It feels satisfying at first — and then things get bad
“I think I’m addicted to Steam sales.”
The sentiment, voiced by a user named PM_ME_YOUR_BREAKFAST on a subreddit devoted to the gigantic game store, is easy to empathize with. It’s easy — sometimes too easy — to amass a gigantic collection of digital goods, especially when they’re on sale. (In Steam’s case, there’s almost always at least a handful of discounted games.) The phenomenon extends beyond video games to e-books and phone apps.
“I’m usually pretty thoughtful about buying anything,” Elle Thompson, a literary assistant based in Reading, Pennsylvania, told me. “But with Kindle books… Not having to physically move it between apartments, find space in bookcases, justifying typically lower prices than physical copies? I’ll buy upwards of eight in a day.”
For some people, this annoying, costly habit can morph into an actual problem. Compulsive shopping disorder is known as a behavioral addiction, alongside similar problems like gambling or gaming addictions. The particular classification of these behaviors as actual addictions rather than problematic habits is up for debate, and compulsive shopping isn’t listed as a recognized disorder in the DSM-5, the mental illness diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association. Still, there’s little doubt that people who struggle, to varying degrees, with compulsive shopping often feel guilt, anxiety, and financial strain as a result. And when the barrier to entry is so low — like a sale hawking $5 video games or $2.99 e-books — it’s that much easier for people to get sucked into a shopping frenzy, ending up with hundreds or even thousands of unplayed games, unread e-books, and other digital products gathering virtual dust in the depths of a hard drive or Kindle.
Most of us who can’t seem to say no to a good deal on a Steam bundle probably don’t have enough of a problem for it to rise to the level of a pathology.
By one estimate, 5% to 8% of all Americans struggle with compulsive shopping. A 2014 study of more than 200 Parisian students found that 16% of them had a shopping compulsion. The subjects vastly preferred online shopping because of the wide variety of options and immediate gratification from clicking the “buy” button.
Compulsive shopping is typically associated with other mental illnesses. As many as 96% of people with shopping addictions experience accompanying illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and intermittent explosive disorder, in which a person experiences sudden, aggressive bursts of rage. But most of us who can’t seem to say no to a good deal on digital goods probably don’t have enough of a problem for it to rise to the level of a pathology. Instead, it’s an annoying, expensive, potentially detrimental habit that can eventually get out of hand if left unchecked.
Michael, who requested anonymity because of a stigma against microtransactions, has compulsively stocked up on League of Legends skins (cosmetic upgrades to a character) for nine years now. It started out slow, he says, but eventually he became a “whale,” a term taken from gambling that in video game terms means someone who spends a lot of money on microtransactions. At this point, he has about 120 skins, of which he’s used about 20 to 25 in the past year. He doesn’t regret his purchases—after all, skins are pretty cheap, ranging from $5 to $15 each—and he doesn’t buy microtransactions in other games: It’s only skins that he’s interested in collecting.
“I feel compelled in the same way that people into any hobby will buy new things — it’s a way to show off continued personal investment,” Michael says. “It’s important to note that there is absolutely a strong social pressure to have skins in-game.”
In general, social pressure to consume is a major reason people shop. A 2016 survey of compulsive shoppers on daily deal websites like Groupon found that social pressure is a major motivating factor, and it’s acutely felt by people with compulsive buying habits. This social pressure, as defined by the study, extends beyond the pressure exerted by a shopper’s social circle to include indicators used by shopping websites that report how many people have already purchased a deal, demonstrating the popularity — and, hence, the desirability — of the item to other shoppers.
Amazon and Steam don’t show how many people have purchased a given book or game during its sales, but popularity is clear in other ways. Kindle books have bestseller charts and reader reviews, while Steam has a social component that shows which friends in a user’s network are playing, as well as how many people are playing a game at a time. And if all your friends are reading Daisy Jones and the Six or playing Mortal Kombat 11, well, how can you resist if they go on sale?
Steam and Kindle — as with most retailers — also put time limits on sales that compel people to purchase items. Steam displays a time counter that informs users how much time they have left to buy the game, ticking down the seconds until the item reverts to its full price. As written about in a blog post on The Psychology of Video Games, this is a version of the scarcity effect, memorably detailed in a 1975 study that looked at how people feel about cookies. One cookie jar was full of cookies, while the other jar was nearly empty. Participants said the cookies from the nearly empty jar were better, even though the cookies in the full jar were identical. Sales work in a similar manner: A Kindle book that will only be on sale for 24 hours appears more desirable because of the apparent “scarcity” of the deal, so I’m more likely to add it to my cart than if the sale had no end date.
But compulsive purchases often make people feel terrible in the end.
Elle, the literary agency assistant, says her avid Kindle purchasing began two years ago, when she moved to Pennsylvania from D.C. She was lonely and culturally isolated, she says, and the escapism of reading compelled her to dive into the Kindle sales hole. Now she has 525 books on her five-year-old Kindle; she’s read only about 200.
“Now, I know it’s getting out of hand, and those fears about not making a sale or getting the promotion I need are offsetting any interest in buying books,” Elle says. “Books were fulfilling a lot of human needs for me, but they’re also not sustainable for me… [They] have simply put off my confrontations with low industry pay, high rent, and everything in between.”
Not only does compulsive shopping arise from feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, but it can also worsen those feelings, especially if shopping is used in place of getting adequate treatment for the underlying condition. The resulting depression or anxiety from compulsive shopping behavior can then lead to more shopping to alleviate those symptoms, thus perpetuating the cycle. Shopping that leads to hoarding — even digital hoarding — can cause further stress and anxiety. Anyone with dozens, or hundreds, of unplayed Steam games, unread Kindle books, or unused microtransaction items can likely relate to the stress that rears its head when looking at your catalog of digital purchases and being confronted with how much you have to read or play on top of the amount of money you’ve spent.
“The moment I go to open a game, I just end up cycling on to the next one, and then the next. I’m almost paralyzed by choice.”
A 2018 study of digital hoarding behaviors found that people who hoard digital items such as photos, apps, or emails are often stressed and anxious about what they’ve accumulated but feel powerless or afraid to stop collecting or delete what they have. When the collection consists of items that need to be interacted with or finished, such as books, games, or movies, the sheer number to choose from can make it impossible to choose anything.
“I have access thanks to streaming/backlogs/etc. to almost any game that I’ve wanted, and I’ve got the next two weeks off work and all the time I’ve ever wanted,” wrote user ejoshua on the gaming forum Resetera. “The moment I go to open a game, I just end up cycling on to the next one, and then the next. I’m almost paralyzed by choice. Anyone else experienced the same?”
More than 100 other users responded in the next few hours, most of them familiar with the choice paralysis described by ejoshua. “I have hundreds of games I haven’t played on Steam. I think most people in their 30s and up are the same tbh,” wrote user MazeHaze. Anyone who’s ever scrolled Netflix for an hour before eventually giving up is familiar with this phenomenon, which behavioral researchers call choice overload. Choice overload is associated with unhappiness and what’s known as choice deferral — when you’re scrolling Netflix and are simply too overwhelmed to choose.
One user on Resetera recommended that, in the face of too much choice, using a random number generator to make a selection for you can be immensely helpful. Simply Google “random number generator” and one will appear embedded in the search page. This is a better method for Steam games than Kindle books, as Kindle doesn’t number the books in your library. Exporting your Amazon Kindle purchases to Goodreads can take care of this problem for you.
Making it a little harder to impulsively purchase books, games, or other digital items can help slow the hoarding. Delete your credit card information from your online accounts so you’ll need to reenter it with every purchase. Keeping track of every purchase you make can also force you to confront the size of your shopping habit. A Google spreadsheet is an excellent way to keep track — I created a template, which you can save to your own Drive by clicking “File” and then “Make a copy.”
A therapist who specializes in behavioral addictions can help you gain control of your shopping addiction or digital hoarding. Even if you don’t think your habit rises to the point of pathology, it can still feel bad to be at the mercy of your impulses, so it’s never a bad idea to see a therapist if you can afford it. Most of us need one, for one reason or another.
For better or, often, for worse, we live in a culture that encourages consumption. As our worlds have moved increasingly online, so too have our games, our books, our bad habits, and our addictions. For some of us, it takes a lot of strength to clear the hurdle that is the compulsive need to shop when everything around us encourages us to keep spending money. But when you’re drowning under 3,000 Steam games or 250 Kindle books, it might be the right time to hit the brakes.