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Gaming Achievements in the Modern Era

I remember long weekends in ‘96 at my neighbor’s house, swapping turns comandeering the three-pronged monstrosity to collect stars in Super Mario 64. The objective of this seminal 3D platforming game was to move throughout the main hub world, slowly unlocking its connected stages to finally face off against the infamous villain. To proceed to new stages in the hub world, you had to collect Power Stars; once you collected 70 stars, you could access this final arena. There were, however, more than 70 stars available to find and collect in the game (almost twice as many at 120 total). If you wanted to be a game completionist, you did things like spend your entire summer vacation finding and collecting all 120 of those stars. Collecting all of them was considered an achievement, but Nintendo didn’t beat you over the head with a victory badge for it — you proudly internalized that achievement on your own, maybe sharing it with friends, and toasting with a cup of Tang). You tried collecting all those extra stars because it was fun; it was a goal outside of the main game that kept you extending its $60 value.

Gamers back then did all kinds of crazy things to prove their prowess. Gaming magazines like GamePro and EGM featured VHS tapes people had sent showcasing ludicrous run-throughs of Goldeneye or verifying high scores across a variety of score-based games (I mean just look at the laundry list of score submission requirements for Crazy Taxi 2 back in 2001). Gamers took pride in these kinds of achievements. An accomplished method that lets you bend the defined set of rules in a videogame’s self-contained environment is something you can take pride in as a personal or competitive accomplishment. And sure, people like to brag.

This trackable, competitive spirit was first enabled with game scoring measureability in Midway's Sea Wolf back in 1976:

The player would attempt to reach a pre-determined high score within an allotted time period, after which they would win bonus playing time, since it was not possible to save the top score.

Scoring systems were ubiquitous in many early games thereafter — notably Space Invaders — and even transcended to the first console iteration of Super Mario Bros. (though to this day I still have no idea how that score is calculated). Coin-op arcades thrived off the competitiveness of strangers — pinball machines, fighting games, racing games. Tracking your high score and your competition across leaderboards was worth the jaunt alone to an arcade (or so I’m envisioning back in the 1980s, when I was but a wee little boy… Megatouch’s Erotic Photo Hunt at Webster's Pub in Chicago is my modern equivalent from which to draw comparison).

But then something happened with this last generation of consoles: Today, you’ll find nearly every videogame platform require its games to feature something called “achievements” or “trophies” to back-pat its players through the process of merely progressing in-game. This has become a travesty of what was once sacred ground. Sure, high scores and leadership tracking still largely exist across all kinds of games, but the emergence of task-specific achievement systems has cast a dark shadow on gameplay immersion and, more severely, how players behave with their games.

The Nature of Achievements

Let’s not get things confused before I go down the path of this criticism. High scores are one thing; achievements and trophies are another monstrosity entirely. Here’s how each of the main platforms handles these kinds of things:

  • Steam Achievements: “Various individual player statistics will be tracked by Steam while you play games, such as the amount of time you have spent playing. Stats are also collected for individual games like Team Fortress 2, Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. You can find achievements under the stats for your games as well.”
  • Xbox Gamerscore/achievements: “ Achievements system that measures the number of Achievement points accumulated by a user with a LIVE profile. These Achievement points are awarded for the completion of game-specific challenges, such as beating a level or amassing a specified number of wins against other players in online matches.”
  • Playstation Trophies: “Trophies are in-game rewards that recognize substantial gaming accomplishments made while playing your favorite games.”
  • iOS Game Center Achievements: “An achievement represents a quantitative goal that the player can accomplish in your game. As the local player plays your game, he or she makes progress towards completing the achievement. When the player meets or exceeds the goal, the achievement is considered earned, and the player is rewarded. Your game defines the goal and the game mechanics that describe how a player earns the achievement.”

It should also be noted that Steam recently evolved their achievements feature to include Steam Trading Cards — digital cards earned for doing arbitrary things like playing Portal 2 for a period of an hour that, once acquired, can then be traded or sold via the Steam platform. I think I made a solid $7 in Steam credit for playing Portal 2 and Civilization V for a period of a couple hours. It's hard to understand who paid money for five bio cards and a few wallpapers, but at least Shadowrun Returns was cheaper.

So with all these methods of delivering feedback to players on their mundane accomplishments in-game, what, exactly, is the point? How do in-game notifications motivate a player? Does the addition of notification-driven achievements change or manipulate the player’s behavior more so than simply beating the game, achieving a high score, or accomplishing a difficult challenge?

There are divisive opinions on the role and functionality of achievements in modern gaming. IGN’s harles Onyett points out that “despite the fact that all you're doing is bumping up a number total that you can show off to your friends, the fact that getting Achievements can actually cause you to play games you normally wouldn't or behave in different ways – sometime to the detriment of those around you – drives these kind of meta-reward mechanics further into the core of what we have come to think of the modern gaming experience.” His co-conspirer, Greg Miller, has other a rather different perspective: “Achievement and Trophies are pointless. These are meaningless numbers and digital trinkets that give us nothing, cost us hours of our lives, and might not even carry over to the next wave of consoles.”

An example? Let’s take an Xbox game, Guitar Hero III, and one its its lousiest achievements: Buy a Guitar Already, worth 15 Gamer Points.1 If you didn’t already know, Guitar Hero was a popular series of games that were packaged with musical instruments that connected into the game environment so that multiple players could karaoke songs. Strangely enough, this particular achievement requires you to the play the game for a period of time without the guitar, a presumably infuriating experience. As GameSpy points out, “if you're that good with your hands you could have spent those last few hours jerking off and still achieved more. You'd be much more honest with yourself, your role in life, and exactly how much you contribute to society.” Does this achievement make you enjoy the game or challenge you any more than actually pulling off a song? No, it doesn’t. But it influences your behavior to do stupid shit to crank up your Gamerscore.

The Importance of Immersion

My critique isn’t squarely aimed at discrediting the intent behind achievement systems, but rather their delivery. While high scores, speed runs, and in-game collectables are something to strive for as an end-goal, achievement tasks and alerts can be a deviation from those goals, and at their worst, a jarring distraction. Remember VH1’s pop-up music video series? If you couldn’t stand that constant vitriol of interruptions bombarding you every few seconds, why would you possibly tolerate modern videogames’ achievement notifications? Gameplay immersion is an absolutely critical part of the experience, so why do certain game developers dare to interrupt this magical spell cast on the gamer? I sink into a state of melancholia if I suffered through films with alerts telling me that I'd achieved “75% completion of watching film.”

I clap developers on the back like Naughty Dog who avoid beating players over the head with Playstation Trophies. Their recent release, The Last of Us, eschews micro-goal pedantry. I can’t imagine moving through a tense sequence only to be pulled out of it by an alert proclaiming I dispatched a difficult in-game enemy. If I feel inclined, I can quietly internalize that victory and move on. The art of suspense and environmental design is an incredible victory for The Last of Us — notifications have no place here. And the same goes for many other games of the same caliber and ambition.

When I was talking to my brother for the Whalenought Studios interview, he mentioned the annoyance in playing the much-lauded Bethesda game, Fallout 3:

After a few hours of being stuck underground in tight corridors, I finally open the iconic vault door to a beautifully rendered landscape, mountains and wasteland as far as the computer can render. Then it happens, a sight to behold in this fantastically and intricately designed moment, and the Xbox UI vomits across my screen: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: YOU LEFT THE VAULT. Maybe they thought I was blinded by the mere sight of the outdoors.

Or maybe they thought every fucking new scene you see needs some kind of indication that hey, congratulations, it looks like you progressed a little bit farther in the game.

Game achievements and trophies also can damage the attitude and behavior of gamers, further removing them from the experience of the game (unless, of course, the experience is all about chasing numbers, like the idiotic Candy Crush). Cameron Gidari has a great write-up on this. Speaking about finding that fourth bottle in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time:

I never got the fourth bottle in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the one you earn by riding around Hyrule Field shooting big Poes with arrows from horseback. The big Poes would always disappear too quickly, and my aim was never very good, so I left it alone and went along my way. I already had three bottles anyways, why did I need another one? Back before I discovered achievements, I played games because I liked them. I didn’t care that I had left certain games half-finished, or didn’t get X number of headshots with a certain weapon. If a game was fun, I played it. If it wasn’t, I stopped. So simple.

Gaming culture, or at the very worst, casual gaming culture, shouldn't turn players into zombie completionists. We shouldn't be tapping our fingers into bloody messes over achieving Tee Hee Two in Jetpack Joyride or flushing 250+ hours of your life into the Secret Achievement in Lost Planet 2. It's like being forced to watch one television show, start another midway through, and then another, and another until you haven't completed any of them but they're all nagging you to Resume on Netflix.

My plea: Put an end to this madness and offer a “deactive Achievements & Alerts” in every platform's settings. Please.


  1. With the Xbox system, every achievement you earn influences your overall Gamerscore that is shown to other members of the platform’s online community; the Gamerscore itself is a measurement of the number of achievement points accumulated by a player.  

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