and elation to others.
The casino is a bright and gaudy temple of clinking coins and unnatural lighting, an illusion that’s easy to buy into; for this moment time stands still. Any machine, any craps table is a reminder of the intoxicating sea of “what if” scenarios all around us. Every number the host calls out could’ve been mine; every $5 chip won at poker could’ve been $500, if only you had bet enough.
Our blackjack dealer was a gracious host, friendly and inviting. He’d console you, as if sorry to take your chips, and congratulate the table whenever he were to bust. Later a friend explained the personality archetypes casino employees adopt to keep you playing. I liked the “nice guy” personality, his voice felt like that of an old friend. His jokes were funny, though he’d present them in a bashful way, as if he really didn’t believe they were. It makes you want to laugh harder, just to assure him they are.
However, I didn’t find “my game” at the friendly black jack table or the sea of faithful slots junkies; I found my congregation at the craps table. The game is simple, which number are you praying the dice will form? Put your money like a silent offering on its face and roll the dice.
There are no miracles when you roll the dice. The odds become the whim of a feckless deity, there’s a certain amount of faith and fate when you life is in their hands. When the numbers come up in your favor, it feels like some kind of divine providence. When the numbers go out of their way to usurp your dignity, you become their martyr. Either way, laying your life on the altar of chance is a type of religious experience. It’s out of your human, fallible hands; surrendered unto a higher power.
As I was preparing to leave, with $15 in chips left, I motioned a hail Mary bet on 39, a number that had come up distressingly often to the point I began to question the integrity of the host, before thinking better of it, whether by chance or fate, and placed it somewhere else. The odds of it landing on the same number four or five times in a 20 minute span seemed unlikely.
Of course. Black 39.
I did the math to figure out how much I would’ve won if I had put all of my chips on 39. I felt an impulse to get more money and try it. I didn’t want to leave. I felt the claws in me.
I felt the same claws grab me amongst the randomness of Borderlands. It’s a game of a bazillion guns, but the player quickly discovers that there are very few real differences. Instead your weaponry is divided into traditional classes, shotgun, sniper rifle, pistol etc. and given a random composition of magazine types, elemental damage and scopes.
Still, the seemingly infinite variations give us the insatiable desire for something better. Never knowing whether we have the best means we cannot be satisfied.
The randomness is what the addiction hinges on. Like the dice, the shuffled cards, and like the spinning wheel, not knowing is what gives us the urge to gamble. Because we can’t, without certainty, say what our lot will be. As long as the outcome is unknown, we can’t stop looting.