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Achievements in Digital Media

John “Kaseido” McKnight recently wrote about a proposed ‘achievement’ system for Second Life which, some believe, might help shift online world demographics from a niche, free-form crowd to the lucrative gamer market. So soon after The Internet Crashed had posted an interview with Gary Ballard, this idea had me musing on notions of genre and medium again. I hope to draw a divide where social achievements can and cannot enrich a digital experience, but by doing so I must first separate MMO games from their ‘offline’ predecessors.

A Trio of Media

“MMO’s [sic.] need to be thought of as a medium, not a genre of video games. You take an experiment like Second Life and put it up against a refined, Skinner-box profit machine like World of Warcraft and you’ll see two very different experiences. Both have elements of game, but such widely varying goals that they can’t be considered in the same genre at all. You have to view them as two examples of different genres within the medium of an online multiplayer experience.”

Gary Ballard, for The Internet Crashed

Ballard’s point is a potent one, which Kaseido seized upon too – that although MMOs and games share much in common, it is almost always impossible to win an MMO, and so they are ultimately for play. The only time an MMO defies this is in player vs. player combat, when strict deathmatch rulings and the enclosure of an arena ensure that all play is taken outside the game’s normal flow. A single-player game may instead be completed once its story is run or a series of puzzles is finished.

I consider massively-multiplayer online games to be a medium of their own, separated from the likes of console games and other smaller, online titles. The constraints and opportunities which are made available to a community-driven game are too many to let us treat such work as we would game with fewer or only one player. I currently classify these media by their chief intent: social interaction, gaming within rules, and playing.

  • ‘Console’ games, typically free of social input (save for multiplayer modes), may feature ‘game’ or ‘play’. Examples would include Half-Life 2 (game) and LittleBigPlanet (play);
  • Online worlds feature no overarching goals save whatever the user brings to their own spontaneous play;
  • MMOs occupy a middle-ground, since they feature directed gameplay delivered in a freeform fashion – players are allowed to embrace or disregard quests and challenges at their own discretion, and may in fact ‘level up’ without any heed paid to these features. They are also encouraged to share this experience in a social environment.

It is these differences in function and reach which I think demand careful attention when suggesting new features like achievements. The system as we understand it is, as Kaseido says, a relatively new phenomenon, though ‘offline’ achievements have featured in console games for decades. Hosting these accomplishments in an online environment has allowed players to create ‘game passports’, detailing their exploits and granting them bragging rights.

Achievements as Identifiers

This is the summary of my World of Warcraft ‘main’ character’s achievements. It shows, at a glance, what it is I’ve spent my time doing in that game. Many of these achievements are irrelevant to World of Warcraft‘s core gameplay, so although my achievements speak of 5-player dungeons  and quests (associated with ‘offline’ console play – see right), I’ve actively sought content above and beyond what the game has directed me to see. Herein lays my map of free-form play within World of Warcraft – goals I set myself within World of Warcraft as a digital toybox.

Achievements take on a greater meaning when compared with other players, such as this table formed of two friends of mine:

Since I mentioned Kaseido earlier, it seemed fitting to weigh our achievements up , Incidentally, the fact I can do that demonstrates just how achievements have been implemented as a social tool. The record of our behaviour reveals subtle differences: by way of context, I come from a console gaming background while Kaseido is an aficionado of online worlds. I’ve completed more quests and have engaged in more player vs. player combat and dungeons, while Kaseido has put more focus into professions and other playful goals.

Coffindodger, on the other hand, shows a comparative shift from casual play to PvP gaming. His achievements eschew self-made goals like trade professions; instead he collects achievements through challenges set by the game. The fact that these achievements involve other people, either in direct competition or collaboration, might label his a ‘classic’ MMO style of play – spread across game and social.

This is why I show ‘MMOs’ occupying the middle-ground of the full triangle chart – this spread of behaviour has come from within just one platform, in a fashion unique to the massively-multiplayer medium.

Achievements, as we have established, allow players to communicate their play style to others. They may also help guide players along, since each category shown on the figure above corresponds to a style of play. Players who recognise this may soon find themselves chasing achievements to suit their own tastes, and so in turn their experience of the game is channelled: “you’ve collected 18 quest achievements so far – here’s what to do if you want to follow the rest up”.

Types of Achievement

Referring to the figure above, showing we three players’ achievement progress:

  • Quests are a hangover from console games, as they typically allow a lone player to follow set plots. MMOs frame this within a ‘pick up and play’ scheme as mentioned before, whereby a player can skip whole regions if they wish to. Most would be encouraged to follow a group of quests through from start to finish, through being offered a particular quest reward or simply been swept along by narrative.
  • Dungeons & Raids and Player vs. Player are similar ways to game, but they are achievements derived from multiplayer modes. These challenges are inherently competitive or collaborative, but are almost always staged by the game developer rather than emerging from the player’s own, emergent ambitions. A player cannot achieve these at their own pace because others must be brought along, to help overcome some obstacles.

  • Exploration and Professions are aspects of free play, and although a player seeking explore the map would find themselves placed inside very clear boundaries (in the form of an on-screen graphic), seeking professional accomplishment requires a player to set their own material goals, and form a learning programme of their own device.
  • Reputation is largely an individual goal too, as the player will have to consciously favour one particular faction within the game in order to earn these achievements. These allow the player to play through the MMO’s constituent tasks with much finer control than following the suggested line of quests, as they can choose to ignore all those tasks which distract them from their own goal.


  • Media triangle 3 (social)World Events and Feats of Strength are social features, and they usually entail bragging rights. World Event achievements are a reward for engaging with fellow players in a scripted event, and offer frill items as reward. Feats of Strength are rewards for actions no longer asked of most players, showing a dedication to outmoded events or quest lines.
  • Many of the General goals, such as expressing in-game love for squirrels or buying a particular character item, are there as frivolous conversation pieces – purely social. There is no rule to abide by other than a binary ‘completed/not completed’ condition, and there’s usually no play involved either.

Social achievements are probably the trickiest to implement in any of the three gaming media: online worlds, traditional ‘console’ games or MMOs:

  • It’s easy to offer achievements for completing goals within a game: even levels are a form of achievement, as a player unlocks more gameplay each time they beat a boss or reach the goal.
  • Achievements for acts of play are usually based upon actions outside of this context, since any move which takes them from the suggested path is one taken independently of the designers’ direction. These would normally be considered ‘easter eggs’.
  • Social achievements, however, require a community playing within the same rule set in order to make sense. Were World of Warcraft stripped of its game elements and turned into a fantasy chat room, there’d be little motivation to seek hidden treasures or try something unusual since there is no central path to stray from.

Implementing Social Achievement

We return to the big question: can an achievements system be implemented in online worlds such as Second Life? We’ve discussed the three digital media most commonly labelled as ‘games’ and highlighted their differences. We’ve also explored how the MMO medium, perhaps the central of the three, spans all three play types and so can support a diverse set of achievements for players to strive for.

My simple answer is, “no, I don’t believe so”. Achievement systems exist for a few reasons:

  1. Social collateral;
  2. An extra set of goals for people to play for;
  3. A means of directing people to content they may not have seen before.

All of which rely upon there being a game to begin with. Bragging rights can only come about when a player has overcome an obstacle, and although we all manage small victories against the rigours of daily life from time to time, it’s only in those challenges which other people can relate that we find real value. For a game, this might mean conquering an always-present boss, hitting a certain score based on the same ruleset you abide by, or a myriad of other tasks the designers set out for their players.

Layering an extra set of goals, such as for those players who enjoy pure achievement, requires there to be a decent foundation of goals to begin with, or else the context is lost. Games teach us skills and ask us to put them to challenging use in order to meet certain criteria. Rise beyond this and you have an achievement – but if you ask a World of Warcraft player about the worth of “Make Love, Not Warcraft” (Emote /hug on a dead enemy before they release corpse) or “Dual Talent Specialisation” (Visit your class trainer when you are at least level 40 and activate your Dual Talent Specialization), they’ll likely dismiss them as frills since neither has an element of challenge.

The third point is one I believe is the most appropriate for an application to online worlds – directing players or users towards any form of content is the best way to ensure they are entertained, informed and ultimately retained as concurrent users. Achievements are an easy means of ‘gaming‘ this, but they’re two-dimensional – players can see their worth or the lack of, just as with “Dual Talent Specialisation“. It’s there simply to ask players to spend 1000 gold and check the dual talent feature out.

I believe it is a weak method of enticement, and ultimately I think online worlds could do much, much better.