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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.

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