The Psychology of Achievements -- Internal Rewards And External Forces


Posted September 4, 2012 - By Danielle Riendeau

Before XBLA and PSN, “achievements” in games were precisely that – abstract concepts, indicated by a high score on an arcade board, bragging rights with your friends (“I totally beat Battletoads!”), or simply tasks you were pretty proud of. But gaming has always been about “achievement” – gaining levels, improving skill (or scores), reaching the next level, finding secrets, accomplishing set (or secret) tasks. The age of achievements has merely quantified the concept.

Like leveling or those awesome loot reward schedules that we talked about recently – achievements are psychologically powerful additives that designers whip into the game experience recipe.

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Achievement Addicts

It’s all about motivation. Some people play games largely because of the feelings of accomplishment – just the same way as others may play for competition, or to escape and explore fantasy worlds.

Achievement junkies are almost definitely in the first camp – folks who like to feel like they’ve done something (and now they get to brag about it). We all have a friend who occasionally buys less-than-stellar 360 games just for the “easy 1000 points”, or have done ridiculous things to finish off particularly arduous achievements – like, for example, finding a safe spot in a shooter, putting a controller in its charger, taping down the firing button for 24 hours, and collecting on their “ingenuity”.

The compulsive achievement fiend is a subset of gamer who has always existed. It’s just easier to spot them, now that their profiles are online for all to see.

Plus, you can make the case that these players have a form of hording behavior, in which they find it rewarding (and fun!) to have the most of something – in this case, points. It’s the completionist mentality – some people feel like they haven’t “beaten” a game until they get 100% of the stuff in it – and that certainly plays into developers’ and publishers’ desires to stuff longevity into their games.

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Hearing from the Experts

Achievements are essentially intangible awards for behavior, but most of us enjoy getting them, whether we care much about our gamerscore or not.

A few years back, when achievements were still climbing to the level of ubiquity we see them at now, Gamasutra ran a piece on item-hording and achievement systems that featured quotes from psychology/psychiatry experts Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, (co-director at the Center for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, and author of Grand Theft Childhood) and Dr. Kourosh Dini, (author of Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents).

Both saw achievement hunting as natural extensions of normal behavior.

Dr. Olson said: “People work for intangible rewards all the time, Money and love, for example. A paycheck may seem ‘solid,’ but it represents an abstraction. And what’s more abstract than earning an ‘A’ in philosophy?... Small things can be quite rewarding. A smile from a cute girl may be a small thing, but it can make a teenage boy’s week.”

According to Dr. Kishi, “We do have a need for feelings of success. Achievements are unique and difficult enough that most players will choose a small handful and distinguish themselves that way. This is the same sort of process that happens in deciding who we want to be as we grow.”

Just like we chose the kinds of games we play, we also like to pick the achievements that reflect our personalities (or our projected personalities).

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Some Kind of Fun

In the same way that different gamers are motivated by different reasons to play (or different instincts), we’re also attracted to different kinds of fun. In the excellent Game Design Workshop, Morgan Kauffman and Why We Play Games sidebar author Nicole Lazzaro outline different kinds of fun in games, and how different players react to them.

From the explanation of “hard fun” or “challenging fun”:

“Games provide players with the opportunity for challenge and mastery. One of the most important emotions from games is fiero, an Italian word for the feeling of personal triumph over adversity. Overcoming obstacles, puzzles, levels, and boss monsters helps players feel like they won the Grand Prix. It is a big emotion and ironically requires the player to feel frustrated first.

To feel fiero, games get the player so frustrated that they are almost ready to quit and then they succeed. Then there is a huge phase shift in the body. The players go from feeling very frustrated to feeling very good. Unlike films, games provide fiero directly from choices that players make themselves. A film will never hand the audience a Jet Ski to save the world from nuclear doom, but a game has to because in games, player choice makers.

For a game to continue to offer fiero from Hard Fun, the difficulty must increase to match player skill. The best games offer options for new strategies rather than simply adding more obstacles in less time. For example in Diner Dash, the trophy from winning level 4, such as a coffeemaker, changes the strategy for level 5.”

Achievements fit right into this scheme – directly rewarding players for accomplishing feats in-game. The challenge may be rewarding enough (and in fact, players who prefer to be challenged will likely also want their achievements to be difficult enough to “mean something”), but in recognizing your prowess with a reward, the creators are explicitly praising you for your accomplishment.

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High Scores!

Of course, some people are primarily into achievements as a means of competition. Nothing brought back the ethos of the old arcades quite like Xbox Live’s system, which allows direct comparisons among gamers. Some people will forever be motivated by the desire to be better than others (and even the best in the world), and gaming will always be a healthy outlet for that instinct.

Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit web ninja in San Francisco.

The Psychology of Achievements -- Internal Rewards And External Forces


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