Complicated Games

The Numbers Don't Lie

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Of all the gimmicks tried by major game makers, Microsoft deserves a prize for thinking up the Achievements system. If you’ve played a game on the Xbox 360, you’ll know what I’m talking about: Every single game hands out “gamer points,” which you earn by meeting goals like going through the tutorial, finishing the main story, or scoring a hundred sniper shots. Connect to the Internet, and all of your achievements show up online for your fellow gamers to scope out. It’s a simple way to score bragging points with the worldwide gaming community. It’s also fantastically addictive.

According to a story in GameDaily, players regularly buy games they don’t even want and stick with them until they’ve wrung out every last achievement. And while the first achievements in any game are easy bait, the hardest border on ridiculous: In the cinematic shoot-’em-up Gears of War, to earn the “Seriously … ” badge, you have to beat 10,000 other players in online matches. In four weeks, someone had done it.

Most people—and even some gamers—hear this and think, “That’s insane.” Why waste so much time going out of your way just to get points? Points that are worth nothing? Yet collection is one of the most addictive features you can add to a game—just like in real life. After all, whether it’s baseball cards, model trains, Hummels or old 45s, most of us feel the urge to acquire stuff. And Microsoft’s competitors agree: Sony has already announced a similar feature—a virtual 3-D trophy case—for the PlayStation 3.

But we don’t just earn points for our own satisfaction: Other players get to see them. And here’s where I see real value in the Achievements system. Most social websites use a reputation system based purely on scores or honor badges. MySpace counts the number of friends you’ve racked up, Amazon flags its hardest-working amateur reviewers, and message boards tally your posts. The same applies for online games, where players’ ranks and titles follow them everywhere. It’s true that on the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a creepy stalker. But they know if you’ve reached Knight-Lieutenant in World of Warcraft.

And when you look at it that way, Xbox Achievements are the most trivial example of the meritocracy built into social networking applications—where who you are depends entirely on what you’ve done online. And any fame you bring from the real world will only take you so far. Presidential contender John Edwards may have built a campaign site in Second Life, but until his avatar is hanging around in night clubs wearing 20-foot-wide bat wings and a tail, why should anyone take him seriously?

With so many online communities, it’s refreshing to remember that we have a choice about which ones we join And nobody cares whether you’re native or newcomer, young or old, a man or a man pretending to be a woman: you’re judged solely by the content of your made-up character. Or at least by your aim.

So if you’re playing Gears of War, and some guy clocks you in the head to cross that 10,000 kill mark? It doesn’t matter if he’s a grandparent, a teenager or a real-life serial killer. Just give him a pat on the back. He’s earned it.

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