The Gamification of Video Games
Collectibles and achievements are unnecessary, immersion-breaking additions to otherwise enriching video game experiences.
This started as a mere footnote on last week’s post, but fueled by what can only be described as “blind gamer rage” it quickly ballooned into it’s own thing. I awoke this morning in a fedora surrounded by empty Mountain Dew cans and the following one thousand words typed out. Enjoy.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
For some reason, many developers these days want to make players feel like they haven’t really finished a game until they’ve depleted every last ounce of immersion and fun from a title. It’s not enough to simply enjoy a rich experience, no- to “one hundred percent” a game, players are now required to squeeze the last drop of water from the stone by completing a number of menial tasks.
Take achievements for finding Easter eggs- back in the day, discovering a video game “Easter egg” felt rare and special. You either stumbled across it on your own, heard about it from a friend or possibly read about it on gamefaqs. Discovering one was memorable. The player felt “in on a joke”, like a member of a semi-exclusive club. Since the only way to learn about Easter eggs was word of mouth, there was nothing involved “outside” of the game besides human interaction.
Nowadays most Easter eggs are denoted by an achievement pop-up which marks the discovery “official”. Most are described in advance on the achievements list, which takes half the specialness out of the finding, since by definition they’re supposed to be hidden. It’s rare these days that finding a video game Easter egg feels like a fun reward for noticing a detail off of the beaten path. More often it feels more in line with the checking off of a “to do” list item. That’s to say- it kinda feels like work.
The difference between learning and “studying for the test”.
Even goals like “complete the game on hard mode” become non-rewarding work when an achievement gets involved. Instead of rewarding the most devoted players with, y’know a sense of self accomplishment, the task now becomes a grind in pursuit of a badge on one’s profile. It’s the difference between going to school to learn versus going to school to get a good grade. One is inwardly meaningful, the other is labor.
The argument in favor of performance-based achievements is usually something along the lines of “giving the player a reward for their efforts”, but I consider “rewards” of this type to be an insult. Why must my recreation time meet the arbitrary demands of a publisher? Why isn’t it enough that I challenge myself? “Do not dangle your paper gold star in front of me as though it’s something to be sought after”, say I!
One brings you more into the story, the other is a stark reminder that you’re performing tasks to a machine in exchange for dopamine.
Wouldn’t a better reward for beating a game on “hard mode” be something like a special ending? A different title screen? Or (hear me out)- the satisfaction a player has of knowing that their goal was accomplished? I posit that if one’s personal pride in one’s gaming accomplishments is ultimately “not enough” without an achievement marking the occasion “official”, then that person is subjecting themselves to “hard mode” for unhealthy reasons. Besides- nobody actually gives a crap about your achievements, anyway. You’re cramming for a high GPA in a course that does not offer degrees.
I concede that not all achievements are superfluous attachments and I’ve had genuine fun in pursuit of a handful. Some achievements are creative hints to an “unofficial” puzzle or challenge (Half Life 2’s “Little Rocket Man” comes to mind), that is less about achieving the specific task and more about figuring out how to do it. If you looked up online how to get “Little Rocket Man”, any potential fun would be drained from the task and it would simply be work again.
But remember- most achievements are simply “collect all of category X”, “Beat the game within a time limit”, or increasingly- just sort of… awarded along the way for merely playing the base game as intended. Is the average gamer really so insecure so as to be in need of constant support and praise even while consuming entertainment?
Actually don’t answer that one.
The gamification of… games?
It is a rare video game these days that, like a film or novel, exists purely to be experienced. That’s not to say movies and books don’t include “extras”, like in-jokes, homages to other media, post-credits scenes, etc. But asking your friends if they too noticed “Howard the Duck” in the background of Guardians of the Galaxy, is a far cry (no pun intended) from collecting all the Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild. One brings you more into the story and universe, the other is a stark reminder that you’re performing tasks to a machine in exchange for dopamine.
I know that the “real” reason companies add this stuff is to keep players engaged longer, which ultimately helps the brand and sells more copies. And considering that video gaming addiction is a real thing, there are certainly some real moral and ethical questions I have surrounding the adding of features designed to hook the people most susceptible to addictive behavior. I concede I am not qualified to speak with full confidence on the subject of addiction, but also- is it really too much to ask of something that’s ostensibly supposed to be “relaxing” to not demand the last slivers of our already weary attention spans?
But hey- if Korok-seed hunting brings truly you a genuinely enriching experience on par with the rest of the game, then who am I to argue? Speedrunners in particular often break immersion on purpose in pursuit of their own goals. But speedrunners (importantly) are not seeking satisfaction from arbitrary predetermined achievements, speedrunning communities define goals and accomplishment on their own terms.1
I know what you’re thinking- “If you hate achievements and collectibles so much, why don’t you just ignore them and define your own goals, instead of letting the mere presence of these ‘pointless’ markers ruin your own experience?”
And you uh… you would be right, that’s a great point actually, thank you. I should probably go for a walk.
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