Debate Club: How Do We Feel About Achievements?

Steve’s stance: Achievements are pretty cool

Over the years I’ve changed my stance on achievements several times. At first I was really indifferent on the subject.  Later I grew to dislike the idea.  Finally, after several years of wrapping my head around what exactly achievements really are, I’ve decided that I’m a fan.

They are a measuring stick.

I was a little bit too old to enjoy the genesis of achievements while I was in high school but if I had been, I can definitely see that as being something I would have loved.  Chris and I spent a large part of high school playing video games, either together or apart.  When we we’re playing games apart we’d constantly be talking to one another about what we had been playing, what we’d accomplished, etc…  It was kind of impossible to prove that you had accomplished certain feats though.  Sure, you could say that you scored a bazillion-million points on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, but how would anyone actually know?  Ok so stuff like scores are typically stored with your save file but you get the idea.  Achievements would have given people like Chris and I a chance to compete, encourage, and congratulate each other on doing really cool stuff in games.  I’ll certainly concede that overall achievement score is largely stupid – especially since platforms like Xbox have a plethora of titles with an absurd amount of easy achievements – but earning specific achievements can be really rewarding.  And the fact that others can see what you’ve done makes striving for that really tough one even sweeter.

They add replay value.

As gamers, we all have those few titles that fire on all cylinders for us.  In recent memory, Skyrim was a game that I simply could not put down.  Once I had done the vast majority of the quests and gotten my character (shout out to Kevin the wood elf) up to an absurdly high level, I started to look through the various achievements available for the game.  Going back and striving to do some of them breathed new life into the game for me.  It helped me discover a few areas and quest lines I hadn’t found before, get some new gear, and generally have even more fun with a game that I thought I had squeezed every last ounce of fun out of already.

Sometimes they add more than replay value.

This bear has night vision goggles. #dealwithit

Blizzard’s Battle.Net achievements actually award interesting in-game items.  In this way, achievements give you even more incentive to complete them.  Blizzard is careful about what they give you for these achievements; they’re never items that will enhance your combat abilities, only vanity or status type items.  Even so, if you’re a hardcore WoW player, you’ll be able to spot someone who’s earned a really cool or difficult achievement.  I can think of an example of this that’s worth sharing here.  Whenever the game introduces a new raid dungeon it comes with it’s own set of achievements.  Complete them all and you typically get a really cool mount.  Now when you ride around town everyone can see a physical manifestation of just how awesome you are.  I remember standing in awe of the people who would cruise around town on those mounts like two weeks after the raid had come out.  I’d wonder how these people could accomplish all that so quickly.  The point here is that achievements can add even more than just a number or a little trophy icon.  They can be a great way to show your pride in what you’ve taken the time to accomplish.

They don’t hurt anyone.

Maybe this isn’t a good reason to argue for achievements but honestly, they don’t really make a difference either way.  I’ve never played a game that forced me to complete an achievement in order to progress the game’s story, get an item that I wanted, etc…  If you don’t like achievements, then don’t do them.  To be honest, that’s my approach with most games until I decide if I really like them or not.  To me, achievements are something I take the time to do only with the games I really love.  Until a game has proven itself to me, I’m not worried about whether or not I get every achievement it has.  But guess what, some people like to play that way.  Some people will rent games simply to get all of the achievements and up their overall achievement score.  That’s fine too.  The best part about achievements is that they’re yours to engage with in any number of ways.  Or don’t engage with them at all.  Enjoy a game in whatever way you choose.


Chris’ stance: Achievements lead to more problems than advantages

Before I dig into responding to Steve’s argument, I’d like to share a personal story.

When I was playing through Half-Life 2 for the first time (Xbox 360 version), I got to a section where I had to hop onto an airboat and flee a heavily-armed helicopter that was coming after me. What was designed to be a tense and harrowing escape that would’ve had me careening down narrow flooded corridors with the helicopter’s chain gun spraying bullets all around me turned into a slow, methodical cruise down the river, intentionally turning down dead end paths, and frequently parking and then hopping out of the safety of my airboat in order to poke around in every alcove I saw. Why did I do this? Because I wanted the achievement for finding all of the game’s lambda caches. It completely ruined that sequence for me, and it still disappoints me to this day that a thrilling section of my sole playthrough of one of the greatest games ever made was spoiled because of some trivial task I felt compelled to accomplish.

I know what you’re going to say, and it’s the same thing Steve said: You don’t have to get achievements. That is certainly true–nothing is forcing me to get achievements or trophies or whatever else. The problem is, they have become so prevalent in video games and so integrated into the gaming experience that they are nearly impossible to ignore. Yes, they certainly are a measuring stick–a measuring stick for how many achievements I still don’t have. Both Xbox and PlayStation–I can’t speak for Steam or other PC-based reward systems as I’m not familiar with them–make sure they inform you just how many achievements and trophies you could have from your current library of games.

One of the biggest arguments for achievements is that people should have a right to play games however they want, and if they want to get achievements, they should be entitled to do that. Well, on the same token, I should also be allowed to play games however I want, and my particular style of playing games–having many games I only dabble in, not playing more than an hour or two of a game that doesn’t hook me, not searching every nook and cranny of the games I play, not playing through games multiple times, not playing through games on higher difficulties than the default, not playing the online multiplayer–is often ill-suited for achievement getting.

So I have a relatively small number of achievements in proportion to how many games I play, how much I play, how into games I am, how relatively skilled at games I am, and so on. I find this to be frustrating. Yes, I could just ignore them…but I’m human. It’s irritating to be given all these statistics that tell me I’m not “doing enough” in the games I play. We’re supposedly entitled to play games however we want, yet when Joe Achievement plays games how he wants, he’s rewarded with trophies and a really high Gamerscore. When I play games how I want, I’m basically ridiculed by my game consoles. Doesn’t exactly seem fair to me.

Another issue I have with achievements is the way they can ruin your immersion in a game. Look, I’m not one of those guys that wants to be so immersed in a game that I “forget I’m playing a game” or that someone walking by won’t be able to tell it apart from a movie. My favorite “realistic” game franchise of all time, Metal Gear Solid, is built around the conceit that when an enemy spots you, a giant, visible exclamation point appears above his head. And I am totally fine with that complete demolishing of the game’s fourth wall. However, when I do get to a really powerful/emotional/shocking/sad/etc moment in a game, a moment that I am trying to lose myself in a little bit, it can definitely ruin the experience to hear that achievement tone and have a little pop up appear on the screen informing me that I just unlocked the achievement for getting to the point in the story where my partner dies in my arms…as my partner is dying in my arms. Kind of kills the emotional impact of the moment.

The other thing that ends up happening a lot is that you aren’t entirely sure whether or not you’ve actually finished the game yet–maybe you’re playing one of those games where there’s a lot of psyche outs towards the end where you think it’s over and then OH MY GOD THAT JUST HAPPENED AND IT’S TOTALLY NOT THE END YET! Well, what makes those types of experiences so satisfying is the way the game itself finally communicates to you that the true end just happened, and you breathe that sigh of relief as you enjoy the pre-credits finale sequence(s). But these days, what usually ends up being the actual way that we know a game is over? When that achievement pops up for completing the game, sometimes literally with the words “Achievement Unlocked: Complete the Game.” Nine times out of ten, once you’ve gotten that, you can feel confident in putting down the controller and watching the end movie, which completely robs us of the mystery and excitement that used to accompany the endings of games in that way.

Anybody reading this who is very firmly rooted in the pro-achievements camp is thinking right now exactly what Steve said to cap his article: achievements aren’t hurting anyone. What’s the real harm in them being there? You either do them or you don’t, no big deal. However, there is one key way where the race for achievements can “hurt people,” and that is in multiplayer gaming. In peoples’ relentless pursuit to get that specific achievement they’re interested in, they often will play online multiplayer games in completely broken and unsportsmanlike ways, ways that essentially make it impossible for everyone else in the game with them to enjoy the match, because they aren’t holding up their end of the bargain and playing the game the “right” way. Why should anyone have to sacrifice a chunk of their gaming time because some other gamer decided that his or her quest to get an achievement was worth ruining someone else’s experience? Granted, blaming achievements for people acting like douchebags in online games is a little unfair to achievements, but they’re still a factor.

Finally, what better way to end this discussion than with these five little words…

Achievement unlocked: Win this debate.