Ultimately, Gamerscore is just a number. It signifies nothing except the amount of time and effort you've put into playing Xbox 360 (or PlayStation 3, as their "trophy" system is very similar). Getting a huge number of points doesn't grant you anything except a larger e-peen than your friends. It's easy to get sucked in, though. Before you know it, Achievements are altering the way you play games.
For example, some games offer Achievements for beating the game on a higher difficulty, others for finding every gold coin or hidden box or other assorted tchotchke the designers may have put in there. Many Achievements you can get by just playing the game normally. "Achievement Unlocked: You beat level 1!" SoulCalibur IV grants you 5 points just for watching the opening movie. But it's the ones that you have to go out of your way for that are trouble.
Achievements are strictly voluntary, and I know lots of people that are totally indifferent to them. I used to be that way. "I could get more Achievements on that game, but why bother? I already beat it." But somewhere down the line, and I can't remember exactly when, things changed. I found myself going out of my way to earn extra Achievements. I went back and played old games just to increase my Gamerscore. In a way, this was a good thing. I was able to put off buying new games because I was trying to earn new Achievements in my old games. Some Achievements led me to parts of the game that would have otherwise gone unexplored. Mass Effect, for example, has Achievements for playing as a Biotic, Soldier, or Tech character. So in order to get every Achievement in the game, you'd have to play through it a minimum of 3 times.
There's a dark side, though. My lowest point was probably when I bought the game Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth. See, all Xbox 360 games have a minimum 1000 Gamerscore, which usually get divided up into around 50 Achievements. Avatar, on the other hand, has just 5, and they are ludicrously easy to earn. I did it in about five minutes:
Yep. 1000 Gamerscore just for standing in place and mashing the B button. After I saw that YouTube video, I knew I had to do that myself. And once I did, I immediately returned the game. I didn't bother playing past the first five minutes. I didn't care. I got what I was after. It was soon after that, though, that I began to take a look in the mirror and think maybe I should just try to enjoy games for their own sake.
What really shook me out of my Achievement whoring was Assassin's Creed. Among the game's Achievements are these: Find all of King Richard's flags; find all flags in Masyaf; find all flags in Jerusalem; find all flags in Damascus; find all Teutonic flags in Acre; find all Templar flags in Acre; find all Hospitalier flags in Acre. Now, that is a lot of flags. And I actually tried to collect every last damn one. Never made it, though. Gave up in Acre and never looked back. Three words: Fuck. That. Shit.
So clearly, Achievements have the potential to alter one's playing habits, both positively and negatively. Game Developers Conference wraps up today in San Francisco, and although I couldn't attend this year, I caught coverage of several panels that explore the very issue of how Achievements affect the way people play games.
In one, Geoffrey Zatkin of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research said, "Achievements are a reward. People use reward mechanisms in game to get players to do what you want them to do. If there were no rewards for collecting coins in Super Mario, you wouldn't do it. Achievements can be a very powerful tool that have a very low impact on a development budget."
He suggests that designers place certain Achievements in games with the intent of aiming a gamer's behavior. Based on my own experience, I can certainly see some truth in this. Would I have ever attempted to collect all the flags in Assassin's Creed if there weren't Achievements for it? Hell no. And yet, if you put a carrot on a stick, even if the carrot is a meaningless collection of points, I'll chase after it.
In another talk, Chris Hecker of the independent game studio definition six argues that Achievements can spoil the fun. GameSpot reports,
Hecker's "nightmare self-fulfilling scenario" was that extrinsic motivators [i.e. Achievements -Ed] would ruin the intrinsic motivation to play their games. And with the industry's current "fetish" for metrics, Hecker said developers will wind up being pushed toward designs where extrinsic motivators work well.
Again returning to my Assassin's Creed example, this is exactly what happened. It wasn't until I realized that collecting flags had turned into a chore, devoid of any fun or game-oriented purpose, that I stopped caring. However, I think Hecker is off the mark if he thinks his conclusions apply to all gamers. As I mentioned before, I know many people who are totally indifferent towards Achievements. And Geoffrey Zatkin's research showed that "On average, only 27 percent of players managed to get half of the available achievements in each game."
All in all, I think Achievements are a good thing and I'm glad they're there. Their best function, as far as I've found, is to let you get more life out of your old games. Do you have an old game that's been collecting dust on your shelf? Try beating it on Hard. But if you find yourself crawling through every nook and cranny looking for all 500 Secret Orbs of E-Peen, you might want to think twice.
(Further reading here, here, and here.)