Stumbling Sojourner, or Risk vs. Reward in Accumulative Achievements

As listeners to The Geek Night In will know, I play Niantic Labs’ Ingress, and have done so steadily since last September. As it is an alternate reality game (ARG) which lends almost no functionality to players who aren’t on the move, I was not surprised to find that many of its core features are similar to those which also find favour in ‘gamification’. What I have discovered recently is that unlike some other games which have picked up good features from this world of motivation and medals (a subject upon which I have mused before), Ingress‘ medals system sometimes works to actively discourage further play.

Ingression

For the uninitiated: Ingress is a location-based turf war between two factions. Players hack, capture and deploy defences on virtual portals sited at public landmarks, and can then use said portals to draw fields covering large and small areas of the world. Whichever faction has most of the Earth’s surface covered during each scoring cycle is said to have won that cycle. That’s the game’s basic premise.

Adding to this basic gameplay is a series of rules for earning medals, displayed on each player’s profile. Some simply track statistics such as ‘number of portals hacked’ and ‘number of mods deployed’, while others act as guides to draw players out of their usual neighbourhoods, such as ‘number of missions completed’ and ‘number of unique portals captured’.

Examples of “Ingress” bronze-level medals

Often when such ‘feats’ are used in a game, they are of superficial value. In Ingress, however, earning medals is essential to progress in its ‘endgame’. In order to advance from level 8 to the maximum, level 16, a player must earn experience points in conjunction with certain levels of medal. Level 9, for example, may only be reached after attaining any one gold and 4 silver medals.

In a game like this, then, the ability to earn any medal counts. Some come naturally, as a result of performing the sorts of actions which earn experience points anyway. This is a common setup amongst many ‘casual’ games. The medals I have run afoul of most recently, however, are those which demand dedication to a certain style or pattern of play. My failure to earn them, then, feels not like a reflection of my strategy or skill within the game, but rather my lack of willingness to conform.

"Ingress"' Soujourner medal requires that players "hack a portal within consecutive 24 hour periods".
‘Soujourner’ medal in “Ingress”

When games award points or medals for ‘feats’ such as logging in and playing every day, it is, to my mind, at best irritating and at worst damaging. Such design choices can, of course, be problematic for someone like me with aspects of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I think that even in a broader sense, encouraging players to chase these features can only ever lead to either a moderately pleasing outcome, or a downright infuriating failure – and these two states do not balance each other out well.

In my recent experience of Ingress, the problem basically arose due to poor communication. In the ‘Soujourner’ example above, the help text states one must “hack a portal within consecutive 24 hour periods”. There are two main areas of ambiguity here: must it always be the same portal? And how is this 24-hour period defined?

The first query was relatively easy to resolve through experimentation; the latter turned out to be a figurative minefield. I once discovered that I could actually skip a real day of play and still resume my hacking streak. Panic over the loss of 50-odd days’ progress was replaced with a respectable amount of joy, and faith in the game – that it might have checks to ensure that ‘real life’ need not impact an achievement hunt. I was also pleased to think that the description was actually not as ambiguous as I’d feared, apparently comprising a 48-hour time period from the last portal hack.

With that having been said, whatever rule is in place was either misinterpreted (based instead on a rolling series of arbritrary clock resets, perhaps?) or not applied so consistently, as a few weeks later I found that hacking a portal 38 hours after my last hack somehow did not qualify as being within two consecutive 24-hour periods. My streak of 71 days’ hacking was reset to 0.

Faced with this, there is nowhere for my frustration (as a player) to go but towards the game and its designers, which is rather counter-intuitive for a game seeking to reward repetitive play. After having been robbed of a months-long play streak based on a poorly-defined technicality, I can find no reason to strive for this medal again. The 71-day setback to any further attempt literally stares back at me from my player profile. Striving for the Sojourner medal was once a pleasant thing to try and keep up; now it has been revealed to be some sort of chore, beyond my capacity for what I like to think of as suspended bliss.

Perhaps what I feel so keenly about the loss of this medal is linked to it having some sort of intermediate failure state. It is, after all, an attempt to set a personal record. Certainly, it’s impossible for me to earn negative qualifying points towards other medals, like ‘number of resonators destroyed’ or ‘mind units captured’; these are earned cumulatively and irrespective of time.

It would, however, have been just as easy for the designers to implement a medal which tracks how many unique days you’ve been hacking portals for, regardless of succession or interruption. After all, Ingress already tracks ‘current hacking streak’ as a statistic separate from the Sojourner medal. Such a medal would still reward persistence of play (the medal is earned more quickly if you play absolutely every day), but would avoid risking the player’s ire when dangling a counter reset over them.

As I said before, the risk to player enjoyment does not seem to tally well with the potential reward for them earning this medal. The choice to follow gamification routes like this strike me as counter-intuitive in what is essentially a lifestyle game. Whilst ‘consecutive time playing’ may be seen as one of few metrics for which the game can demand a dedicated effort, I feel strongly that such demands should be reserved for the realms of player skill or strategy, rather than their personal circumstances.

Cover image based on “Sundial” by Liz West, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.