When it comes to video games, I’m not much of an achievement guy. But when I pop in a new game I usually bring up the achievement list to see what’s there and to look for anything interesting. When I recently did this with Halo: Reach I had to give a snort upon seeing the “A Monument To All Your Sins” achievement, which can only be gotten by playing through the entire single-player campaign on Legendary difficulty. ALONE. As in without a co-op buddy. I liked Reach well enough, but on higher difficulty levels the game is brutal and forces you to replay sections over and over and over again using a tiresome trial and error approach. Unless you’re a thirteen year old who’s mixing cocaine in his coffee 1 it’s anything but fun, especially without a co-op buddy or three.
And it’s not hard to find other examples of punishingly difficult achievements that net you more controller-biting frustration than gaming pleasure. Beat this cheap boss without taking any damage. Complete the game using only the weakest weapon. Beat this tricky level in a stupidly short amount of time. So why would anyone do these things if they’re unnecessary and no fun?
A paper entitled “Conceptual Consumption” and published in the Annual Review of Psychology last year suggests some clues. 2 The authors explore a theory of “conceptual consumption,” which holds that people are as interested in consuming ideas, information, and concepts as they are physically consuming things –sometimes more so. People want to “possess” an experience simply because it’s novel and rare, and will sometimes forego other more rational choices in order to do it. For some people, there’s a drive to add that concept or experience to their list of “stuff I’ve done” just so they can have the satisfaction of a longer list. Researchers Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz liken this to ticking items off an experiential checklist or “experiential resume” so that they can die feeling like they’ve accomplished more in life. These are the same kind of people who elect to stay in hotel rooms carved out of ice instead of a Florida Marriott or to eat bacon-flavored ice cream instead of chocolate. 3 4 And get this: there may even be a correlation between this kind of nonsense and how productive people are in other aspects of their lives!
This is why I think achievement systems that show what percentage of players have seized a given achievement are more motivating. Knowing that the Monument to All Your Sins achievement is worth 150G is okay, since it gives you some reference against which to compare it to that achievement that gave you 5G for watching the intro sequence to Soul Calibur 4. 5 But the way that Steam does achievements is a lot more likely to capitalize on conceptual consumption drives because it lets you know just how rare your little triumph was relative to other players.
Because it’s not just about a longer list –it’s about a more varied and interesting list that tells people that you’re a varied and interesting kind of person. Getting that A Monument To All Your Sins achievement in Halo: Reach is a way of signalling to friends and strangers that you’re the kind of hardcore person who has really mastered the game and best of all, you can tell them all about it 6 After all, that experiential resume is no good if you can’t show it to anyone. Just remember to pad out your professional resume, too.