I find achievements a compelling topic in game studies. By achievements I refer to the fairly ubiquitous concept of player profiles that transcend the particular game, bound to the platform or service (ie. Microsoft XBox 360, Sony Playstation 3 and Valve's Steam all maintain separate systems), which exist as virtual trophy rooms to record the player's travails across many different games. This concept probably goes without explanation, but I tend to use the word achievements, and that's not to exclude the 'Trophies' found on PS3, for example, or other similar systems.
I first started to really mull the topic over last year after the now (in)famous talk Jesse Schell gave at DICE. For a post-mortem of that furore, head over to Critical Distance. He made a provocative speech that raised a lot of hackles, mine included. I'm not going to engage directly with that particular speech here, I'm not really focused on the 'gamification' (what a terrifying bit of corporate jargon that is) of non-game activities here. I'm more interested in the effect achievements have had on videogames themselves, why they have come to be, where I think they are useful and where I think they are a shameful crutch.
A critic's reaction to achievements (and to Schell's talk) I think, tells us a lot about their conception of games in general. Hopefully this piece is a bit of a window onto my view on videogames, as games and as texts and as experiences in the same way.
First, to hazard a definition of achievements, as they are used or practiced in games today: An achievement is a marker of skill or progress through a particular game that cumulatively measure the prowess of the gamer. Achievements are attached to particular events or actions within a videogame, and on completing the task defined by the achievement, the player is awarded the new status. Microsoft even assign a point value to each one, so they can literally add up to a single number representing the player's over all Gamer Score.
The first and highest order change this effects is the transformation of the act or practice of playing videogames into a game in itself. This gaming meta-game is scored, just like many other games are scored, and only works because of the new socially-connected mode of modern videogames today. The ubiquity of these systems is a direct result of the PS3 and X360 (particularly the XBox) being brought online. So the phenomenon is partly a serendipitous combination of technological breakthroughs: connectable consoles at a time of sweeping broadband uptake, and networked homes, meaning these consoles could be online all the time without placing undue burden on the shared family phone line. The consoles themselves maintain a much more robust operating system than earlier machines, meaning they can do more than load up whatever is on the disc in the tray. By being eternally connected with (hypothetically) every other owner of an X360, and by virtue of these new consoles being able to operate at a higher level than individual videogames, we can imagine the slow return of extra-game competition that is most obviously manifest in the Top Score list on an arcade machine.
By extra-game competition I mean the competitiveness between players in a game that does not occur within the game itself. This is the difference between time trials and an actual race; players compete with the game, and then compare their results, after the fact. This is a clever and convenient way for players of single-player games to compare their different levels of expertise in games that do not support head-to-head gameplay. The number of achievements, and their detailed cataloging means that a player who has truly 'beaten' a game is probably able to show off their platinum 100% complete trophy to prove it. At the same time, many achievements come from multiplayer games, where ladder rankings and various forms of level-up systems (such as ranks in Call of Duty) are already in place to differentiate between player skill levels.
The meaning of achievements is of interest to me. What does it mean for the player to earn an achievement? What does it mean for the developer to put one in place? These are the two tandem issues I will deal with for the remainder of this post.
Arguably, single-player videogames are entirely composed of achievement-like challenge and reward systems already. Simply moving from level one to level two is, in itself, an achievement. Marking these accomplishments with a formal system is simply a reincarnation of the very abstract 'score' from arcade and early console titles. However, a major preoccupation in modern game design (particularly single-player games) is to subsume the game system within a fiction which motivates gameplay. That is to say, the player is given a diegetic reason for doing whatever it is the player of this particular game must do. The player must run from left to right becomes the Princess needs rescuing. The player must choose between Ashley or Kaiden because there isn't time to save both. That sort of thing. Not because the rules say so, but because the story or gameworld explains it. Gordon must save Alyx, or her father, because they are friends and it is the right thing to do.
Increasingly, however, developers will use achievements to prod players in particular directions during play, to encourage replay, and affix meaning to tasks which have no meaning. For instance, both Assassin's Creed games contain a number of collectible objects scattered throughout the game world. Collectible objects have no diegetic meaning, or only the very thinnest of excuses. In Assassin's Creed 2, the player is rewarded with a hug and a thanks from Ezio's distraught mother--which is, admittedly a diegetic acknowledgement, but a flimsy one. The collectible flags in the first Assassin's Creed apparently also served as save points, a highly non-diegetic function! (But a fairly clever one.)
The existence of collectibles in the first place is a plain and simple coercion aimed at getting the player to spend more time in the gameworld than the gameplay of the missions, or the narrative motivations, would encourage. What reason does Gordon Freeman have to carry a lawn gnome around, and eventually launch it into space? None, none that make diegetic sense anyway. Mass Effect contains achievements for firing and killing enemies with each different class of weapon in the game, meaning a player would have to play the game as many times as there are weapons in it, or there abouts.
Videogames are a unique kind of game in that they can justify their own rule systems with fiction. Juul calls this coherence. An obvious task for this kind of fiction is motivating the player, which usually occurs by assuming an identification with the primary avatar, and motivating that character with fictional circumstances. Essentially, since the player is play-acting as the avatar, they take on that avatar's motivations as their own. More traditional or classic games don't bother. They take it as a given that they player wants to play, and say "If you want to play, then you'll accept that this is winning and this is losing," among other things. This is fine, this is how sports work: there is no objective reason for putting a ball through a hoop, we just do it because there are people over there trying to stop us doing it, and we want to show we're better at this than they are!! The problem comes when we mix and match these kinds of motivating systems.
On the one hand, hardcore game focused critics might tell you that everything you do in a videogame is meaningless anyway, its just a game, none of it is objectively real and the value is all socially assigned. On the other, a narratologist might argue that the point of playing Mass Effect and not Asteroids is for the story, characters and drama, so anything that dilutes that experience is detrimental. I argue that even in the most traditional sense of meaningless, rule-oriented competition, games are self-justifying systems. Every valourised action is rewarded internally, not by some external judge that exists outside the game the way achievements and GamerScores do. So, in story-driven videogames, the justifying of mechanics, goals and rules can be done by fiction as well as the 'just because' of game-ness, but not by the transcendent trophy god. If a designer wants me to explore that section of the city, give my character a reason to do so. By mixing in too many of these extra-game motivators, the player can't help but be reminded constantly that he's playing a game, and not pretending to be a space marine, an assassin or whatever.
That's for the story-based, let's play pretend kind of games, though. I argue that achievements guide play in a much more beneficial way in city-building, civilisation management type games like, well, SimCity, Civilization V, or Tropico 3. These games don't provide much in the way of fictional motive for the player. They provide a much larger possibility space for actions, in that there are many different ways to get to a valourised outcome, in fact, there are many different win states in these games. There is little in the way of narrative trajectory, which is a primary appeal of the genre. No main protagonist or avatar to speak of, focuses the player's attention, so motivating the player by motivating that character can't really happen. So in this way, these games already position the player slightly outside of the fiction, as compared to occupying the head of a character within the game world. In this game mode, I feel that achievements are a handy way to guide players towards different game experiences.
By erecting a framework of rewards in the form of achievements around a game like Tropico, a player can realise that there are other ways to win than might be immediately obvious. To a gamer new to Civilization, the idea of a cultural victory might be totally foreign--certainly a long-time RTS fan is probably not going to come up with that strategy all on his own. In these cases, achievements represent a narrowing of the potential space for actions down by theme. In Tropico 3 one achievement is the goal of earning $1,000,000 through tourism--which is no mean feat. This requires crafting a strategy to set up and maintain a healthy tourism economy as the primary driver for an island--up to that achievement, my main play style had tourism as an ancillary revenue stream at best. Tropico 3 actually blends this idea into the 'campaign' mode, by inventing comical, sometimes out-right wacky situations that el Presidente has to deal with in order to explore different ways to play the game. Why? No real reason, its just the way this particular island has to go. In dramaturgical terms, there is much less of a script in these games, and little fourth wall to break. They are inherently different experiences for the player to begin with, compared to the avatar-based games like Assassin's Creed. Hence, achievements and other methods for guiding play styles are less obtrusive here than in other genres.
So to sum up: In videogames with a central character/avatar and narrative, achievements are unnecessary if the character is properly motivated with fiction--which is what the player is there to experience in the first place. In management-oriented games, the whole point is that multiple strategies and styles exist to move towards multiple and varied win-states. Introducing an achievement framework that identifies and encourages these different modes is less intrusive, and often quite helpful, because these games do not employ the kind of dramatic, fictional motivations to motivate their players. The effect of complex achievement systems damages immersion in games that rely on it for their experience, by reminding the player of the meta-game of gaming, and therefore of the gameness of whatever title they are currently playing. Being reminded that someone outside the fictional gameworld is watching, judging your performance in this button-pressing exercise is not conducive to the enjoyment of videogames as dramatic entertainment.