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Losing The Achievement Lust

by Dan Ryckert on Dec 27, 2012 at 07:00 AM

Back in November of 2005, I spent an entire cold Kansas night in a lawn chair outside of an electronics store. I wasn’t alone, as dozens of other gamers waited in line to be among the first owners of the Xbox 360. As I sat there with my bottle of Jim Beam and gigantic bag of sunflower seeds, I eagerly anticipated driving my new console home once the sun came up, loading up Call of Duty 2, and playing long into the day. Like others, my thoughts were on the gaming experiences. Everyone wanted to play Oblivion, Gears, and the other huge titles on the horizon. What I never expected was to become obsessed with a new feature that numerically displayed my gaming accomplishments.

I don’t think I really understood the system at first, and the crazy easy achievement requirements for early games like King Kong and Madden 06 make me think that several developers didn’t either. Once I finished the training level of Call of Duty 2, I didn’t pay much attention to the first of what would be hundreds of “Achievement Unlocked” messages. After beating the WWII campaign, another popup informed me that I had earned 150 gamerpoints. That message didn’t excite me at all, but mere months later, I’d find myself performing menial tasks for hours just to nab another 10, 20, or 50 points.

Many gamers fell in love with achievements, while others couldn’t care less. Those in the former camp love the way that the system encourages players to mess around with games in ways that they typically wouldn’t. Without achievements, we wouldn’t have much reason to finish a mission with only handguns, carry a lawn gnome throughout an entire game, give 50 wedgies, or kill an enemy with a rotten egg. While frequently silly, these tasks were just as often a lot of fun.

Playing games you like in novel ways is all well and good, but things can get a little stupid if taken too far. I was already deep into achievements before being hired by Game Informer in 2009, but gaining access to the vault immediately exacerbated the obsession. Suddenly, I had access to every one of the “easy 1000” games. Each week, I’d spend numerous hours wasting my time with titles like Night at the Museum, Ice Age, TMNT, and old college sports games. My achievement score kept inching up bit by bit, but so did the backlog of games I actually wanted to play.

Despite knowing full well that I wasn’t having a good time with these mediocre titles, I continued trudging through them. At one point, I even cheated in the PC version of Fallout 3 to boost my score (a decision that landed me a 50-day ban from using the vault). I even grew frustrated with reviewing 360 games on debug units, because I knew that my achievements wouldn’t be reflected on my retail account. More times than not, I’d replay through the games I reviewed at home, even if I hadn’t enjoyed them. All in the name of making a number next to my gamertag go up a few notches.

This continued for years, netting me well over 100,000 points before I finally had a change of heart. With so many great games being released in the last couple of years, I wanted to focus on playing them instead of farming achievements in others that I didn’t care about. In addition, I now have a PC that can run modern games and make them look significantly better than their console versions more often than not. 

Because of that, I’ve opted to play many of this holiday’s big releases on PC. The idea of spending dozens of hours on XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Far Cry 3, and Dishonored without earning a single Xbox 360 achievement between the three would have been ridiculous to me a couple of years ago. This year, I enjoyed playing them on PC every bit as much as I would have on a console. I’m in no way becoming a “PC guy” that bashes consoles, as I’ll still be enjoying their numerous exclusives and the occasional multiplatform game on them. The difference is, I’ll be playing them without spending hours on menial tasks just for a point boost. Occasional outliers will exist if I genuinely love the hell out of a game. For instance, I can’t get enough of Borderlands 2, and I’ll probably gun for a perfect achievement score simply so I have an excuse to play more of it.

Most importantly, I won’t be playing games that I don’t enjoy. I’ve learned to value my time more than that, and it’s certainly better spent having fun than bumping up a silly number. Do I think achievements are useless? Absolutely not. I still love getting them organically, and they can be a fun bonus to shoot for in games that you’re really having a blast with. Despite that, I don’t think they’ll ever be the reason I play a game or buy a particular version of it any more. This year, I found myself playing games for their intended purpose – to have fun. I don’t think I’ll look back.