Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head

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.

Wait, you want me to what?

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.


1. Don’t do this, by the way. Being a 13 year old is a terrible idea.
2. Ariely, D., & Norton, M. (2009). Conceptual Consumption. Annual Review of Psychology (60), 475-499.
3. Keinan, A., & Kivetz, R. (2008). Remedying hyperopia: The effects of self-control regret on consumer behavior. Journal of Marketing Research (45), 676-689.
4. And don’t tell me that bacon ice cream would taste great. No number of Internet memes is going to make that anything but gross.
5. No, seriously.
6. Whether they’d really rather you shut up about it or not.

11 thoughts on “Conceptual Consumption and Kicks to the Head

  1. There’s a difference between something that’s challenging and something that’s ridiculously difficult and requires you to try over and over and over again until you get lucky. Maybe for some Halo uber players the Legendary solo achievement falls into the former, but I think for a lot of people it’s the latter. Yet I suspect they still do it just to get the achievement.

    And thanks for the links. I’ll give them a closer look soon. The whole culture of hardcore competitive gaming has always interested me.

  2. I’m hardly an uber-Halo gamer; and I died many times during most of the levels on legendary – I probably averaged about 30 deaths a level. However given the short checkpoints, the challenge never felt insurmountable, and I generally (with a few exceptions) could tell where it was a flaw in my skills or tactics that had let me down – and so the fun was in trying to overcome that. There were very few instances where it felt down to luck. (Although there certainly is some – like the random ‘boss’ enemy spawns in Reach).

    However, I agree you are completely correct in your main point and none of this diminishes that. 🙂 In fact, I am far more likely to enjoy doing a challenging game that does give you some externally visible trophy to display – I think also because it enhances the fiero hit afterwards.

  3. I expect bacon ice cream would taste something like sausage gravy, seeing as how they both have pork and milk as primary ingredients. So it’s not the sort of thing you’d eat when you’re in the mood for chocolaty sweetness, but I could see it working on some level.

    About the achievements thing, I think there’s an interesting contrast between the way the Xbox handles achievements and the way they’re handled in World of Warcraft. When I get an achievement in WoW it’s broadcast to the rest of my guild automatically. When I get one on the Xbox, nobody really knows unless I make the effort to tell someone (or they make the effort to look up my profile). Maybe this doesn’t make much difference to people who already brag about their gamer score, but for less… forward people like myself it definitely changes the experience. Because WoW’s achievement notifications are automatic I get to enjoy the attention from getting the achievement without feeling guilty for spamming my friends. And it saves me the mental effort of overcoming my reservations. I also enjoy getting occasional updates from friends who wouldn’t bother sharing.

  4. I get the trophy side of gaming; I’ve collected my fair share of rare kit in various MMOS as emblems of skill and/or dedication, and I can see the relationship between achievement oriented gamers and, say, your average Everest climber. What I don’t get are the achievements *not* aimed at skill or dedication–for instance, there are a number of Puzzle Quest 2 achievements on Steam that require you to fail spectacularly or play badly, on purpose. It’s somehow tempting to earn these achievements just to “collect them all”–like they’re promotional McDonald’s glasses or something.

  5. For those “You’re doing it wrong” and other “I had no effing clue to make an interesting one” achievements, we must not forget the possibility of using those objects as milestones for developers/publishers feedback research: registering players behavior, pointing what type of action are proportionality made or not, etc.

    Obviously, this leads to some other problematics : The design of those milestones, and the way players are aware of it (ie : crappy FIFA 10 achievement “red card”, which consists in 5 rage quit while losing during an online game – was hidden, but very soon revealed by achievements specialized websites). But in fact, I do personally believe in the interest of that kind of feedback process during any R&D phase on the developer side : which feature had success? Which one needs to be reworked? Which one is useless?

    I’m sure the very over hard tricky “Finish the game with your eyes closed on over hard mode while singing the Final Countdown theme” achievements must have a use that way. I just don’t imagine how.

    (Two last things :
    – Sorry for being slightly off topic.
    – Sorry for my english.)

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