The Deeds Make the Man

We have mentioned on occasion that the main reason that the Xbox 360 exists is to deliver the Xbox Live service to your TV. There is something in Xbox Live for everyone. For people who care to play games with others on the Internet, something that I don’t really understand anymore, the friend tracking and online matchmaking in Xbox Live puts all other such services to shame. For people who want to not have to buy the next Ubisoft shooter to find out that it’s crap, the Live service provides downloadable demos and other content that make this easy. For those who like to spend their extra money on retro games they played 20 years ago, the Live Arcade is just the ticket.

Finally, for the marketing geeks in the audience there is the Xbox Live Achievements system. This attaches a persistent online profile to every Xbox Live customer. This profile tracks every single thing they do on the console, thus providing you the salesperson with perfect information about all of our gaming habits. Who could ask for more?

I understand why Microsoft would put something like this in the system. It gives them a way to collect information about who is playing what and for how long, and they can feed this information back to the publishers. This all makes sense. What I don’t understand is why anyone else cares.

In the first Xbox Live, a few games had online tracking of in-game achievments. The online scoreboards in Project Gotham and links to the online game records at Bungie in Halo 2 come to mind. The online information that Halo and Project Gotham collected on you made sense in the context of those two particular games. If you are playing a racing game, you probably care a bit about how fast you drive a particular car around a particular track as compared to other people on the planet. Similarly, if you are playing online deathmatch in Halo, it is nice to have a record of such games, in case you want to look back on old victories.

The Achievements system lacks this concrete connection to the gameplay. Instead, achievements are little abstract cookies like “You made it past level 2!” or “You killed the purple three-eyed boss monster with just your knife!” I know I did these things, I was playing the game while I did it. I probably did it to get to the next cut scene, and beyond that I really don’t care and I don’t understand why anyone else would care. Sure, you get “points”. But as of yet these points are even more useless than the other Xbox Live points you can get just by giving Microsoft money. Besides the utility of recording my actions for the demographers, I still don’t see the utility here. Achievment points are like Microsoft the crack dealer giving me extra kudos for getting high

Apparently, I am alone in my confusion. This sort of virtual trophy case is important to a lot of people. The sum total of good news for the PS3 in the last six months was the announcement of this “Home” system which appears to be nothing more than a 3-d room where fake people can walk around and look at each other’s fake loot. Come to think of it, Second Life is a whole pyramid scheme based on the idea that people will pay just as much money for fake stuff as real stuff. I gather that there are entire side industries that generate real money for fake stuff in World of Warcraft. In fact, this business is big enough to have gotten coverage on NPR, your Dork Nation news source.

Observing all of this brings me no closer to understanding what motivates people to pursure these strange virtual measures of their own self-worth. I understand why people enjoy playing the games. I understand many sources of pride related to playing games. There is the satisfaction of the final cut scene. There is the acquisition of mad skillz. I can understand these things as they are directly connected to the experience of the game itself. Achievements are an external and artificial meta-game. They are like a side- quest with no in-game payoff. You only notice them when you’ve turned the game off, and by then you don’t care anymore.