Pandora's Box: Achievement Unlocked

Platforms: Microsoft Xbox 360

You've just driven at breakneck speed across town. You jump out of the car with your partner, and head for the entrance to the warehouse, your partner covering the other door. Common sense tells you to set up a crossfire with your partner and dispatch the criminals quickly and efficiently, but you decide that the easy way isn't for you. Instead, you'll head over to your partner, and try and shoot at an engine block hanging above the criminals from a chain, all the while being shot at by your enemies, hoping that by good aim and careful timing you'll be able to take out at least one of your enemies. Does this seem rational?

Welcome to the world of achievements.

When I first got my 360, and the first achievement popped up, I didn't know it, but it was the start of a long training process. I foolishly thought that Microsoft would allow me to redeem these points for DLC, as a reward for being a good gamer, or spending lots of money with them. But we all know that you don't make money by giving things away, and Microsoft are good at making money.

So what are gamerpoints useful for?

At first glance, they might appear to show you how good a gamer you are, the more achievements you have, the better the player. It’s only when you look at the games that make up this score that you realise that it’s just like any other statistic. It can be manipulated to show whatever you want it to.

Avatar, The Last Airbender put paid to the fact that achievements had to be earned. Mashing a button 50 times whilst stood next to a wall is something that a trained monkey could do. Finishing Lost Planet: Extreme Condition Colonies to get the full 1000GS is something that even the most ardent gamer should baulk at. For one, it took me about 13 hours of gameplay to complete missions on Normal for a measly 10 points.

So why do we do it. Is it showing off who has the largest score? Or the most difficult achievement?

This was a masterstroke by Microsoft in retaining customers. You give someone a reward for doing something and it gives them a sense of accomplishment. By adding a distinctive sound, and a consistent animation, you have effectively created your own Skinner box in which to perform a psychology experiment. Unlike the lab rat, you can leave at any time, and you have to pay for the privilege. By triggering achievements at points in games where there is a stress response, the senses are heightened, and it doesn't take long to associate that sound and graphic with fulfilling a task. Linking this with an online identity, giving it a face, charging money or points to customise the appearance, and linking the gamerscore to it all encourage a sense of attachment to the score, and encourage loyalty to the platform.

It was telling that Sony added their own version of this, Trophies with the PS3 firmware 2.40.

Some achievements come easily, Eat Lead: Return of Matt Hazard where you get an achievement for starting your first game. Whilst these all add to the score, they don't particularly give satisfaction. Others require 100s of hours of gameplay, both online and offline, requiring considerable effort and time to complete. Other achievements are fiendishly difficult in the amount of skill and to some degree luck needed to achieve them. “If they came to hear me beg” in Halo:Reach can take multiple attempts in its easiest incarnation.

Are these worth the same despite having similar numeric scores. Studies of instrumental conditioning in psychology suggests otherwise. Humans and animals demonstrate an effort justification effect, in which a reward is enjoyed more when it has been accomplished through hard work, than through more simple means. In gaming terms, the 100GS for button mashing in Avatar is worth much less in both esteem and effort than the 10GS for Don't Get Cocky, Kid in Dead Space. We like to work for our achievements, and to increase our gamerscore.

For some, the collection of achievements is the goal. The esteem built up by having scores in the 5 and even 6 figures and the time and effort invested means that they will even play games that don't traditionally appeal. Having played the free Doritos promotional game, Dash of Destruction, I can hold my hand up and say that I only did it for the achievement points, and a completion (another phenomenon that seems to have grown since the introduction of achievements). You might have completed the story, but a game is not done until you've got 1000/1000 (excluding any DLC). As well as the aforementioned Avatar, early editions of the NBA games series, My Horse and me, King Kong have all been denigrated for their ease of completing the achievements. Under the weighting system on True Achievements , these points are pretty much face value. There are also 0 point achievements, that add nothing to the score, but are considered for the completeness of a game. So far, there are no achievements that allow deduction from your gamerscore. Instrumental conditioning also has shown that with repetition performing an action and receiving a reward changes why the action is performed. It is no longer done with complete knowledge of the reward - but instead, the behavior has become habitual, and the agent can be thought of as an automaton.

The rules of gaming have changed. Goodhart's Law states by measuring something, you change it. Now achievements are here, you measure how well the player plays, how much the player plays and how much the player spends.

The game is no longer just about the game you are playing.

With thanks to Dr Mark Haselgrove.

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