I used to be one of those people who cared about achievements and trophies, in the capital letter, official video game feature sense, back in the first few years I owned an Xbox 360 and later a PS3. Today I treat them more as a vague curiosity, or just a marker of my, ahem, achievements in the games I play. But I don’t worry myself over them, and I don’t go out of my way to earn them, because I’ve recognized them for what they are: just another way to convince you that you need to make the numbers go up. They’re another way to control the player, to goad him or her into playing a game longer, and usually for no actually good reason. It’s just more stuff.
On Xbox, achievements began as a simple measure to display what you’ve accomplished in games. Each retail game came with 1000 possible achievements points spread across as many as 50 individual achievements of varying values that you’d unlock for completing a chapter in a story campaign or killing your opponents in a specific manner X number of times or whatever. These were fairly innocuous in the beginning—in Prey, an early Xbox 360 game, you would earn the majority of its 1000 points just by playing through the story without doing anything particularly odd, and in Call of Duty 2, an Xbox 360 launch title, there were no multiplayer achievements at all, only story mode ones.
Into this world emerged a number of players who would play just to earn all 1,000 achievement points each game offered; that quest became a game in itself. There are now major sites dedicated to helping these players do this as efficiently as possible via “achievement guides,” because the demand for that sort of service is significant. If a game has achievements, there is an achievement guide for it somewhere on the internet.
When Sony added its own version of achievements, trophies, to the PlayStation 3 in 2009, they capitalized on those players’s drive by adding a separate trophy—the “platinum” trophy—that you would earn by earning all the other trophies in the game. Sony’s structure for trophies is certainly more creative than Microsoft's—earning trophies feeds into your “PlayStation Network level,” with the higher tiers providing more progress.
People who casually extol the virtues of achievements and trophies—but who are not necessarily obsessive about going after them—will say things like, “They encourage you to play a game in a different way,” and that’s occasionally true. Achievements that are related to game difficulty would sometimes give me cause to try out those harder modes. I certainly would not have ever played a Call of Duty or Uncharted game on their toughest difficulty levels had achievements not incentivized doing so, and difficulty-related achievements have always been easy for me to ignore if I just don’t feel like experiencing that struggle or if I’m not good enough at a game to take on that task.
But even if you look at achievements with a sort of “well, I might as well go for this while I’m playing” outlook, they take on the properties of an odd meta-game that can be very distracting. In Uncharted games, for example, they have recurring franchise staple trophies like “kill X number of enemies with [a certain weapon].” You could say, as my hypothetical person above would, that these trophies are incentives to make use of your full arsenal of guns. But the purpose of having many guns, in a game that does not allow you to carry them all at once, is to provide you with choice. Chances are, most people don’t enjoy shooting bad guys with every gun that you can use in any game, and you have many gun options in order to facilitate the play style you prefer.
I’m not much into playing a sniper most of the time, and in a vacuum without achievements and trophies not using a sniper rifle is a perfectly valid option. But those achievements and trophies ares not just incentive to mess around with the sniper rifle—they’re also pressure to do so. There are probably some folks out there who discovered they really loved sniping because of that trophy, I guess. There are others, like me, who had a less enjoyable time with Uncharted because they went after that trophy. There is admittedly a weird sensation of accomplishment from earning trophies like that one, but most of that for me is relief that I don’t have to care about it it anymore.
A very common method of engagement in games, particularly since the open world boom of the past decade, is checklists of tasks to carry out around the game world. Whether it’s the ridiculously long list of quests you’ll obtain in Dragon Age: Inquisition or the bevy of collectibles horseshit you’ll find in just about any game, game developers these days seem to believe that the basic way a game plays and an accompanying story that you’ll go through is not enough to keep players’ attention for hours and hours. So we get all these other checklists to deal with. On top of those you have achievements that “incentivize” you going through those checklists (checklists of checklists). The result is overwhelming, and all of that together changes the game from being a fun activity or an art experience into work.
That is essentially what achievements have become. Maybe you never cared about finding all the templar flags in Assassin’s Creed but when achievements enter the mix you suddenly feel compelled to at least try to look for them. Given that achievements are just a meta-mechanic rather than a meaningful extension of the supposed piece of art that is a video game, they don’t actually add to that experience beyond giving you an awkward nagging push to do things you wouldn’t do if you were just trying to enjoy yourself.
Earlier this year I revisited the PS Vita game Danganronpa and I realized it wouldn’t be a huge strain to try for the platinum in that game. I mostly thought of it as an academic exercise but part of me did just want that platinum because the achievement infrastructure has done its work on me for years and years.
And no, it wasn’t a huge strain. It was a waste of time, though—several hours of busywork that didn’t enhance my enjoyment of the game. Chasing that platinum wasn’t fun; it was a compulsion. I could have done literally anything else with those handful of hours, but instead I threw them away.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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