Achievements are the New MIPS

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.

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