A few years ago, I got into playing Skyrim on our XBox 360. There are many wonderful things about Skyrim, including its immersive sense of place, its vast and varying geography, its brooding landscapes and complementary atmospheric music, its epic scope, its interesting NPCs, its endless range of ways to power up, and so on.
Early in the game, when cash was scarce, I got into a routine that each dungeon I entered, I would carefully loot every vase and chest, and strip every monster I killed of its weapons, armour and valuables; then when I was done I’d return to civilisation and sell off the spare armour, weapons, etc. Eventually I had enough money to buy Breezehome, the little house in Whiterun, and a while after that I could afford to have it furnished. These achievements cost on the order 7,000 gold pieces.
But much later in the game — when I’d advanced in skills, and after money had lost all value — I realised I was still going through the same routine. Every time I went through a crypt and killed all the draugr deathlords, I’d dutifully tote all their heavy ebony armour back to civilisation, dutifully smith it up to legendary level (I’d become a high-level blacksmith by this point) and then hoik it around half a dozen different shops selling the various high-priced pieces wherever I could.
I’d long since owned all the homes you can buy in the game, and upgraded their furnishings to the highest level. I had weapons and armour that I’d smithed and enchanted myself, much better than anything I could possibly have bought. Same for potions. There was literally nothing for me to spend money on. Yet I was still going though this tedious process after every single dungeon just to make a number go up.
When I’d reached around 700,000 gold pieces, I realised how pointless this was, and how much less fun it was than I would have playing in a wealth-ignoring way. But I kept on doing it because I had it in my head that it would be good to reach a round million gold pieces before I stopped.
I wonder whether, if I had done that, I would then have thought “You know what, I’ll just carry on till I get to two million”.
Happily, I had a moment of sanity. I went to America for ten days to study sauropods, in a road-trip of surpassing awesomeness known as The Sauropocalypse. Ten days dry turns out to be enough to break the spell, and I’ve not played Skyrim since. (If I ever play it again, I’ll be starting from scratch with a new character.)
I was reading Arthur C. Brook’s (excellent) article in the Atlantic, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, and I was struck by this passage, which nicely articulates something that’s been bothering me for some time:
It has always amazed me that many wealthy people keep working to increase their wealth, amassing far more money than they could possibly spend or even usefully bequeath. One day I asked a wealthy friend why this is so. Many people who have gotten rich know how to measure their self-worth only in pecuniary terms, he explained, so they stay on the hamster wheel, year after year. They believe that at some point, they will finally accumulate enough to feel truly successful, happy, and therefore ready to die.
This makes sense. It explains, for example, why someone who is already as fantastically wealthy as Donald Trump is prepared to do such terrible things to so very many other people even though the extra benefits that accrue to him as a result can make no tangible difference. It’s how he achieves some kind of self-worth.
And of course that’s exactly what I was doing in Skyrim. My stupid level-seventy-something character, with all his luxury homes and all his best-of-the-best equipment, was making the exact same mistake the Trumps of this world make.
What an idiot that character was.