Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Addicted to Achievements

This is Part One of a four-part series of posts on the ways Achievements have changed modern gaming. Click here for parts two, three, and four.

Maybe this is a moment exclusive to me. I kind of doubt it.

I'm playing a game. The game, since it was published in the last 8 years, has Achievements. I look at the Achievement list, because I want to know what I'm playing toward (this is a game without plot or ending, so the Achievements provide the only available game structure to let me know when I'm 'done'). I see one of the Achievements, and I blanch - it's going to take forever to get, and the time I spend getting it will be stressful. I play the game for about an hour, getting Achievements as I go. Because they're there, because they're integrated into the experience, the Achievements stand as my milestones for when I've played a mode enough, for knowing when it's time for me to stop because the game is 'completed.'

Except for that last Achievement. And three hours later, when I'm bleary-eyed, physically uncomfortable, and pissed off at myself, I finally get it, and I never have to play the game, this game I really enjoyed, again. I've done all the Achievements. I'm done.

There's no doubt that the Achievement system caused me to play the game for longer, which is something we generally see as a metric of success - the longer you play, the more you like it, right? Without them, I would have played the game for half an hour, maybe an hour, racked up a high score, and then moved on. Instead, the Achievements triggered my need for completion, my need to see things 'finished,' and I got trapped by my own compulsive brain. But it's left me feeling tired, stupid, and used.

Achievements are a relatively new tool for game developers. They give designers indirect control over player behavior by taking advantage of the natural gamer desire for reward and completion. But there's a danger, here - because I doubt most game designers take into account the amount of control they have over their players - especially when they're writing out a set of achievements that are an annoying mandatory requirement for the game they've slaved over for two years to get certified.

We tell ourselves we play games to have fun, or to experience a great story. But the truth is, at least half my play-time comes from a desire to 'do something,' even if the thing I'm doing is inherently pointless. I'm playing to feel like I accomplished something. And Achievements make that sense of accomplishment way, way easier to codify. Those feelings keep me playing longer, and at those times when an Achievement becomes an obsession, my desire for 'fun' falls away and the hardwired desire to engage my brain's reward loop takes over. Fun becomes a side effect of play, not the actual goal, which is that sweet rush of Dopamine I get when the XBox goes beep-boop. I'm Pavlov's gamer, drooling at the sound of the bell.

Achievements might be the crack to the standard reward loop of playing games' cocaine. They're cheaper, easier, and stronger than forging your own sense of reward and accomplishment from the game - we've been making our own achievements for years, after all; get the high score, beat one more boss, pull off this awesome trick - but now they're being served to us on a silver platter, the fast food of rewards, and I know that at least in my case it's changed the way I play.

I'm not saying Achievements are inherently bad. Some designers use them in interesting, creative ways - as tutorials, as hilarious secrets, as ways to compare progress with your friends. But designers use them recklessly, without thinking through the negative effects they're having on players. And we're ignoring the effects, too, as we chase the next rush of emotion. I'm not saying get rid of Achievements - I'm just saying that I, at least, need to be more conscious of the effect they have on me, and disconnect from the rush of reward when it gets pathological.

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