There’s many a reason people play video games, with fun actually being one of many reasons. For instance, some people play for the thrill of besting others and becoming the very best. Others play for the deep and compelling stories that great games provide. Then there’s another reason – the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a gaming goal, from beating every task that is thrown at you and reveling in many a filled progress bar. The issue with this last reason, however, is that it’s the reason that is destroying my life.
Taking on the tasks
Attaining goals in video games is not exactly a new thing – it’s just that in the past the goal generally only trundled down a single track, that being “complete the game”. Yet as gaming grew both in its processing power and the amount of players out there, so did the challenges on offer, RPGs and their endless lists of quests being the first thing that springs to mind. Yet I believe (and so does Wikipedia) that goal based gaming exploded into the mainstream with the introduction of the gamerscore system on the Xbox 360. It was a means of obtaining meaningless points in exchange for completing random tasks – yet its popularity exploded almost instantly. Hundreds upon thousands of people sat in front of their screens trying to bleed out every last point from their games, in the hope that their gamerscore would be the highest in the land – therefore providing bragging rights, and that all-important chance to wave your e-penis around for all to see.
When I finally got a 360 myself, I found myself swept up in the craze, but for different reasons. I had no desire to compete, nor did I really want to be the best in the land. There was just something alluring to me about seeing the achievement notification pop up accompanied with that distinctive noise, something that made me feel like I was doing well whilst also stroking the need of the perfectionist inside of me to do everything, and do it right. It was Crackdown and its agility orbs where achievements really sucked me in, changing a fun madcap game into a desperate hunt for one last bundle of green pixels. I spent about two hours straight looking for that last orb, which to many would just seem a strange waste of time… Especially considering the fact even I would not say it was actually fun. Yet when I finally found that elusive trinket, that achievement was like a badge of honour to me – something I could look at with pride and say to myself; “Yes. I did that. Me!” No-one else cared, but I did, and it made me happy – and that’s all that mattered.
And so it continued with many a game, me rushing home with a new purchase in hand wondering what new challenges awaited me. But something had warped now – it wasn’t just about seeing the game’s story through to the end. It was about beating the final boss with just your fists, or something equally as nonsensical and difficult – all for a few more gamerscore points. It even carried over to non-gamerscore goals – the advent of the challenge system in Call of Duty added a whole meta-game all about achieving simple tasks, one which made it so I actually stopped prestiging in the second Modern Warfare game simply because I didn’t want to lose my progress in working through them. It was a metamorphosis from the simple act of playing a game for fun into something more abstract – everything possible had to be seized, and like hell I would give up before I got it.
It sounds like a negative thing, and some of the mind-numbingly dull or boring achievements probably made it this way sometimes, but actually accomplishing the task at the end and having something to show for it (No matter how trivial or small) generally made up for it. I still this style of play led to some of the most fun I’ve ever had with video games… Like finally ticking off the last Fallout 3 achievement, downloadable content included, and knowing I had smashed every bit of content in that game to bits. Or perhaps completing the endless setlist on Rock Band 2 on expert difficulty, with those 50 points standing as a testament to my skill. It’s all stuff I enjoy and look back on fondly. The thing is… Well… It’s also made me a little bit crazy.
Achievement unlocked: Go insane
Need for Speed: Rivals is the zenith of goal based gaming; You’re given a checklist of things to do, and once you’ve done that checklist you drive back to the garage in order to receive a car and another checklist. That’s it. There’s no real plot, no deep or compelling story, or anything else to do besides desperately try to rally up players to start an online race. You take that checklist, you complete it, you move on. That’s it.
I. Went. Mental.
Seriously. Suddenly I was gripped to the game, wanting to play it at every possible moment just in the hope of completing another checklist before I collapsed due to lack of sleep. At one point I was given the task of blowing up car tyres with spike strips – after a futile few attempts at taking out opponents using these rather rubbish pieces of kit, I came to realise it didn’t actually specify whose tyres you had to pop. And so there I was for five minutes, at the side of the road, lying down spike strips and then intentionally driving over them. At one point I even realised – what am I doing with my life? I had essentially exploited the game mechanics in the home of filling in a virtual checkbox and soothing the completionist inside of me. Yet when I thought about it, it had always been this way – right back to when I was hunting down that last agility orb many years before. I would take on the trials even the insane would flee from, and keep on attacking them until they finally bent to my will. And if it took several shards of my mental well being to do it? So be it.
So, yeah. Goals in games have had a pretty big impact on me… Some of it negative, most of it positive, and all with a mild dose of making me into a crazy person who will hunt down the last Playstation 4 trophy in a game in the same way a starving animal would attack his first meal in weeks. I’m now currently sailing the seas on Assassin’s Creed IV, another game filled with a labyrinth of side quests and secrets, and once again I am seeing many an hour of my life drain away in my desire to beat it all. And if that day even comes that I do finally obtain that elusive 100% on my progress screen… Well, then it’s just off to the next challenge…