Achievements in gaming; what are they really worth?

I have written about achievements before, specifically in regard to the Xbox achievement system and how that impacted gaming culture. In summary, after Microsoft introduced the concept as a universal part of their platform beginning with the Xbox 360 launch, most of the industry latched onto the concept and came up with their own equivalents. I don’t think Nintendo has ever quite embraced it fully from my current understanding, but certainly Steam and Sony’s PlayStation platform took the idea and ran with it.

From the time I started playing Xbox 360 games in 2006, I became enamored with the idea of the achievement system. Now, accomplishing milestones in games was something attached to your profile, like your own personal digital trophy room. Other players could see that I completed Gears of War on Insane or that I indeed saved all of the sensor relays in a particularly daunting mission in Star Trek: Legacy. It quickly became a point of pride, as well as adding incentive to try games on harder difficulties and perhaps sample different modes or playstyles that otherwise I might not have considered. That was the ideal goal of the system, I believe, and I recall reading some press from Microsoft or perhaps a developer at the time that reinforced this perspective. There were problems to be sure, and there were a number of games, especially the early sports titles on 360, that were easy to cheese out of their maximum (at the time) value of one thousand gamerscore. Gamers with high scores tended to be respected by default, unless it turned out that their gamercard was padded with silly, easy completions. Still, cheesy or not, a legitimate itch was being scratched, and Microsoft had tapped into a new kind of metagame, or games within a larger game, if you prefer.

Fast forward to 2022. Two console generations later, and achievements are here to stay. I definitely appreciate that the gamercard I created back in 2006 has endured until now, albeit with a name change or two on the way. I like that what I accomplished on the digital frontier over a decade ago is still on display for others, and hasn’t been completely lost to time like many of the feats I accomplished in the 1990s. In the last few years especially, I’ve gone through phases of increased isolation. Obviously in 2020 most of us had such a thing forced on us, but occasionally it is something I’ve done voluntarily, as an introverted need to recuperate and recharge from dealing with the insane world of commercial, extraverted overload that is modern America. Like a good book, an immersive song, or a compelling movie, video games are an art form, a form of storytelling, and a powerful source of escapism. Of course, as is the case with anything in life, too much of something is never for your best interest.

Even without taking into account how the Xbox achievement system has gone a bit off the rails—the rules limiting how much gamerscore a title can be worth are gone, indie shovelware games that used to be worth 0 or at most 200 gamerscore now can get you 1000 or more with no effort, and emphasis has shifted away from rewarding skill and thoroughness to instead becoming a testament to how much money and time you can dedicate to the platform—there is an inherent danger in becoming wrapped up in the metagame. Especially if you’re a stats nerd, it can be easy to be enraptured by numbers of completions, how many tough and rare achievements you can attain, your completion percentage, and even avoiding games altogether that have unobtainable or glitched achievements, even if that game might be quite good regardless. It might be akin to, let’s say in sportsball, you becoming so obsessed with the minutiae of stats and trying to min/max everything like a Dungeons & Dragons munchkin, that you lose sight of why you enjoy the game itself in the first place, or its purpose in your life and our culture. Imagine achieving the ostensibly highest honors in American sportsball, say, winning the Stupor Bowl, I mean, er, Super Bowl, and being honored as league MVP that year, yet being unable to enjoy the accomplishment because the metagame tells you that you already need to prepare for next season and that what you already did will never be good enough.

Now, I’m not going to say that we should ever completely rest on any given laurels. As flawed and limited creatures, we should generally always be trying to improve ourselves and our world, and having dreams and big goals is laudable. It’s how we can flip things from impossible to possible. However we are easily distracted from the journey by becoming fixated on the destination. At least in America, I think this is an extension of heavy judeo-christian influence on Western life, the obsession with the reward of an afterlife that blinds us to the immediate world. It’s not merely religious either, I believe it’s also a capitalist influence, a fixation on a nebulous marker of “success,” that everything hinges upon becoming rich, famous, popular, or somehow noteworthy enough to mention in a history book. We forget how important the journey is, especially when you stop and realize that there never really is a destination at all. Perhaps you can argue that death is a destination, however no one can agree on whether death is final and there is yet to be any tangible proof of anything that may lay beyond it, so that is all conjecture. Regardless, do we ever really reach a true destination? If you get rich, then what? You still have a life to live after that. Say you get famous at age thirty. Well, your life is likely not even half lived by then.

What does that digression have to do with silly Xbox achievements? Simple, really. In my latest big push to complete a bunch of games, some of which I plan to sell because I only see myself completing them once, I had to stop and realize that I’d lost sight of what I really enjoy about gaming. The obsession, indeed, even the potentially addictive allure of buffing my stats blinded me from realizing that it is not possible to achieve the arbitrary and literally impossible goal of one hundred percent completion and best possible ratio of rare to common achievements. I could start a new profile and purposely try to keep things as clean and statistically perfect as possible, but I know I’d feel sick from that and be cheapening my own experience. What would that actually accomplish and for whom? I’d be competing against people far deeper into addiction, who have plenty of cash and time to burn and will buy their ways to the tops of any leaderboards I could aspire to. So no, I forced myself to take a step back and appreciate my journey more than some arbitrary destination. My completion percentage may only be hovering near seventy-two percent as of this writing, but I look back on my list of games with fond memories, and appreciate that at least in some small way, the times I shared with friends and the things I discovered about myself through the stories and characters I experienced in these games, is reflected on my gamercard. I wouldn’t trade that for a “perfect” gamercard. There may sadly come a day where that digital time capsule is no longer there to see, but I will appreciate it while it exists and be grateful it has endured as long as it has.

I have friends, two good ones in particular, who I met through achievement hunting, which is definitely something I feel worth adding to the pro column. Even though we all live geographically distant from one another, there is definitely a certain camaraderie that has developed between us all, especially as we reminisce about our gaming journeys over a nice Halo 3 match or while going for some obscure accolade in a largely dead and forgotten 360 game. There is, turns out, sometimes as much satisfaction in helping someone else achieve their own personal goal as it is to hit your own, and if that isn’t a nice lesson to take and apply to “real” life, I don’t know what is.


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