An Ode to Foraging in Games (and Real Life)

I’m not afraid of garbage. I’ll dig through the trash outside the Stardrop Saloon as long as no one’s around. I’ll crawl through every gross bandit’s tent in Skyrim. But I draw the line at stealing from burial urns. I’m a forager, not a grave robber. 

Foraging isn’t just an in-game hobby for me — it’s something I’ve done quite a bit of in real life. When I’m gathering plants in Tamriel, it’s not all that different from filling a free pile bike trailer with lightly bruised tomatoes from the produce distributor near Butchertown. I’m not sure where this thrifty compulsion came from, but it’s important enough to me that it’s as present in my video game life as it is in my real life. It’s a bit of romanticism and magical thinking, plus anti-consumerism. And it’s shown me how the concept of collecting can mean very different things in different contexts.

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Apple Wine & Dragonthorn

Dumpster diving appealed to my 20-something, Crimethinc-reading self as an ideal form of activism. It’s obvious that modern society produces a huge amount of waste and a large portion of that is food, which gets thrown away because it doesn’t look right, is mispackaged, or is about to expire. I always think of Agnes Varda’s wonderful The Gleaners and I, when she finds a heart-shaped potato, abandoned as unsellable in a field. It’s important to me that things get used, as much as they can be. It makes things feel completed. I used the entire chicken, even making stock out of its bones. I cleared the whole dungeon, even checking the cobwebbed corners.

But dumpstering was never just about activism for me. Actual poverty definitely played a part sometimes, but I also simply enjoyed the act of gathering and then making do with what I had found. While I espoused a punk, anti-waste ethos on my trips to bakery dumpsters, it was as much about the joy of discovery and the romance of a simpler existence where I could survive by foraging. I pitted endless cherries for cherry pie, cooked up giant pots of soup, feasted on slightly stale bagels with still-chilled tofu spread and juiced apples that sat for months in my closet, turning into a very light fizzy wine. It was a weird form of self-reliance. I was taking care of myself by exploiting society’s massive waste. 

It’s been a long time since I dumpstered anything. I’ve found something else to fulfill that compulsion: video games. I’m the kind of person who will walk across an entire game world to gather some needed supplies and even enjoy the trip — no fast traveling. I like walking across the Hinterlands in Dragon Age: Inquisition to find Elfroot and iron. I end up with closets and chests full of berries and shells in games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. It’s nice to be able to go out in the world and find what I need — to upgrade my potions, to feed my friends, to pay for my house.

Plague Pants & Day Olds

I’m also the kind of player who doesn’t usually buy gear. Instead, I tend to just take whatever I can find in RPGs. In 20 years of playing Diablo, this has been my normal MO. Sometimes I get lucky, like when I found those pants that poisoned every enemy within 10 feet of me. Other times it doesn’t work out as well — but I still enjoy the challenge. I still end up with way more gear than I can possibly use. It’s exciting to find a really good item after breaking open 47 barrels in a dungeon. It feels like I earned it.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten better about hoarding things in the real world. I don’t end up with 50 bunches of kale rotting in my fridge. These days the things I collect don’t take up much space. Perhaps it’s maturity or perhaps it’s because I have a virtual outlet for my gathering urges.

Of course, collecting is a huge part of games. In many genres, we’re expected to hoard things — food never goes bad, we have unlimited storage space. And increasingly, it’s tied to real-world money. I am lucky, in a way, that I have mostly been too broke to participate in the highly incentivised forms of collecting that have become ubiquitous in video games. I have spent actual money for outfits in Love Nikki and Pocket Camp, but not much.

Crystal Fruit

At the same time as monetized collecting has become more prominent in games, gamified collecting has become more prevalent in the real world. Blind boxes of toys and trinkets are more comment now than they ever were when I was a kid. And in my field, comics, it seems like every mainstream issue has six variant covers that a true fan must have. There’s something appealing about having all of something, like having marked off “complete set of Legendary armor” in life’s bullet journal. Sometimes it’s worth it just to not have to think about something anymore.

But buying doesn’t scratch the same itch as dumpstering, or its video game equivalent. Behind the Geology Department building of the school where my mom was getting her master’s degree there was a rock pile — discarded chunks from amethyst and quartz specimens, pieces of limestone with holes drilled in them, sparkling bits of the granite Wisconsin is famous for. My mom would take us to the rock pile so we could dig through and add to our own collections. It was pretty magical for us as kids. I loved the thrill of finding a real prize: an intact spear of quartz crystal or a half-polished jasper pendant. The department’s trash was treasure to us.

If I analyze the joy I felt about the rock pile, and the times I would make “fairy soup” in the backyard from violet roots and mud, I think what I was feeling was the excitement of both discovery and self-reliance. What if I could just rely on violet roots and walnuts to live? What if the chunk of fluorite I found was magical? What if “collecting” wasn’t about amassing wealth but about taking what you need and letting nothing go to waste? In a way, video games let me live that fantasy, and it’s one that’s more powerful than being a brave warrior or having talking animal friends.