If you have been a regular reader of our blog(or if you just want to take a moment a scroll through the older posts. It’s fine, I can wait), you will notice that I enjoy making lists. I am a rather checklist oriented person in my daily life. Maybe it is because of a degree in science. Could be the result of my upbringing. It might even be due to some slight OCD(which reminds me, gotta check if the oven is off, be right back). The point is, I enjoy making lists and then completing the tasks in a reasonable time. So when Microsoft introduced achievements with their 360 console, I became a bit… obsessed with getting as many of those damn points as I could.
Now, for those of you who do not own an Xbox 360, or who never really seemed to pay attention to that little message that popped up every so often while you were playing, allow me to give a brief primer on achievements.
Each game that is released for the 360, whether it be a full-fledged, buy-at-the-store game disc, or a downloadable title, has a list of tasks to complete in the game that will earn you Xbox Achievement Points. You average game has roughly 1000 achievement points to unlock, while a download title will normally have 200 achievement points to earn. These points can be spread out in various increments over several tasks, normally based on the difficulty of the in-game achievement. For example, playing through the campaign in Halo:Reach on normal difficulty settings will earn you 25 achievement points, while playing through on extra hard difficulty(Legendary Mode, for all you sticklers out there) could net you an additional 50-point achievement. These achievements and their respective points are displayed in your Xbox Live Account so that all those who see your online avatar may know just how well you completed(read: totally dominated) a game.
Now, one who is not familiar with the system may ask, “So what can I spend the achievement points on, anyway? Surely they are used to buy in-game bonus content, or could even be used to buy entirely new games online, right?” Well, sorry to break it to you, imaginary gamer(who I assume has been living under a rock for a while). Xbox achievement points (and their PS3 cousins, Trophies) cannot be used to buy, well, anything. Now you may be asking, “Then why the hell did I waste my time trying to carry a gnome statue through an entire game to earn some achievement points?”(shout out to my friend, Bobby, who did get this achievement in Half-Life 2) That’s a good question, and one I asked myself on several occasions, after (regrettably) playing many crappy games with easily unlockable achievements.
It was not when I first purchased my Xbox 360 that I was bitten by the achievement bug. It took about a year and several games before I started showing symptoms of this disease. There were the initial signs: increased heart-rate when I would hear the delightful little “achievement unlocked” sound effect, a rash of late night play sessions to perform stupid tasks in games that held little merit for the overall experience of play, and of course, a fever for playing a title on the hardest difficulty, even at the expense of having fun while playing a game. But enough of the sickness metaphors. The real point that I became obsessed is when I realized that my friends had a similar investment in their respective “Gamerscores.” Now we had a competition, and that is the only reason young men need to do very stupid things.
In our circle of friends, we each had our own little way of beefing up our gamerscore. I signed up for Gamefly in order to rent several crappy games at little cost to me (save for time and dignity, no big deal). My friend Bobby would play games he enjoyed to 100% completion. While this seems like the most tame of actions, trust me, it is not. When a first-person shooter asks you to only use one bullet for the entire game (the single bullet is used to shoot a lock that bars progress) for a measly 40 points, you know this not a casual event. Our buddy Grant had a sneakier way of getting points. In older 360 games, there were only 5 to 10 achievements on average, which meant each achievement gave you roughly 100 to 200 points each. So he would purchase or rent games like NBA Live, King Kong, and the Avatar: The Last Airbender to grab some quick achievement points and take the lead.
These hours spent playing crumby games and performing mind-numbing taks continued for some time. I can remember there was a point that I was sending pictures of my gamerscore to my friends with my phone every time I took the lead. That is how silly this competition became: I was bragging about having the most points in a game I did not really enjoy playing. The whole achievement craze died down at one point, when each of us slowly realized how even playing games we enjoyed became a chore since we would spend our time looking for lame in-game collectible items instead of immersing ourselves in the story.
While the creation of Xbox achievements has lead to several dark tales like the one I have just shared, there are some benefits that have grown from these imaginary tally marks. Many games have extended replay value thanks to giving the player a list of interesting tasks to complete outside of core goals. Entire online communities dedicated to amassing achievements have sprung-up, providing people with new hobbies and strategies to share with like-minded individuals. Some titles have even used the achievements system as a way to make jokes that break the fourth wall (like the, “Press Start to Play” achievement from the Simpsons Game). The achievements system is not inherently bad, but it would be nice to see these points used more often as a way to better immerse the player in a game’s environment, or as a means to buy more content for a title, as opposed to coercing someone into wasting their time trying to beat a boss without getting hit even once.
About a year ago, my friend Grant had to buy a new Xbox 360, as well as make a new avatar and gamertag for his fresh console. In doing this, he had to start from square one, with a gamerscore of zero. When the dust had settled from our previous “competition,” he was the player with the most achievement points, so I was curious to see how the champion felt about having to start over. He said it was great. Since there was no pressure to collect the points, he could just sit back, relax, and enjoy playing video games.