The Ballad of the Achievement

Hi, my name is Doug, and I have a small…gamerscore.

Let me explain. As many of you reading this probably know, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Live service track “achievements” earned in games – milestones that the developers set, everything from “press start” to “you just beat the game!” with uncountable permutations in between.

When first announced, some people scoffed; others thought it a novelty. But now, it’s just another way to show off your swagger online. After initially passing on launching a similar feature, PlayStation 3 users now have “trophies” – and many Valve games now have achievements, too (see The Orange Box). Like how forum post counts were once obsessed over, or friends on MySpace or Facebook accumulated in some sort of Cold War-esque arms race, your gamerscore is, in certain circles, an indicator of your worth.

If it were a true indicator, then I wouldn’t be worth too much. While my own score – 8,215 as of right now – seems decent enough, in comparison with site editors Aaron Thayer and Nick Cummings, it’s piddling. Aaron’s score is over 20,000, and Nick’s is a staggering 28,972 right now – more than three times my score.

Considering each game can typically award up to 1,000 points, my return of just 8,000+ from 42 games is quite low. Aaron has more than double the score from just a few more games.

We all game – a lot. We all are probably equally “hardcore.” We are all good at games. The difference is, without passing judgment on my friends’ gaming styles, I don’t actively seek out the achievements or let them guide all of my gaming experiences.

With single-player, story-driven titles, it’s one issue – following along the path laid out by the narrative, a player will likely scoop many of the points on a play-through or two. I don’t fare too badly in those kinds of games. However, playing lots of open-ended sports and racing games, where the points are awarded a bit more arbitrarily, one has to go hunting for the achievements – they aren’t awarded for passing points along a linear storyline, but instead are goals to be reached or events to be triggered.

Getting from Chapter 2 of a game to Chapter 3 and collecting another achievement is different from, say, trying to pull off one of the more miraculous NCAA Football 09 achievements: Returning a missed field goal for a touchdown.

I bet you didn’t even know you could do that. But it’s possible, both in real football and the game. And it’s demonstrably hard to do in “regular” play – so unlocking the achievement becomes a meta-game, perhaps something to do when messing around with friends in an online game.

I play too much NCAA 09 – another post for another time – with probably over 100 hours sunk into it by now since the game’s July launch. But I don’t have all the achievements.

And I’m fine with that. Is it slightly embarrassing that friends (including one who derided achievements but is now addicted to collecting more and more) who purchased 360s months or years after me have zoomed past my points haul? Sure. Are there points I could go get easily right now? Of course; if I beat one more song in Rock Band, I’d unlock 150 points instantly.

But I play games to my own set mood, and only rarely feel like going out to jump through hoops. It feels disingenuous to go and mine for achievements, yet it also kind of sucks to have a lower score than everyone else. It’s a feeling that goes right back to being the puny kid on the schoolyard, metaphorically speaking.

This particular rock and hard place is not unlike setting high scores in older (and also current) games, but is unique in shaping goals and how people actually play games. Former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor-in-chief Dan Hsu is notoriously an “achievement whore”; playing crappy games for the low-hanging achievement fruit is an understatement of what he and others do. And it’s not to deride that, but just acknowledge that there are gamers who hunt for achievements.

That Valve included achievements in the popular Team Fortress 2 from the start, and added in unlockable items attached to achievements later, is a nod to how gamers now view achievements (including satire). However, almost immediately after unlockable weapons were added in on the PC version, dedicated groups constructed custom levels that were designed solely to ferry players through achievement requirements. It shows the lengths that people will go to in order to unlock achievements.

I don’t play that game. Or, I guess, I don’t play games that way. While I may have a relatively small gamerscore, I’ll rest easily knowing I earned it in my own way.