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Sticking points: A brief look at ‘the Panini sticker craze’ and its relationship with gamification

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have written a few blogs on the psychology of collecting as an addiction in addition to specific types of obsessive collecting such as record collecting. Over the last two weeks I have twice been asked to appear on radio shows talking about the ‘Panini sticker collecting craze’ that is allegedly sweeping across the UK in the run up to the start of the World Cup. My son is avidly collecting Panini stickers and yesterday I showed him my own Panini sticker books that I have kept since filling them in during the 1978 to 1980 period.

Like my youngest son now, I remember spending every last penny of my 10-pence a week pocket money buying packet after packet of stickers trying to complete my collection. One of the reasons I may have been asked to appear on radio shows was that there was an article in last week’s issue of The Guardian newspaper about the adults who are getting “misty-eyed” about Panini stickers. Ian Shoesmith, 38-year-old author of The Guardian piece and father of a four-year old son, claimed he was collecting the latest stickers:

I rip the packets of stickers open with all the excitement and anticipation of the 10-year-old boy that I used to be, and inhale their long-forgotten but oh-so-familiar odour of glue mixed with sticky tape and paper…But my childhood passion – the thrill of racing to the paper shop, handing over all of my pocket money, desperate to be greeted by the mulleted head of a Soviet-bloc defender – is dismissed, out-of-hand, by my son. But I will persist in collecting them – for when he changes his mind. I’m most definitely not collecting them for myself. Definitely not”.

Shoesmith claimed in his article there are countless adults in the UK doing the same thing as him and had interviewed a number of people for the article. (In fact I read a statistic claiming that up to 15% of all children’s toys are bought by adults for themselves rather than their children). One thing I can appreciate is Shoesmith’s view that “it’s easier to hide adult nostalgia when you have a child who is genuinely interested in the stickers”. This definitely holds true in my household. One of the people interviewed for The Guardian article was 48-year old Mark Jensen (editor of a Newcastle United fanzine) and father to a 10-year-old son. He noted:

“For about four years [my son] would [collect] them all the time – the cards as well as the stickers…They were even banned at his school because of all of the arguments they caused. Some kids turned out to be far shrewder investors than others and rip other kids off by swapping the shiny stickers for normal ones and stuff like that…I do remember when I was a kid that there was a conspiracy story that some stickers were impossible to collect – there must be zillions of almost-completed albums out there. Nowadays I’ve heard of ‘virtual stickers’ but they are the antithesis to collecting in my view – you need the physical experience of opening the packet, all of your mates crowding round you to see what you’ve got”.

I agree fully with many of Shoesmith’s observations. I almost live vicariously through my 12-year old son opening his packets of World Cup football stickers. I love seeing his face light up when he gets a sticker that he really wants. I love seeing the anticipation of opening as I can remember those feelings myself, even though they were 35 years ago. I clearly remember going into school with a pile of ‘swapsies’ hoping that I could find the rarities needed to complete each double page. I loved it when I completed a line of three or four players, a page of players, a double page of players. It was like a bingo player filling up lines of numbers and then getting the full house (i.e., a completed page).

I never managed to complete a single football sticker book when I was a tweenager and there were always certain stickers that were seen as rarities (although got very close to a complete a Panini book in 1978). I loved the physicality of the books and stickers (and am no different now with my record and CD collecting – I always prefer CD and vinyl over MP3s). Shoesmith interviewed some academics for his article. Professor Carol Mavor (Manchester University) said that:

“Stickers are very tactile and old-fashioned. The humanity of touch is also very powerful. That’s why people love wooden toys, for example, because they have a unique feel, smell and are real. Adults don’t want to let go of their childhood completely…It seems, without being overly morbid, to be so far away from death, work and the other obligations of adulthood. As adults, we think of ourselves as different people from our childhood selves – the whole world was open to us and it was a free and more creative life.”

According to psychologist Felix Economakis (also interviewed by Shoesmith), there are likely to be gender differences and sentimentality:

“It’s down to sentimental attachment. Little objects from childhood are imbued with meaning because they remind us of people who may no longer be with us – it’s an association with the past through rose-tinted spectacles…Men are more into lists, while women tend to collect something with sentimental value. For men, partly it’s about status, and collecting for the sake of it. [Collecting is] quite a solitary activity”.

I also came across an interesting article written by P.M. Davies on the Design Thinkers website that related the collecting of football stickers to gamification. In the opening paragraph, he talked of being addicted to collecting them (although I’m sure he meant in a somewhat pejorative sense). He wrote that:

“If you grew up in the UK you may remember Panini sticker albums that encouraged kids to collect stickers of their favourite soccer players…As you collected you filled up your album and traded cards with your friends in the struggle to complete the full album. Every week when I got my pocket money I went down to the newsagent to buy packets of stickers in the hope I would get that rare one that had so far eluded me. I wasn’t alone as thousands of kids did the same. The strange thing was I didn’t even like soccer! I never have liked soccer and loathed watching games or even talking about it – and yet I was addicted to collecting the stickers. This is a great example of how strong the power of collecting is for us. For me it overruled the fact that I had no interest (and in fact quite a dislike) for the subject matter and got me obsessed with completing my set. I also collected novelty erasers but this was a more freeform collection and it didn’t awaken quite the same obsession as the soccer stickers. In fact the mechanisms set-up by Panini, and other similar companies, were very clever indeed and it is these techniques that are being used more in gamification projects”.

Davies notes (as I have done in my previous blogs) there are many articles that have been written on the psychology of collecting. Davies claims most of these writings are on what he calls ‘freeform collecting’ (“the urge to collect things like erasers, marbles, clocks, cars, hats, teddy bears, postcards and so on”). Davies says these are freeform because there is no limit to the collection. He argues that it is the more “structured form of collecting” (such as collecting football stickers) are related to gamification (i.e., the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems) because it involves a number of key features (my emboldened emphasis):

  • “There is an achievable goal that is being moved towards (e.g. completing the entire sticker album);
  • You can see what your current progress is towards that goal (e.g. the filled versus blank spaces in your sticker album);
  • The scarcity effect is used (e.g. some stickers are harder to find than others);
  • Status (e.g. the status of your collection effects your own status amongst your peers);
  • Group identification (e.g. getting a sense of solidarity with other collectors

Davies claims these five features these form a very powerful motivational system and can be (and are) used in commercial situations (such as the awarding of badges as virtual rewards). There are debates as to whether such reward systems actually work (as the rewards have no value whatsoever in the real world). But as Davies noted:

“Research has been carried out which shows that the fun and interest in striving towards a goal is often the primary reward (Ariely & Norton, 2009). Therefore as long as badges are the embodiment of going through a good experience it becomes a symbol and not a reward in itself. Most of the controversy at the moment is actually a criticism of organisations who are applying the badge system incorrectly rather than claims that the psychology behind it is flawed”.

Looking at my own collecting behaviour, I can honestly say that the striving towards a goal can indeed be rewarding, but for me the actual acquisition of the item being collected brings about the biggest reward.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Ariely, D., & Norton, M. I. (2009). Conceptual consumption. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 475-499.

Belk, R. W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W., Wallendorf, M., Sherry, J.F., & Holbrook, M.B. (1991). Collecting in a consumer culture. In: Highways and buyways: Naturalistic research from the consumer behavior odyssey, pp.178-215.

Davies, P.M. (2012). Collecting. Design Thinkers, February 13. Located at: http://www.design-thinkers.co.uk/collecting/

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

Shoesmith, I. (2014). The adults who get misty-eyed over Panini World Cup stickers. BBC Online News Magazine, May 6. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27051215

Wikipedia (2014). Gamification. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification

Better collate than never: Can collecting be an addiction?

In a previous blog on bibliomania (i.e., an obsessive-compulsive disorder associated with the collecting and hoarding of books), I briefly mentioned that collecting more generally could perhaps be addictive for some people. Writing in a 2006 issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Dr. Peter Subkowski wrote that the urge to collect is a ubiquitous phenomenon that has anthropological, sociobiological, and individual psychodynamic roots. Dr. Russell Belk writing in a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality described collectors of mass-produced objects as falling into one of two main types: the taxonomic collector who attempts to own an example of every type of a series of items produced, and the aesthetic collector who simply gathers items because they are pleasing in some way.

So what are the motivations for collecting? In a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. One of the prime researchers in the ‘collecting’ field is Dr. Russell Belk who has written many papers and chapters on the topic. In a 1991 book chapter, Dr. Belk (along with Melanie Wallendorf, John F. Sherry, Jr., and Morris B. Holbrook) noted that:

“In examining literary and social science treatments of collecting…some regard it as a passion, others as a disease. It is frequently described as a pleasurable activity that can have some unpleasant consequences. In its pleasurable aspect, collecting embodies the characteristics of flow…It is an optimal experience that is psychologically integrating and socially beneficial. In its darker aspect, collecting is an activity over which many consumers fear losing control. Whether likened to idolatry or illness, collectors acknowledge the very real possibility that collecting can become addictive. Danet and Katriel (1990) suggest that the seemingly self-deprecating admission of addiction to one’s collection can be a way of disclaiming responsibility for uninhibited collecting. At the same time they recognize that ‘serious’ collectors relish their ability to freely express passion in their collecting activity. What apparently is being negotiated in the area between passion and addiction is the definition of whether the collector controls or is controlled by the activity of collecting”.

The chapter also claimed that the tendency to pursue an altered state of consciousness produced by any ritual activity “whether behaviorally via collecting, or pharmacologically via chemical use” is cross-culturally universal. Obviously they acknowledged that most collectors are not addicts but claimed there was “compelling evidence of its pervasiveness in the observations of others” based in self-report surveys, and the labels by which collectors in their research studies described themselves (e.g., “magazineaholic”, “getting a Mickey Mouse fix”, “print Junkie”). Brenda Danet and Tamara Katriel claimed some of their collectors’ said it was “a disease”. They also reported that Sigmund Freud amassed a large collection of 2,300 Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chinese antiquities that eventually numbered approximately 2300 and described his collecting passion as “an addiction second in intensity only to his nicotine addiction“. Based on their interviews with collectors, the chapter then went on to claim:

“Although almost any behavior can become addictive, the pattern of behavior characteristic of collectors makes it especially prone to addiction. Most collectors interviewed mentioned the search for additions to a collection as the central activity of their collecting behavior. Rather than spend time examining or organizing items that are already in the collection, collectors prefer to search or shop for additions to the collection. Search behavior may be compulsively and ritualistically enacted. Acquiring rather than possessing provides the temporary fix for the addict. A sense of longing and desire — a feeling that something is missing in life — is temporarily met by adding to the collection. But this is a temporary fix, a staving off of withdrawal, followed by a feeling of emptiness and anxiety that is addressed by searching for more. Shopping and searching are the ritualized means by which the collector obtains a sense of competence and mastery in life. These activities are the bittersweet consequences of experiencing longing in the arena of the marketplace”.

They also noted that searching and shopping for collection items highlight the ritualized aspects (i.e., it is patterned and repetitive). They provided the example of a Barbie doll collector that spent considerable time at doll shows that had specific rules that guided his doll buying (e.g., having the dealer completely undress then redress the doll to allow him to see if any part of the body is damaged). They also reported that items for their collection found in the search were often seen as having irresistible power over the person. One collector of antique bronzes was quoted as saying “I just had to have it. It had to be mine”. Searching for such items are “not the only addictive focus for collectors”. Belk and colleagues reported that:

Compulsive attention to and control over the objects in the collection provides an additional source of feelings of control and mastery –important feelings to an addict. For example, one interpretation of the propensity of collectors to will their collections to museums is that, by doing so, they retain a certain sense of control of the collection by insuring that it will not fall into the hands of another collector. Collecting activity allows a collector to avoid other aspects of life. It is a form of withdrawal from other aspects of life that is nevertheless often positively sanctioned…On the whole, collecting, particularly for the addict, involves the individual in a repetitive, predictable pattern of behavior which can provide a form of solace for someone who is troubled by living in an unpredictable world”.

In a 1995 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology, Dr. Belk carried out in-depth interviews with 200 collectors. He claimed that for most, collecting was a highly beneficial activity. However, he also noted there were extreme cases where collecting was found to be addictive and dysfunctional for the affected individuals and their families. He also wrote that:

“Collectors often refer to themselves, only half in jest, as suffering from a mania, a madness, an addiction, a compulsion, or an obsession. Because collecting is generally a socially approved activity, no one is likely to treat such a confession as stigmatizing in the way that it would be for an alcoholic, a heroin addict, a compulsive gambler, or someone truly believed to be mentally ill…But like much humor there is an uneasy fear behind these self-admissions, for some collectors really are out of control”.

The most vivid example that Belk encountered was a dealer and collector of Disney cartoon character replicas who was a recovering poly-drug abuser who himself described his collecting behaviour as an addiction. Over many years, he accumulated a large collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia to obtained his “Mickey fix”. Consequently he was often unable to pay his house rent or pay his bills. Belk claimed that he thrill of collecting and displaying his objects eventually threatened his psychological wellbeing and in the collector’s words had to go “cold turkey” and cease collecting.

Finally, in an online article about addictive collecting, Hale Dwoskin, CEO and director of training of Sedona Training Associates provided a list of symptoms of a collecting addiction:

  • You look for/buy/trade collectibles for hours on end, and the time you spend doing this is increasing
  • You think about collectibles constantly, even when you’re not collecting
  • You have missed important meetings/events because of collecting
  • It’s difficult for you to not buy more collectibles, even for just a few days
  • You try to sneak more collectibles into your home
  • You have tried, unsuccessfully, to stop collecting
  • Your family or friends have asked you to cut back on collecting
  • Your personal interests have changed because of your collecting
  • You have lost a personal or professional relationship because of collecting

As an ‘avid’ collector myself (of records, CDs and music in general) I can certainly see how collecting can become an expensive habit that goes beyond disposable income. Although I think that it is theoretically possible to be addicted to collecting, the number of genuine ‘collecting addicts’ is likely to be very low.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R. W. (1982). Acquiring, possessing, and collecting: fundamental processes in consumer behavior. Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives, 185-190.

Belk, R. W. (1992). Attachment to possessions. In: Place attachment (pp. 37-62). New York: Springer.

Belk, R. W. (1994). Collectors and collecting. Interpreting objects and collections, 317-326.

Belk, R. W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W., Wallendorf, M., Sherry, J.F., & Holbrook, M.B. (1991). Collecting in a consumer culture. In: Highways and buyways: Naturalistic research from the consumer behavior odyssey, pp.178-215.

Danet, B. & Katriel, T. (1989). No two alike: The aesthetics of collecting. Play and Culture, 2, 253-277.

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

MacLeod, K. (2007). Romps with Ransom’s King: Fans, Collectors, Academics, and the MP Shiel Archives. ESC: English Studies in Canada, 30(1), 117-136

Subkowski, P. (2006). On the psychodynamics of collecting. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 87, 383-401.