5 May, 2011
Sorry for being more quiet than usual. I’m in England right now working on a new project I’m really excited about. The team has gotten together to do some work in person, and now that we have reliable internet we’ve started the “real” work. Well, I guess I’m sneaking off to do a blog post, but… let’s just pretend it’s work related. ;)
What’s gotten me to the keyboard this time? I’ve seen references to an article about “fake” achievements recently, the latest offender being Tobold, who indirectly referenced it by linking another post.
The theme of the articles is that getting “achievements” in video games is pretty much a waste of time, and anyone who does put any stock in this activity is an idiot. Of course, the initial reaction of people addicted to “fake achievements” is to rage against such pronouncements. But, we’re all smart and classy people here, so let’s take a look at why people who rage against fake achievements are the real idiots.
Controversy draws attention
Let’s be honest here, most of these articles are just looking for more hits by poking at the tiger in the cage. Telling a bunch of people who enjoy playing games that they are addicted to “fake” achievements and you’ll get a lot of indignant comments. Not to say Tobold is a master troll, as that would smack of professional jealousy, but he has posted some rather pointedly controversial things in the past. There’s a reason he’s one of the most read MMO blogs, after all.
But, not having read the other blogs over time, it’s hard to say what the precise motivation of the other blogs is. Perhaps they deeply care about what they perceive as people throwing away their lives, or perhaps they’re fishing for hits. I will note that the Pixel Popper article I linked above came some months after the author quit WoW and “wanted to burn it down and salt the earth.” It seems that regret for “wasting” time was hanging heavy on someone. (I’ll also note that Tobold has recently quit WoW, so some of those same pangs of regret might be creeping in.) The article that Tobold references is called Achievement Porn, quite obviously a title intended to get attention. Looking at the number of comments these posts received, obviously it worked well.
Games are an easy target
There’s an old joke about how people who protest fur as cruel rarely get bent out of shape about leather; after all, it’s easier to harass rich old ladies wearing fur than motorcycle gang members wearing leather. I get the feeling that we are seeing a similar dynamic here. Even though Tobold is obviously a gamer, society does allow for criticism of games as something that isn’t “really meaningful”. This is likely why game achievements are seen as “fake” or “artificial”. But, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
I think there are two issues to consider: First, are “achievements” really a proper name for what we find in games. Second, what defines a “real” achievement compared to a “fake” one?
What is an achievement?
Go look up the definition in your favorite dictionary if you want, but it means something accomplished, usually by effort. (It can also mean a full heraldic display, which explains gamification badges, perhaps.) Of course, we also have what are called “achievements” in a game. You can have gameplay achievements like defeating a boss monster, and designer-defined achievements as defined in XBox or WoW.
So, are game achievements really achievements? In general, I’d say they are because they usually take some sort of skill, even if the skill required is simplistic. And, society awards achievements for things that merely take persistence as well, such as certificates of attendance in schools. So, trying to argue that games are “easier” and therefore not really achievements doesn’t exactly ring true.
There’s also a question of how someone approaches an achievement in a game. In an RPG, you might go mindlessly grind out enemies for xp and money for supplies to beat a boss, or you can tackle the boss a soon as you can, likely being a bit underpowered. One of the best parts of an RPG is when you can pick the difficulty level of the challenges within the context of the game. But, it’s always possible to just grind your way through a game if you don’t want a challenge, then it becomes more like watching a story with some repetitive combat elements in the middle.
Defining a fake
So, let’s accept that there are achievements in a game that deserve the name; I think this is a fair assumption given that the original articles were mostly attacking game achievements rather than looking at “achievements” in the outside world that shouldn’t qualify for being too easy. So, what makes an achievement “fake”?
As I said above, the “virtual” nature of games makes it easier to dismiss them and the content within, even if compared to a similarly simplistic achievement in the offline world; most would think that attending school is a great achievement for children, but going to a location regularly in in a virtual world is not so impressive. Of course, in this case it’s about what we want to reward: a kid going to school is a desirable goal because there’s an increased chance the pupil will learn something, but hanging out a tavern in a fantasy game world has no equivalent.
There’s also an element of how “real work” requires physical effort instead of mental effort. I see this a lot as a game designer, where someone will disparage my career because I’m “merely” organizing ideas (particularly for something as “worthless” as games). There have been similar issues with society looking down upon writers, artists, actors, and others who don’t do “honest labor”. In the Pixel Poppers article, the author talks about how he gave up RPGs (which usually require a lot of mental skills) for action games (which mostly require physical skills and coordination) to avoid “fake” achievements in the game.
Finally, you also have a bit of moral superiority. In the article that Tobold references, the author talks about how the educational system is basically a “fake achievement” type game. (Note the use of the word “game” dismissively.) The author positions himself up as someone who is smarter and wiser through his writing, able to see the educational sham for what it truly is. There seems to be elements of this in a lot of the discussions, where someone feels superior for not “wasting their time” compared to others. (Have I mentioned how cool I am for not playing WoW anymore?)
I think all these elements add up to make people see achievements in games as “fake” rather than authentic.
What’s really real?
But, if games like RPGs and MMOs offer “fake” achievements, then what is “real”? This is where I think the arguments in the original posts really fall apart for a few reasons.
First of all, defining a “real achievement” is really subjective. I might not think that walking for a few feet is all that impressive, but to someone recovering from a severe accident, being able to struggle that distance could be a tremendous achievement. Or, I might be dimissive of certificates of attendance at schools because I preferred to be in school and earned them easily while growing up. Similarly, someone who writes for a living and is therefore likely to be rather smart might not see an RPG as requiring much skill because it’s not a skill they have to work at. Therefore, mastering the details of an RPG isn’t seen as a “real” achievement even if getting 100% of items in a Sonic game is.
The other way to define “real” achievements is as the “Achievement Porn” post does:
The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life? Is it a real, true prerequisite for a tangibly effective activity?
(emphasis in the original)
But, if we really dig into it, how much activity in most people’s lives is meaningful by this metric? I’d say most people don’t aspire to this level of meaning in their lives, let alone just game players. As quite a few comment writers for those blog posts have said, once you get beyond the first few levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a lot of what we do has more abstract meanings and goals that don’t have tangible effects on other people. But, it’s easier to write essays criticizing game players rather than addressing the rapacious CEO who justifies laying off a large part of the work force as “saving capital for alternate investment.”
How the whole “gamification” thing fits in according to the master plan is left as an exercise to the reader. Or, you can just go read Richard Bartle’s thoughts if you want to cheat off someone else’s paper.
Welcome to the modern world
Ultimately, we have to accept that the world has changed from even a few decades ago. A lot of people do work that doesn’t have a direct, tangible effect. That doesn’t mean that the receptionist for a government official is worthless or unnecessary for society to function smoothly, however.
And, in the modern world, our minds need entertainment. Perhaps someone’s day job isn’t stimulating enough, or the primitive part of our brains still crave the danger and excitement we miss out on in our rather safe lives, but entertainment is a big part of our lives. A fun game doesn’t have to have a direct and meaningful impact on other people’s lives to be worthwhile. Kicking back and playing a bit of DDO with my better half is still a rewarding way to spend my time even if I’m not out there curing cancer and promoting world peace. Someone who raids with friends in WoW, unwinds with a bit of shooting at night, or starts the day with a round of Advance Wars like Will Wright does can still be spending his or her time intelligently even if others don’t see the value in it.
Of course, as with all things, the key is in moderation. It’s easy for some people to lose themselves in a fantasy world, then to stick around long after they no longer gain benefit from it. But, even if you realize you played a game longer than was really necessary, thus “wasting your time”, I think it’s not entirely accurate to consider the time as merely chasing “fake achievements”.
So, what do you think? Are people in danger of chasing “fake achievements” in games? Is the term a bit silly? Or, is there more subtlety required to decipher this?