Achievement Unlocked

It’s Christmas morning and I’ve just returned home from church. I need to be at my brother’s house in just under an hour. That should leave me just enough time. I pull out my chair and boot up my PC, frustrated as the Windows startup screen occupies the space for far too long. Next I double click the familiar World of Warcraft shortcut on my desktop and enter my password hurriedly, getting into the game as fast as I can. My character is right where I left him in preparation for this moment! I had finished 10 of the 11 Winter Veil (WoW’s version of Christmas) achievements the day before. The 11th can only be completed on or after Christmas day when the gifts under the Winter Veil tree become available. So there my character is, standing next to the tree, ready to open his gifts! A whooshing sound complimented the onscreen popup saying “Achievement Unlocked” as I was acknowledged for opening my virtual gift on Christmas morning with 10 Achievement Points. Of course the gifts will still be available for another week, but that’d be too long to wait. With the completion of all 11 achievements, my character now earned the title of “Merrymaker”, and for the next months he will be known as “Merrymaker Nerrad”!

For those of you who are not well versed in game achievement systems, an achievement is some form of meta-objective defined outside the parameters of the game. This meta-objective, sometimes known to the player and sometimes left unknown, has no direct effect on the gameplay. Whereas completing a game’s quest or goal will further your progression, improve your character, or make the game easier in some way – achievements are merely an accolade for completing the meta-objectives. Some examples of these meta-objectives might be fully exploring an in-game area, killing an excessive amount of an enemy type, etc.

Blog Achievement

You could probably group all achievements into one of the following 7 groups:

  1. Tutorial: Encouraging players to try new features or learn different skills.
  2. Completion: Finishing a section of the game.
  3. Collection: Finding every hidden or secret item.
  4. Virtuosity: Playing with exceptional skill.
  5. Special: Bending the rules of the game by encouraging creative play styles.
  6. Dedication: Encouraging many hours of play.
  7. Social: Encouraging players to interact with others.

So why do game creators implement achievements into their games? In a lecture given by Chris Hecker at the 2010 Game Developers Conference, he identifies two possible reasons. Before we talk about the two reasons we should define two terms: intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators. As Wikipedia puts it:

“Intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external pressure.”

Extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain an outcome, which then contradicts intrinsic motivation.”

Putting these into context, intrinsic motivation would be playing a game because it is fun to do. Extrinsic motivation would be achievements in the game that drive you to do something you probably wouldn’t do otherwise. Why would you do them? To be rewarded, to feel as though you have accomplished something, or so that you can show off your achievement to other players. Who wouldn’t want to tell all their friends that they have killed 53 595 infected in Left for Dead!

So back to the two possible reasons for achievements in game design. The first reason could be that the developer is trying to provide a dull game with extrinsic motivations. Why would a game developer be making a dull game in the first place? Probably to encourage players to part with their money. Think of Farmville – that game certainly lacks intrinsic motivation, unless I’m the only person who finds watching crops grow boring. Regardless, Zynga are laughing all the way to the bank. Shame on them – no appreciation for the art of game development.


Only 4 more hours to go…

Alternatively, developers are making intrinsically interesting games and want to make them even better by adding some extrinsic motivators. However, this is where things can get dangerous very quickly.

There are plenty of interesting debates in the field of psychology over the effects of rewards on motivation. For as many who are in favour of promoting reward systems, there are just as many who feel such a strategy does more bad than good (see Dan Pink’s TED Talk). However, most of the research shows that extrinsic motivators decrease intrinsic motivation on interesting tasks. In addition to this, it shows that intrinsic motivation is superior to its extrinsic counterpart in promoting creativity, problem solving, quality and speed. I’d even go so far as to say that intrinsic motivations can produce a lot more happiness than extrinsic ones.

So with this in mind, it is tragic when a fun, enjoyable game has its intrinsic motivation sabotaged by extrinsic achievements causing the focus to be shifted away from the game and onto the rewards. This also potentially means that when the achievements are all complete, the game holds no more value to the player.

However, that’s not to say that achievements should be omitted completely, because there are some benefits to including them in a game. Many articles have been produced in an attempt to lay a guideline for successful achievement design, such as the 3 part series written by Lucas Blair.

Regardless of the motivations behind implementing achievements and whichever side of the fence you find yourself, the bottom line is that it motivates people to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. Like waking up on Christmas morning to log into World of Warcraft.

However, achievements don’t end at software games. Moving out of the sphere of computing, the term gamification refers to the use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts. Introducing achievement systems into real-life situations could provide a person with extrinsic motivation to perform ordinarily dull tasks.

The possibilities for this are endless. A talk from DICE 2010 by game designer Jesse Schell gives some interesting, albeit disturbing, insight into what the future might hold. Providing achievement points and an online leaderboard could motivate people to complete exercise routines – promoting health and fitness. Similarly, achievements for completing class assignments or attending lectures could promote education. The obvious counter-argument to this is it shifts the focus away from learning and onto the reward, but could that be overlooked if the number of students succeeding increases?

The field of advertising and marketing could also be influenced immensely by achievements – would people be motivated to buy fifty boxes of matches in the month to unlock the “Firestarter” achievement? Would they then be compelled to go on to unlock the corresponding yearly “Pyromaniac” achievement by purchasing six hundred of them? And that begs the question, where is the line when motivation becomes manipulation?

Pyromaniac Achievement

Achievement systems in real-life definitely present a number of serious questions that need to be answered before we even begin to look at the practical challenge of dishing out accolades for smiling at seventeen people in a day. Just figuring out if extrinsic motivation is a sustainable way to encourage activities is open for debate. Finally, and more importantly, if games are inherently better with intrinsic motivation, shouldn’t the same rule apply to real-life?


Disclaimer: These opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent those of Naspers, MIH or the Media Lab.

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One Comment

  1. 1
    John Gilmore on Sunday 20 May, 12:30 PM #

    For me, the role of achievements is to increase the fun I get from a game by increasing the number of times I’m willing to repeat sections of the game.

    My favourite example of achievements done right is Starcraft 2. I completed that game’s single player campaign and loved every minute of it. I played it because it was fun, but then the fun stopped. Luckily I had a reason to do it all over again: achievements. It allowed me to replay the content with different goals, thereby extending the fun. And because I was focused on other goals, it didn’t feel like I was just replaying the level for the hell of it. I know I would never have replayed those levels if I had the same goals I had the first time around, no matter how fun those goals were.

    You could argue that Blizzard copped out and that they should have just provided more content, but I also know about deadlines and it’s not like the offering was meagre, I just wanted MOAR! And because of that, I say thanks a lot to Blizzard for their awesome achievement system, added to an even more awesome game.

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