Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 May, 2011

The fake and the real
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:57 AM

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?


  1. Great read and something that has come to mind for me a number of times over the past few years.

    I am primarily an RPG player and prefer the games that “require the mental skills” to work through problems rather than twitch gaming that require those physical skills. On my own personal hierarchy of needs, the satisfaction of “solving” something within those games, preordained or not, satisfies me on a much deeper level than managing to jump into a specific spot at a specific time. I would consider that just as real as figuring out a solution to a complex issue at work.

    I agree on how subjective this can be as a whole. To me, it really comes down to a simple rule. Does it make you feel good? Then it’s real enough for me. I think this also touches on a few aspects of how gaming can be considered a good tool for teaching. Many of the same elements of satisfaction and needs fit. Too often, it seems that the treadmill of standards and set curriculum leaves the achievement aspect behind in favor of just meeting specific goals that are easily obtainable by anyone above the average. With the achievements aspect, I feel that a person would be learning as much to try and achieve it (as long as it is more than an achievement for progression.

    Thanks again for the post and the links. I especially love Richard’s gamification one.

    Comment by John Harman — 5 May, 2011 @ 5:48 AM

  2. The problem is the love of extremes. People would rather say game achievements are equal to anything or or totally worthless, or even harmful. I see them somewhere in the middle.

    I think we need a better modifier term, something like “secondary.” They’re real achievements, but obviously we’d place them below something with tangible personal gain, such as money or knowledge. Therefore a college degree is greater than a game achievement, but a game achievement is better, or more, than nothing.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 5 May, 2011 @ 6:10 AM

  3. Hi there, thanks for writing this. I want to clarify a couple points:

    1) You’re correct that most people don’t aspire to the level of meaningful action you quoted above. That’s why I write: I want those people to do just that.

    2) I am also a gamer. I grew up playing games, and I play games now. It’s fun. It was enormously helpful in my transformation from a social oaf to a well adjusted adult. It’s even had some fringe benefits for my coordination and certain modes of thought. But it’s ultimately just a diversion. I never forget that.

    Good thoughts, keep them coming!

    Comment by Pete Michaud — 5 May, 2011 @ 6:21 AM

  4. John Harmon wrote:
    Thanks again for the post and the links. I especially love Richard’s gamification one.

    Sure thing. I was thinking of writing another bit about gamification, but Richard saved the day! :)

    Klepsacovic wrote:
    They’re real achievements, but obviously we’d place them below something with tangible personal gain, such as money or knowledge.

    I think it’s a bit more complex than that. Is reading a book an achievement? What if it’s a trashy romance novel? What if it’s a book about learning higher mathematics? What if it’s a book on the history of a dead language? We can still cherish some achievements even if they don’t lead to tangible gain.

    Pete Michaud wrote:
    Hi there, thanks for writing this. I want to clarify a couple points:

    To be fair, I thought your article was the best balanced in perspective. But, I don’t think most people’s lives are choices between curing the AIDS pandemic or seeing if they can short-man an old WoW raid for achievements. If you read that Pixel Popper post about the author quitting WoW and having nothing but derision for his former guild leader’s poor lifestyle, then you can see that sometimes real life isn’t clean and simple. I don’t believe that achievement in games is taking away people’s will to do something better; if it weren’t games then it would be TV or IMs/Facebook or whatever. We’d have to outlaw every form of entertainment, and even then I think some people would just sit around and stare at a wall rather than accomplishing big things. As a game developer, I hope I can at least give them some benefit out of the game, even if it’s as simple as blowing off some steam or as complex as making them realize how important community is in different aspects of their life.

    As I wrote, modern life isn’t build around direct cause and effect like it used to be. I think this is one reason why games are a good and healthy thing, because they can help those that need it for whatever reason.

    So, thank you for a thoughtful article, even if I did disagree with most of it. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 May, 2011 @ 7:23 AM

  5. “We can still cherish some achievements even if they don’t lead to tangible gain.”
    I agree. But I’d add to that my belief that any activity, done with the right mindset, can be mentally beneficial. We can learn from anything, whether a trashy novel or history book, it’s just that some activities may require more effort. Or we may simply enjoy the activity, in which case the achievement may be memory of a good time, which has its own worth as well.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 5 May, 2011 @ 7:37 AM

  6. Harm’s Link Out-Cinco de Mayo- Learning and gaming
    [...] Psychochild’s Blog » The fake and the real. [...]

    Pingback by GeekLore — 5 May, 2011 @ 8:07 AM

  7. I was going to write something similar to this, but you beat me to the punch.

    Ah well. :)

    I’ll try and write my thoughts down as well. Hopefully they’ll make sense.

    Comment by Victor Stillwter — 5 May, 2011 @ 8:08 AM

  8. I actually caught myself farming “fake achievements” today. I decided that I wanted to get a couple of the general achievements and so poddled off to get the drinks for one of them. I do chase achievement points ingame; if anything only to certify myself as an experienced player. I realise that a lot of them do not take skill but being a bit of a completionist (is that a word?) I find them fun. I enjoy seeing the total rise and don’t think they are any more of a waste of time than anything else in this GAME.

    Comment by Top Rosters — 5 May, 2011 @ 5:06 PM

  9. The thing with achievements is that they are, more than just about anything, subjective. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the same regard for conventional achievements as other people, whereas the things I’ve achieved that I’m proud of might mean little to others.

    To label games as providing fake achievements seems just as wrong to me as labelling any other achievements similarly. They might not be for you, and nobody is asking you to care about them, but ranting about them seems like there’s some deeper motiviation lurking somewhere.

    Having said that, I quit WoW partially because the achievements in the game seemed empty to me. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the game; I just didn’t get enough satisfaction out of it for the time I sacrificed, in the longer run.

    I think it’s fair to ask whether the developers could or should have handled aspects of the game differently to avoid that; my biggest pet peeve was really that anything you might have achieved was rendered meaningless with the next patch, because some better gear came out than what you’d worked hard for, or something along those lines.

    But the question of whether those achievements are fake, or, to turn things around, worthwhile, depends entirely on the person that achieves them, I think, and nobody should pass judgement on that for others.

    Comment by unwesen — 6 May, 2011 @ 7:42 AM

  10. I don’t think there’s any denying that achievements are fun for many people when implemented properly, within a larger game. The problem comes up when games are built around achievements. Achievements shouldn’t be an end in themselves but a treat on the longer journey.

    Comment by Joe Lund — 6 May, 2011 @ 11:36 AM

  11. “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?”

    You mean like, choosing to eliminate personal waste in a toilet, rather than on the street, thereby making a direct and tangible positive difference in the life of all 400,000 people living in my city by increasing public health? Yes, real achievement for the day completed! Maybe twice!

    That’s got to be the worst definition for achievement that I’ve ever seen. It includes almost everything that I do, that I personally don’t think of as an achievement, and not much of what I would consider achievement. Washing dishes counts, mastering a musical instrument doesn’t, etc. Here’s the thing–that achievement porn article is a thinly disguised diatribe against video game playing in general. Why would Tobold, whose blog centers on playing video games, link to it at all? Self hatred? Or just hit seeking?

    Comment by Rammstein — 7 May, 2011 @ 9:19 AM

  12. I LOLd at reading Rammstein’s comment. I think he’s absolutely correct.

    I agree with those who believe that an acheivement being worthwhile is simply personal. Everything that everyone does is personal. Even those who dedicate their lives to others do it because it makes them feel good. Would the world be a better place if every single person tried to be more altruistic? Possibly. But it isn’t human nature so those who want it to happen are dreaming.

    I personally don’t go for WoW-like acheivements-for-acheivement’s-sake. I like acheivments that give me something. Even if its just a cool title like in LotRO. But then I’m not very competitive in MMOs. I like to have good armor so that my character can succeed, not to show up the guy next to me.

    Comment by Djinn — 9 May, 2011 @ 7:49 AM

  13. I feel like something important has been lost in this thread. In fact I feel like the most important thing has been lost. Achievements are subjective, sure, but they are an engine with an objective output.

    It may be funny to talk about defecating on a toilet as an achievement, but from what I’ve heard of Multiple Sclerosis that’s a reality for a depressingly large number of people. But between that and Psychochild’s example of rehab, you’ve already given me the perfect examples. Yes, walking being an achievement is subjective, but it’s benefits aren’t. The benefits of walking are huge, independence of movement and lifestyle, not having to pay for expensive conveyances in your daily life, exercise, etc… Benefits that are so banal to us that we don’t even notice their presence. But tangible, and important nonetheless. To go from not having these benefits to having them is a huge objective increase.

    Now I’m not saying playing WoW or reading a trashy romance novel is EBILLL. Hell just this morning I finally got Oblivion to stop crashing every five minutes on me and played for an hour, it was a small thing, but a huge weight off my mind and let me get back to the actual work of my day refreshed. BUT, you need to do more than just say, “well I thought it was kind of cool, so yeah.” You need to know when something is going to actually be of objective benefit to you, even if that benefit is just to unwind, versus when it’s actually being a detriment to the things you really want to do or have.

    There has to be a process of examination, and an honest one. You have to step back and say, okay, based on the consequences did I do the right action, did I spend my time wisely. It’s not about altruism here, people, it’s about time, because you ain’t getting any more of it. Human nature only covers until you’ve grown up and plopped out a few kids, nature doesn’t give a shit about you after that, so you‘ve got to make up the difference. If you want something, if shit matters to you, the only way your going to get it is by doing the tough examination and taking on human nature with a garrote.

    For most of the people here this is probably going to seem completely misaimed, but somebody had to say it. We’re not trapped in a world of pure subjectivity. Pure perception, maybe, but not subjectivity. We can find objective realities, can weigh outcomes and examine choices. Maybe I’m just too much of a Socrates fan-girl, but you know… The unexamined life is not worth living… man…

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 9 May, 2011 @ 5:06 PM

  14. Two issues:

    First, this risks getting into philosophical debate, which kind of distracts from the point. But, let’s leave that aside right now.

    The other thing is that the original posts were more about moral judgment. Is the person with MS who goes to the bathroom having a “real” achievement while the rest of us are chasing fake ones? Or, is the person with MS more virtuous for doing so? That’s the type of issues I see raised, particularly in the Pixel Popper post.

    You do make a good point about us taking things for granted and that we should look a bit closer at our default assumptions. Something we should all do more often.

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 May, 2011 @ 5:33 PM

  15. I believe that all acheivements are “real” if they are acheivements to you. To risk carrying on the philosophical path, our reality is in our minds. What happens outside ourselves is only really important in how it affects us. So those articles are kind of silly to try to tell others what acheivements are important.

    I measure my acheivements in how they make me feel. I hate grinding, so unless I’m getting something else out of it, I’m not going to grind to get an acheivment. I try to do acheivements while I’m doing something else, but sometimes I don’t realize there’s an acheivement to be had. I’ll only “go back” to finish a “grind” type acheivement if its easy/short.

    Comment by Djinn — 10 May, 2011 @ 7:45 AM

  16. Fabulous Failure Fun

    [...] up, Psychochild links to Tobold who links to an article by Doctor Professor titled “Addicted to Fake [...]

    Pingback by Toldain Talks — 29 August, 2013 @ 5:28 PM

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