The Paradox of Achievements

Article written by:
John Oliver Go
Author: John Oliver GoWebsite:
Oliver has a love-hate romance with video games. So much so that all he writes are loving hate letters about his games - or hateful love letters depending on his mood. But he has a love-love relationship with his cats.


Courage, according to a popular adage, is not the absence of fear but acting in spite of fear. In video games, the opposite is true. Gamers obviously do not show fear in taking on video game challenges. This is not because they are courageous or cowardly in real life, but because of how video games are designed from the onset. As an activity, video games are necessarily created with challenge in mind - but also with accessibility. In creating a middle ground between the two, we stood for one of the essential aspects of video games: extra lives. The collateral damage that arises from this decision is the absence of fear, and as such the absence of courage. But we take on the challenge anyway. Why is that?

With this trope of unlimited lives and infinite retries, the fear of failing in a video game is duly eliminated and, if the reward system is satisfying, successfully creates a carrot-and-stick approach in playing a game towards completion. It is challenging because you could die, but it is satisfying because you could still succeed even in death. And far and away, video gamers accomplish so much because of this, more so than what other people accomplish elsewhere. Ironically, they accomplish this even without the necessary values that is required to succeed in real life. Challenge, in video games, is bliss.

Games task you with completing goals and reward you with more story, leveling up, or additional game features - duly tested to be satisfying rewards at the end of the tunnel. And these are goals that are, similar to real life, granted with exceptional determination. However, it is not perseverance that gets us through video game challenges. Perhaps it is addiction. Would you not agree that a video gamer is thinking of something else in accomplishing goals in a virtual world as opposed to something in the real world? Why is the gamer so enthusiastic about getting stronger statistics for his character in Kingdoms of Amalur but less so in getting higher university grades or work performance ratings?

But I digress, perhaps this is stereotyping. But perhaps video games are doing things better than other more pervasive aspects of society. Well, you can't fault a gamer if he could save entire worlds inside his room but can't even get the local government units to act inside his hometown.

Jane McGonigal, the brilliant online game designer whose TED Talk appears above, postulated that video games could definitely change the world if its best aspects are harnessed properly in modern day society. Her ideas are staggering, given that players escape reality because they can be so much more in virtual worlds. In integrating the virtual world mindset of being a better avatar and applying it to the real world, Ms. McGonigal created, for example, a most apt browser-based game World Without Oil in which gamers postulated on a near post-apocalyptic future by creating imagined blogs, videos, and images chronicling what would happen if we usurp all of our natural energy resources today. Gamers were rewarded with daily awards for posting the best content and, more importantly, with their ideas networked into the broader whole for other gamers to share. And its content was nothing but user-created material that created a vast landscape of activity that ended with a literal alternate reality. Think tanks be damned, this is the real deal. Your move, Littlebigplanet. Your move, Minecraft.

But still, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves here. I hate to play devil's advocate to such a masterful idea on how to best utilize the video game culture in helping create a better world, but the video game mindset, itself, is a paradox that would as much have gamers shoot for the stars and their own feet at the same time. Here arises the irony of in-game achievements and why video game values would and should not translate in the real world.

Upon the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005, one of its crowning innovations is the Achievements System. All of the games developed for the Xbox 360, from traditional boxed games to arcade games to HD remakes had to adhere to a single encompassing Achievements System that rewards gamers with points depending on their progress at each specific game. For instance, each boxed game could reward you with a maximum of 1,000 to 2,000 "Gamerpoints" (depending on expansions, downloadable content, etc.) depending on how much you "finished" that particular game. And all of these points add up to your total Achievements earned for nothing but arbitrary bragging rights.

You could earn an Easy 500 Gamerpoints just by playing the campaign

I, myself, have around 12,000 Gamerpoints across several games since I bought my Xbox 360 last 2009. I was apparently late to the party, as most of the people I meet online have anywhere between 30,000 to 40,000 Gamerpoints on average. As the number is merely arbitrary, the effect should have been arbitrary as well. But the strange observation is that the Achievements System is one of the most addictive systems ever devised in the industry. As for each in-game mission you accomplish, you get awarded 20 Points and a very celebratory meta-game notification regardless of what you're playing. The same notification is shoved into your TV screen each time you reach a certain Level in a role-playing game, or each time you defeat a boss, or when you reach a certain high score. These all add up to your total Gamerpoint number available in public via the online Xbox Community and even in Facebook.  And you can even compare Gamerpoints on an individual basis, specifically pointing out which Achievements you have or haven't earned respective of your friends or even the random players you meet online.

It was addicting simply because you could never have enough and each new game promises a potential 1,000 Gamerpoints added to your name, and continually shapes who you are and how good you are at playing. It constitutes an online identity per se, and it provides plenty of incentives to gaming rather than just killing people just for fun. It was a system that actively rewards you for playing continuously, and it was something that gamers gobbled up so much that Sony released its own Trophy System in 2008; and everything from exclusive PC games to mobile games joined the bandwagon and had some sort of internal Achievement system as well. Immediate gratification for doing the most mundane of tasks in the game world seems too good to be true, and you just can't have that elsewhere but in the virtual world. It was pervasive, it was intrusive, it did everything to make its presence known, and it made games as an activity more substantial and rewarding than real life.

It means something if it became a meme.

And most games don't even stop at the Microsoft Achievement System. Top shooters like Gears of War even has its own Medal System and Experience System on top of the Achievement System. The more medals you earn, the more experience you get (on top of experience points for each kill, assist, revive, etc. you do in-game). And the more experience you get, the more characters you unlock. Splinter Cell has its own Challenge System that rewards you with in-game currency to purchase better guns, upgrades, and uniforms. And once you completed a certain number of Challenges, the overarching Achievement System kicks in to provide even more Gamerpoints to cap off your new guns and upgrades. These systems all feed into a satisfying, celebratory reward shower that never stops giving.

On top of the game's Achievement List, there's a Challenge List to complete for more currency to purchase upgrades.

Simply put, games are designed with an encompassing carrot-and-stick approach to make you undertake its challenges. It had a very short stick in fact, and an inexhaustible supply of carrots. This concept is most interesting, especially since games such as World of Warcraft have been said to enrich gamers by forming them with "the habit of heroes". Do we really now? It almost seems as if traditional virtues such as courage and perseverance, being adventurous and spontaneous, have all been replaced by this Pavlovian concept of risk-reward, instead of being masked by them. "The habit of heroes" in this regard is staying in the same seat for hours and even days on end just to pretend to be a hero, but it does not have a significant linkage to how these gamers would act in the real world. Do you honestly think that they could be more heroic in the real world?

In games like Ninja Gaiden and Dark Souls, it could perhaps be argued that they truly teach you the virtue of perseverance by being so goddamned difficult, but here I would like to quote one of my favorite reviews from Edge Magazine:

"To applaud Ninja Gaiden for being hard is to miss the point – not least because there are portions of the game that aren’t. The point is that while it could be argued that no game has the right to demand of you what Gaiden does, few other games offer such exceptional riches in return."

Ninja Gaiden was a beautiful game, one that sweats you up and fills you with the euphoric satisfaction you could not find elsewhere - as if you've truly achieved something difficult and surpassed the impossible. But to what end? A game ends, and that is all we could veritably expect of it. Are you a better person because of it? Could we be better persons because of it? Perhaps we are back to the drawing board with games such as these, as they just make the stick longer and, in turn, provide better tasting carrots. It merely entails gamers to be obsessed and addicted to the game in question. Does it teach perseverance? That is up in the air for now; but from my experience, the perseverance learned from video games never leaves the realm of video games.

Very Difficult. Very Rewarding. Very Awesome. But what does it really teach you as a person?

On the other hand though, the Achievement System is one that tremendously helped a game like World Without Oil, that the game designers actively rewarded the gamers with daily awards for best blog posts, best images, and best video recordings. It perhaps enabled better content and more meaningful ideas from the community, and it is one that changed the way these gamers looked at the world. Many testimonies from the players are actually pragmatically positive, in that they would conserve gas and recycle more often. And this is attributable to the fact that they were enthusiastic in creating, sharing, and experiencing the content. From here, we do not know if the reason is because of the achievement system, or because of the change in their character.

It is a paradox, in fact, that the most opportunistic aspect of video games is also its downright most disappointing. How can achievements work so well in creating better values, but also reinforce the worst behavior associated with gamers in general? By utilizing these reward systems properly and exceptionally, we could achieve both. So maybe it is the game designer mindset that has to be put in question, given that we have already made the most addictive games possible, despite the enormity or variety of challenge.

Perhaps we could change the world with video games and the groundbreaking innovation that is the Achievement system. If this system means that gamers could do anything that a virtual world asks of them despite difficulty, then maybe we could cultivate the same sense of activity elsewhere if we could translate that into the real world. The possibilities are endless, but we have to make sure that we do it for the right reasons, and let the Achievement system merely mask our ideals and not replace them. Lest we would succumb to the video game trapping of merely doing it for the reward and not because we do it for the values learnt.

Lest we turn out into something like this.


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