Achievements are both popular and controversial in modern gamer culture. Their popularity with gamers drives game companies to put ever more complex achievements into their game products. Large game dashboards like Steam and Xbox/Windows live focus on tabulating and comparing achievements with your friends. Where popularity abounds, controversy follows — this time with an array of blogs and pundits expressing viewpoints from “achievements break immersion” to “achievements are a skinner sucker punch.” You can see a more detailed discussion of the “Skinner Box” effect on games in an earlier post here.
If you’re old enough you’ll remember the other world in the post title, “MIPS.” Among other meanings, Meaningless Indication of Processor Speed was one of the more commonly offered interpretations of the acronym. It actually had serious meanings in “Millions of Instructions per Second” and as the name of a processor made popular by SGI and still used in embedded systems today. Most notably this acronym was used as a term of derision for the statistics generated about processor speed by various sorts of benchmarks.
The problem with benchmarks is that a benchmark closely matched to your application may give you a good idea of the comparative performance of your application on various computer hardware, but a poorly matched (or chosen) benchmark can be worse than not using a benchmark at all. Worst of all, computer manufacturers have been known to optimize their hardware to specifically excel at the benchmarks without concern for how well they could run normal tasks.
All these thoughts cam rushing back when I read a Steam forum post regarding a web site that aggregated, scored and compared your achievements with those of your friends. The topic of the post was “Achievement cheating ruins the value of achievements.”
I disagree fundamentally. Achievements have no value for many reasons. There are no standards (or they are poorly adhered to) regarding the effort required to earn achievements. The value of achievements to game companies (sell more copies of the game) is not related to the value of achievements to gamers (to represent in some way their skill, progress or time spent in a game). Some games allow or encourage modification and even have achievements to recognize that — but inevitably modifying the game can change the meaning of its achievements.
On the one hand, I’d like to say that achievements for games are just that — for games. If games were inconsequential to their players, this might be true. Games often, however, deeply affect their players — even in this new medium, gamers form strong emotional bonds with other real and imaginary people in games — just like other media (books, movies, plays…).
On the other hand, saying that achievements are the stick by which we measure our commitment or skill or luck with a game is also untrue. Achievements were not designed to be yardsticks and because of their happenstance of existence cannot be our yardstick. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t design yardsticks to measure these things within games and gamers — this would improve things “measurably.” But it is to say that achievements are both important to those that own them and somewhat meaningless to everyone else.