Waypoints

Waypoints
Playing for the Reward

Adam LaMosca | 30 Oct 2007 22:00
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It took the Call of Duty 4 beta to fully convince me of the truth: I'm a sucker for persistent, pseudo-meaningful rewards in games, to the point that their presence or absence affects my gaming decisions. There was a time when I'd have adored Bioshock, for example, simply for what it was. Merely playing through the game would have been a completely satisfactory experience. When I played Bioshock on the Xbox 360 last summer, however, I enthusiastically snatched up every achievement I could earn. I could just as easily have played the game on my PC, and for $10 less, but the presence of achievements in the 360 version actually helped drive my purchasing decision.

It's one thing when stats or achievements or unlocks enhance an already great game, as was the case with Bioshock. Then they're just icing on the cake. It's another thing entirely when they begin to outshine the games themselves. I can say without reservation that I wouldn't still be playing Halo 3 were it not for its thorough stat and accomplishment tracking. It doesn't even matter that I'm a fairly lousy player. Apparently, as long as the game tosses me a medal or achievement-shaped bone once in a while, I'll keep at it.

I once derided the 360's achievements and gamerscore as gratuitous, shallow features for the easily distracted. Two years and thousands of gamerpoints later, they've twisted my motivations. Now, even the best gaming experiences on other platforms seem oddly lacking. I find myself wondering, almost unconsciously, what's in it for me? Where's the reward? The game, by itself, isn't enough. Where's my badge, my medal, my score?

I'm tempted to dismiss my achievement and stat whoring as foolish, empty pursuits that distract me from gaming's substance. After all, I like to put games on a pedestal and claim I value them for their artistic merits. I enjoy pretending it's the marriage of creativity and technology that keeps me in love with the medium. But that's only part of my obsession. On another level I'm like a rat in a Skinner Box. Except unlike the rat, I'm not after food. I'm after far more intangible, artificial rewards. I'm flipping levers for points and tokens.

In the end, I can't escape the fact that a fundamental sense of reward has always been central to my experiences. It was there when I first entered my initials for an arcade high score, when I took a Polaroid of my Astrosmash score to show to my friends at grade school and when I proudly cashed in handful of tickets for a few crappy toys after an evening at the local Chuck E. Cheese. And now it's built into Call of Duty 4's multiplayer game. I can't resist, but why should I?

Adam LaMosca lives in Portland, Oregon. When he's not stringing words together for The Escapist, he's shuffling paperwork over at Gamers With Jobs. His personal website is lowspec.com.

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