The Random One:
Personally, I think that the worst thing achievements and trophies have done is turning collectibles in an either-or situation. Before it happened, I wouldn't try to pick up all the collectibles, just as much as I could. This way I wouldn't skip tricky collectables, but wouldn't need to go back to pick them up if I missed it. I got 53/100? Cool, I got over half of them. 87/100? Great, I found a lot. 96/100? Wow, that's excellent, I got almost all of them!
Achievements don't care about that. Got 99/100? Yeah well tough look kid. Better comb this drab overworld for a few more hours to see if you get that last collectible. Yeah no thanks. I have better things to do with my time.
I agree. I think, for some people, gamerscores and trophies have altered collecting from a self-satisfying activity ("I found all this game has to offer!") to a competitive goal ("If I collect all these items, it'll show I'm better at this game than Larry!").
Let's take a game from the past that was significantly panned for being a collectathon: Donkey Kong Country 64. If a version of the game was released today, but had achievements for collecting everything with every character, how many more gamers would be willing to do it?
On the other hand, I appreciate when a game awards you as you progress through finding collectibles. Arkham Asylum was good at this, encouraging you to find stuff but not demanding the absolute highest effort for any recognition. Guess that makes me happier to receive regimented rewards than those that are random.
Don't be too concerned if you find yourself constantly hunting for collectibles and achievements while you're gaming - that's just the way you're wired.
I think Madigan is confusing the components of this process: the habitual nature of gaming, and the desire to collect. When he talks about the importance of "random reward schedules," he's getting into the behaviorist idea that, by randomizing the reward schedule rather than making it predictable, you increase the frequency of the behavior.
Compare vending machines and slot machines--you put in money, pull a lever, and then.... Well, with the vending machine, you dependably receive a "reward" while the slot machine only rewards you some of the time. Who will pull the lever more frequently? Obviously, it's the person at the vending machine. The reasons for this can be seen touched upon in the "Skinner Box" episode of Extra Credits, but it boils down to several behavioral mechanisms in we, the human.
This is, I believe, separate from a person's desire to collect. While the random reward schedule is perhaps poised to most effectively capitalize on our innate desire to collect, neither explains the other, and both can exist independently. (I imagine, in context, this was the point Madigan was making, but I think perhaps the article just cropped the idea at an awkward place.)
The urge to collect speaks to our old hunter-gatherer roots. You didn't know when your next meal was, so you grabbed anything food-like you could carry. This later developed into making sure you had a worthy collection of weapons and tools, so that you'd be better prepared to handle any given problem that crops up. And then we, as mankind, became collectors of knowledge, so that we'd be equipped for any problem or puzzle that might stand in our way. (This is to say that our innate curiosity or desire to learn may be directly linked to this collection instinct.)
Then you take a brief detour over the Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" to see what the hell any of this has to do with gaming, stamps, or what-have-you. According to Maslow, once our basic animal needs are met--food, clothing, shelter, and safety--we move up to other, less concrete needs. The need to belong, for instance. People who have basic needs unmet tend not to preoccupy themselves with needs higher on the hierarchy.
Our instincts are need-fulfilling machines--they are specifically designed and tailored to identify a deficiency and fill it, sometimes preemptively. That is their business. These machines are running non-stop, and that doesn't change just because our basic needs have been met. Once we're fed, clothed, housed, and safe... well... our instincts want to continue doing what they do. To meet this, our brain creates other, less urgent needs.
This could be the "need" to finish that collection of stamps. Or the "need" to have all of the Mario games. Or the "need" to find every little widget in your current game of choice. Satisfying these lesser needs gives us a strange satisfaction that is unexplainable, yet strangely familiar. Getting that last widget somehow wakes that ancient pride of bringing in that prize mastodon that would feed your tribe for a month. It gives us a feeling of power.
Of course, sometimes this process gets interrupted. A person might be unable to fill a more basic need, and in frustration their mind turns to another lesser need as a "substitute." A person who is unable to keep a roof of his head is suddenly taken with collecting bottle caps, as a way of attaining a piece of that primal satisfaction. A way of feeling in control of something. (You can even see this in animals--smaller dogs, frustrated by a lack of any sense of dominance, often harass small children as a way of being the boss of someone.)
The chicken-egg cycle surrounding this (Does a healthy mind lead to collecting, or does collecting lead to a healthy mind?) is probably best answered by the worst kind of non-answer. Both and neither. A healthy person, one whose material and emotional needs are mostly met, will probably tend to collect something as a way of continuing to satisfy the instinctive urge to acquire and prepare. This keeps a steady stream of satisfaction coming, which may tend to make them feel more healthy as a person... which may lead them to collect even more. An unhealthy person may find himself stuck in a shame spiral, feeling downtrodden and powerless, and one of these collections may provide just enough satisfaction to help him turn his outlook around... thus leading him to take charge of a few other things, until such time as he's back on track.
Whichever half starts the process, the two will feed each other in an ongoing cycle, often leading to a feeling of satisfaction and overall mental health. And then the creeping shadows of obsession and addiction creep in... but that's a whole 'nother discussion.