If you’ve bought any game released in the past few years, you know all about achievements. The Xbox 360’s Gamerscore, PlayStation 3 Trophies, Steam Achievements: whatever name they go by, they’re a festering melanoma on the asscrack of the video game industry.
I first noticed this obnoxious trend when the Orange Box came out. While patiently waiting for my games to install on my pathetic broadband—even if you bought a hard copy, Steam still forced you to download the games—I noticed a bunch of “achievements” for Half-Life 2: Episode Two. My immediate thought was thus: “Why is this necessary? Why do I need a game to pat me on the head for playing it?”
Now not only does every new game these days have achievements, they’re actually being programmed into older games, such as Half-Life 2. It’s a depressing commentary on modern gamers that they need the equivalent of participation trophies in order to even play. Here’s why.
The Fourth Turning And Video Games
I had this argument with my friend Davis Aurini a while back. For those of you who haven’t read The Fourth Turning, it’s a book that postulates a cyclical theory of human history, driven by four types of generations which always occur in the same order, shaped by events in their youth. For the purpose of the post, I’m going to focus on the two generations who grew up with video games: Generation X (the Nomad generation, according to The Fourth Turning) and the Millennials (the Hero generation).
Up until around the early 2000’s, gaming was driven by Generation X, who were defined by the unraveling of traditional America that occurred during their youth. As a result, video games focused more on a single-player experience of discovery, isolation and survival. Think Fallout, Half-Life, or Deus Ex. Even Super Mario Brothers would fit the mold. Some of this was due to technical limitations (online multiplayer was a joke back in the 56k modem days), but there’s no denying that GenX exhibited a strong influence on gaming culture.
Around the mid-2000’s, Millennial tastes began to dominate the game industry. The bulk of AAA titles are now multiplayer games that emphasize teamwork, competition and heroics, such as Left 4 Dead, World of Warcraft or the latest Call of Duty crapfest. Unfortunately, because Millennials are poorly-socialized shut-ins who can’t even go to job interviews without dragging their mommies along, that means games now have to accommodate their various quirks. The achievement systems offered by the likes of Steam and Microsoft are an extension of the Millennials’ need for constant validation, the result of being raised on Barney the Dinosaur and the “everyone’s a winner” mentality.
It’d be one thing if achievements were limited to pulling off feats that require actual skill, such as juggling propane canisters with the gravity gun or pulling off a 50-person killing spree in Unreal Tournament. But half the achievements in games nowadays are for stuff you’re supposed to be doing. For example, in BioShock Infinite, you unlock an achievement every time you beat a level. Even strategy games such as Civilization V, which by definition are supposed to be open-ended, have achievements.
The Death Of Imagination
There’s another problem with the achievement system: it murders creativity. Part of the joy of playing video games, for me anyway, was stretching the game mechanics in stupid and hilarious ways. For example, half the fun of Metal Gear Solid 2 was using the stealth camo to run around fucking with enemy soldiers, spraying coolant in their faces and somersaulting them over railings. In Deus Ex, I laughed my ass off when I snuck into a cell and executed two prisoners mid-interrogation while Walton Simons sputtered in shock.
But instead of using their imaginations to fuel their enjoyment of video games, modern gamers just want to jump through the hoops that designers wave in front of them. There’s no spirit of discovery, no thrill of learning how to break the game’s rules, just a joyless addiction to collecting worthless merit badges. Given that none of these achievements have any in-game benefits, the only benefit they provide is a phony sense of accomplishment, and maybe some backslaps from your Steam buddies.
Put simply, achievements and trophies are a waste of time. They’re a sad indictment of the Millennial generation, who can’t even do something for fun without an authority figure catering to their precious widdle feewings. When I play a game, I’m not doing it because I want to collect some meaningless gold stars, I’m doing it because I want to have fun. As an alternative, the next time you play a game, instead of trying to leap a bunch of meaningless hurdles, try doing things your way.