Gaming's Addictive Nature: How Achievements Changed the Way We Game

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"The craziest one was going for the achievement on Viva Piñata to play the game for 50 hours straight. I ended up leaving my Xbox on while I went to work to help me get that one. I had already completed the game, but that was my last achievement to get. My prized piñata garden that I'd worked so hard on in the game went to pot (excuse the pun) all because I wanted to get 20 bloody achievement points."

Hardcore gamer Paul O'Sullivan's piñata prepossession will likely sound mighty familiar to anyone who has found themselves caught up in the addictive hunt for Xbox 360 achievements.

Introduced alongside the console in 2005, they altered the way that many played games. Beating the final boss and watching the credits roll was no longer enough -- dished out by developers at preset moments in a title, gamers wanted to amass all 1,000 achievement points available in a game, contributing to their overall Gamerscores, regardless of the lengthy investment of time that particular endeavour could often require. And for some, it became an obsession.

"At first it was for the challenge, to essentially do everything in the game," recalls Paul. "Eventually it turned competitive to beat friends' Gamerscores which then lead onto me trying to stay ahead of the people on my friends' list."

The current highest Gamerscore belongs to Ray "Stallion83" Cox, who has amassed a staggering 938,740 achievement points (and counting), and earning himself a Guinness World Record in the process. Consider that most retail games (before downloadable content packs are added) only offer 1,000 points, and Cox's figure quickly appears ludicrous. So what would drive players to this sort of fanaticism?

"I think it may be something as simple as wanting to complete something once we've begun it," suggests Jamie Madigan, gaming psychology expert and the editor of www.psychologyofgames.com.

"The reasoning behind a lot of the advice that experts give on using goal setting to improve productivity or personal/professional development actually comes into play with video games. Humans are motivated to complete goals once they feel like they've been set, and especially once they feel like they've begun progress towards them."

The social, connected element of Xbox achievements, where a user's Xbox Live friends and rivals can all see which achievements have been unlocked and the total tally of a player's Gamerscore also plays a part, believes Madigan:

"The desire to chase milestones in a system such as Xbox's achievements increases when goals are made public (to maintain consistency between image and action). And to the extent that a system can convince you that 'I'm the kind of person who pursues achievements', you will be more likely to actually pursue them. This can be done by highlighting when you reach achievements, showing them to your friends, and showing what percentage complete you are -- even if this is all just incidental to your playing the game without actively pursuing achievements."

Some achievement hunters also picked up unusual complexes about their Gamerscores. There's definitely some trace symptom of obsessive compulsive behaviour behind the many forum and blog posts bemoaning Gamerscores that aren't perfect multiples of 10. Civilization Revolution seems one of the big culprits when it comes to "untidying" players' Gamerscores, with the strategy title offering four achievements worth a measly three points each, and one worth an odd nine points. For many it's a trivial detail, but for some it's infuriating. Despite a raft of imitators that have followed in its wake, the Xbox achievement system remains the one most likely to inspire frenzy amongst its users.

In fact, during the early days of the battle between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 achievements were a significant point of differentiation between the two consoles, one that videogame expert and BBC, Wired and T3 contributor Guy Cocker believes was of invaluable importance to the 360's early success:

"I would say achievements were the major innovation of the current console generation, and that they helped the 360 'win' this generation," says Cocker.

"It's no secret that it was copied pretty much wholesale by Sony with its trophies -- imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Microsoft tapped into Abraham Maslow's A Theory of Human Motivation. It's about individual satisfaction. Once you've got your basic needs (food, housing, clothing, meaningful relationships), what you're essentially looking for after that are ways to boost your self esteem, and achievements tie into that really, really well.

"Before achievements, the time spent playing games was lost to the ether. They validate that investment of time."

The timing of the introduction of achievements was also incredibly important to their eventual popularity. A decade that saw the worst financial meltdown of recent times, gamers were looking for new ways to eke the most out of their game collections.

"How much money do we each have to spend on luxuries at the moment? Games are very much luxury items and achievements allowed us to get more value out of them, encouraging players to do and try different things," says Cocker.

Achievements even artificially increased the value of some mediocre games that would otherwise have been forgotten. 2007's Avatar: The Burning Earth, has become notorious for offering up the full complement of 1,000 achievement points to add to a player's Gamerscore within the first five minutes of the game.

"Forums and achievement hunting tip sites have made Avatar appear like gold dust -- even though it's years-old the game has retained its price, and it's nearly always out of stock from the majority of stores and places that rent video games," says O'Sullivan (who quietly admits to having hunted down a copy of the game himself).

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there have been times when developers have abused the system by making outlandish demands of players; if Paul's piñata garden escapade sounds like a challenge, spare a thought for those that pursued the Gears of War series' "Seriously" 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and Judgment achievements. Getting progressively harder across all four games, a hardcore fan would have needed to have killed close to a quarter of a million of the quadrilogy's Locust bad guys to get all four. But as O'Sullivan concedes, "it's difficult to find a decent middle ground to cater to casual gamers and hardcore gamers".

So, with the next-generation Xbox One console ready to hit stores, what could the achievement system have in store for gamers in the coming years?

"Microsoft's achievement platform was really ahead of its time. It's essentially what we'd call 'Gamification' -- the sort of quantitative score-keeping that you see in everything from running apps, to electric toothbrushes, that reward you for cleaning your teeth after every meal," says Cocker.

"There's definitely room to improve the system though. I think the idea of achievements being tied to real-world rewards would be great, for developers, publishers and gamers. For developers and publishers, there is great, open data that can be tapped into through the system, and achievements can be made even more valuable with it. If there's a gamer for instance who has consistently collected every single achievement in the Call of Duty series, that proves they are massively into that game -- why not reward that gamer's loyalty and commitment with a discount for DLC or the next title in the series, or maybe even early access to a sequel?"

Given the forward-thinking nature of the original Xbox achievement system, and the Xbox One's much-touted cloud-data innovations, you'd expect Microsoft to already be ploughing away at ideas similar to Cocker's suggestions. But in reality, would it even need to? Even as it stands today, the achievement system has sunk its teeth deep into many a gamer. All that's needed is that pinging achievement notification sound, that 1,000 points to chase, that one last hit.