A n00b guide to achievements in games

I’m a big believer in learning from history. Educational badging is derived from “achievements” in games, and so it seems useful to understand the historical use of achievements in games before thinking about badges in education. I say “historical” because achievements themselves aren’t really that old, commonly traced back to the 2005 Xbox live platform, but badges in education are even newer, first appearing around 2009 or so. What an age we live in, where eight years back can be considered outdated.

Anyway, this post is for you gamophobes out there, those of you that wouldn’t touch a game controller with a ten-foot-pole. I’ll assume you are unfamiliar with the achievement system in games but are really interested in using badges in education (but I think this can also be fun for you gaming oldtimers who will appreciate a playful look at achievements).

Ok, so I’m going to assume you gamophobes are total game n00bs (in fact I assume you are such a n00b that you don’t know what the term n00b means, so I’ll define it here as “a beginner”).
You probably won’t have played many digital games, and it’s hard to explain what an achievement is without understanding its context in an actual game.  So by way of analogy, I’m going to start with a game that everyone basically knows how to play: Monopoly. Even if you have never actually played Monopoly, I will assume that you are not a total n00b, and do know the general play of the game of Monopoly.

Now that we have a game, I can explain what an achievement is by adding an achievement system to the game of Monopoly.

First, we have to decide on our achievement criteria.  Let’s create an achievement that is landing on Free Parking 5 times in a single game.  Quite an accomplishment really, it’s a relatively rare event, but not so rare as to be impossible.

Next, to complement the achievement criteria, we need to add a tangible marking of the achievement.  This will take the form of an extra piece in the game, which is the “5x Free Parking” Achievement Chip.  It will be square in shape, have a picture of the free parking square, and have a “5x” written on it.  I show a prototype of this piece below. There will be several such pieces included in a Monopoly game.

So, now what?  Well, here’s how this basic achievement works.  When you play a game and land on Free Parking five times in that single game, you get the chip.  You get to put the chip near your real estate pile.  Everyone gets to see that you have it. It does absolutely nothing in the game itself, well, besides ever-so-slightly raising your cool factor.  If anyone else accomplishes the same feat, they take a “5X Free Parking” Achievement chip from the box and put it by their real estate pile.  Now you both have the 5x Free Parking Achievement chip: welcome to the club!

But you see, it doesn’t really stop there. In games, you have a profile, and achievements get linked to your profile.  What this means is that anytime you play Monopoly with anyone anywhere, you get to automatically put the 5x Free Parking Achievement chip with your stuff before the game even starts. In fact you can probably carry the chip around with you as much as you want.  Pin it to your jacket, show it off at parties, or take a picture of it for your business card. Most importantly, though, you bring it to every Monopoly game you play from that point forward. You thus let other players know that at some point in time, you had landed on Free Parking five times in a single game.  Yippee for you.

But there’s more. Achievements aren’t solitary travelers, they always come in groups.  Imagine we add somewhere between 20-50 achievements to the game of Monopoly, for all kinds of things: win a game without landing on Boardwalk, own all Utilities and Railroads by landing on them instead of trading, trade 10 properties in a single game, etc.  These all function the same way– when you complete the relevant task, you get a chip for that task which stays with you in all future games, but has absolutely no effect on the gameplay itself.

Now, you are probably wondering, why the hell does anyone want these chips?  These achievements themselves are absolutely valueless, both outside and inside the game.  Plus, no one seems all that impressed with them at all the parties you go to, despite your best attempts to show them off.  Why get these things?

Well, first answer is that you are hanging out at the wrong parties. But you’ve also reached the crux of the matter.  You see, no one picks out a game to play because they want to get all of the achievements in the game.  People pick out a game to play, because, well, the game is fun.  Meaning, it’s inherently, intrinsically engaging.  The purpose of achievements is to give someone a reason to keep playing a game, after they have beaten a game and might otherwise have nothing left to do.  Players typically don’t want to get achievements per se, but rather want a reason to keep playing a game they love even after they have exhausted the primary purpose of a game.  Achievements provide that reason.

There definitely is some social motivation too–people like showing off these achievements in their profile (meaning there is some truth to finding the right parties to go to). But you see, the only achievements worth showing off are the ones that are difficult to acquire, in games that you and a lot of other people find really fun and challenging.  In other words, even when achievements have social value, the value still arises from the game being a meaningful, challenging and engaging experience.  No one wants to show off skill in a game that no one plays or likes.

So achievements do have meaning and value, but that meaning is intrinsically tied to the game.  If the game by itself isn’t fun to play, then no one will even try to get the achievements.

Before going further, I just want to make this point exceptionally clear to educators: no one plays a game/completes their homework to get an achievement/badge. Rather, they get the achievement/badge because the game/homework is inherently engaging, and they want to engage more. (Of course, this isn’t how homework really works, but this is how I argue it should work. Homework assignments should be so interesting that a badge isn’t needed to get kids to finish it.)

The value of a badge is always derived from the value of the activity being done to get the badge. There is no substitute for a well-designed activity, and a badge is not a way to get kids to do something that is inherently uninteresting. Badges aren’t about getting completion of an activity, they are about driving further engagement with an activity. If you want to hear me yammer about this in more detail, check out my last post on gamifying education and badges.

Hopefully by this point you have understood the basic structure of a classic achievement system, and its role in driving further engagement into an activity. For the sake of completeness, I’m going to go one step further and discuss several exceptions to the classic achievements system. Achievements have become so predominant in gaming culture that their use has spread beyond what I’ve described above, and it doesn’t feel right to stop writing here, though you are more than welcome to stop reading here if you’ve had enough.

Appendix of exceptions to the classic achievement system

Exception 1

Typically achievements have nothing to do with the game itself, but sometimes players get a “You won the game” achievement. This would be like getting a Monopoly chip that signifies that at some time in the past, you had in fact won a game of Monopoly against someone. Every time I’ve gotten this kind of achievement in a game, it’s always felt kind of silly to me. I’m always like, but wasn’t that the purpose of all this anyways? If I wasn’t already trying to do that, why am I here?  The only time it makes sense to me is when a game has multiple difficulty settings and a game gives an achievement for different difficulties, or when a game gives an achievement for winning a multiplayer game many times.  So, a “You won against a 5-year-old” achievement is very different from “You won against a Wall Street Stock Market baron,” or “You won 100 games of Monopoly.”

Exception 2

Sometimes achievements do have meaning in the game.  If the game has in-game currency, getting the achievement may give you some of that in-game currency.  In this case, getting the achievements (or what can be called “sidequests”) becomes a real component to the game.  For example, when you get the 5x Free Parking Achievement, you might also gain $100 Monopoly dollars. Some scrupulous game designers do not call these sorts of things “achievements” since they directly affect and relate to gameplay, even though they have the same criteria and token structure as achievements. To such game designers, achievements are only things which do not directly affect gameplay.  This is really just a terminology issue, and as an educator it is useful to note that the achievement structure doesn’t always have to be completely divorced from gameplay.

Exception 3

Several games have structures where the game is primarily about getting achievements, rather than defeating the game itself. Since achievements are typically suppose to be “metagame” structures, meaning things that lie outside the structure and goal of the game itself, these games tend to blur the line between what is and is not an achievement, and more generally what a game is suppose to be. This is especially evident in the classic flash game Achievement Unlocked, but is also the primary structure of the newly popular arcade-style iOS game Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride clearly has an arcade game structure in which the goal is to stay alive as long as possible. But the achievement structure in this game is so predominant that for practical purposes the game is about gaining achievements that are unrelated to going as far as you can.

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