I don’t really know what to make of achievements. I salivate when the bell rings and the pop-up tells me I’ve killed my 1,000th zombie – I’m only human – but my interest in chasing high scores never lasts. For a few minutes I thought I cared about fetching hard-to-reach light seeds in Prince of Persia, but then I remembered: No, I don’t. Whether or not someone is out there nodding in approval at my gamer score or mocking me for it, the reward isn’t worth the time investment. No matter how high I score in that the achievement aptitude test, I’m not getting into Geek Princeton.

Yet ask me to schlep all the way across Middle-earth to deliver warm beers to lazy drunks and I’ll do it twice if there’s a special nametag in it for me.

The Deeds and Titles systems in Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) add a myriad of optional objectives for players to pursue, turning otherwise-meaningless errands into feats of skill (or, perhaps more accurately, persistence). Complete certain Deeds and you’re awarded a Title to display after your character’s name. Defeat 30 brigands in the hills around Bree and you’re a Watcher of Roads. Destroy 120 undead warriors in the woods of the Trollshaws and you’re The Purifier. Drop some precious coin on 50 Hobbit omelets and you win the title of Breakfast Connoisseur. (Actually, you need to eat nine servings of four different breakfast items to earn that Title, but that’s beside the point.) It’s exactly as simple, silly and superficial as it sounds, and it’s marvelous.

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On one level, titles are all about showing off your zaniness, obsessions or accomplishments to other players. When a visiting LOTRO dev awarded me the rare title Fathomer of Riddles for winning a chat-based riddle contest during a live event, I activated it mostly to gloat. I imagined Elrond would lower his sunglasses, nod his head and say “Looks good on you” as I strutted around Rivendell.

However, in the weeks that I walked around labeled a Fathomer of Riddles, I came to learn the real value of Titles: They get players talking. More importantly, they provide another language through which players can communicate with each other. They enable connections through both familiarity and curiosity.

When I displayed my Fathomer epithet, players sent me tells asking how I got it. When another Sage of Fine Spirits and I met on the road in Hobbiton, we toasted each other with beery emotes. When I see players displaying the title The Undying, awarded for surviving the first 20 levels of play without ever being defeated in battle, I remember how close I came to it with my first character and appreciate what they went through to get it.

Those simple, fleeting moments might be meaningless, but they facilitate the delicate sense of connectedness that helps two anonymous players, miles apart in real life, break the ice and get that much more entwined in the player network. For an MMOG, the network is life. Players may pick up an MMOG for the gameplay, but they stay subscribed for the player network.

LOTRO has turned its achievement system into a form of expression that doesn’t break character. Titles are declarations of what you think is fun about the game. (Or what you’re currently busy doing – a Title denoting your crafting expertise suggests you’re willing to sell your services.) That’s a precious and subtle tool for identifying compatibility with other players.

To enrich the Title system, LOTRO deploys the most potent and ubiquitous gilding technology available to MMOGs: rarity. Though most Titles can be earned by any character, the sheer number of hours that go into unlocking the rarest Titles imbues them with a natural scarcity. Furthermore, characters can only display one title at a time. That simple limitation, restricting the player to one Title displayed at a time, creates another minor layer of gameplay. Titles become resources to pursue and manage. The space after the character’s name becomes the place to play that resource, like an inventory slot.

Each Title is a shibboleth containing some bit of information other players can decrypt by learning more about the game’s Deeds, getting more invested in the game in the process. Achievements thus become part of a benign mini-game about communicating with other players using prewritten Title phrases.

A Title like Slug-wrangler, awarded more or less for slaying an entire graduating class of toxic slugs in the deepest reaches of the Witch-king’s high-level basement, can reveal both a player’s sense of humor and her many hours logged with high-level content at the same time. It says, “I am an awesome and weathered hero of Middle-earth, but I can also appreciate the charming absurdity of chopping through an almost criminal volume of slug guts in search of crafting materials.”

Rare gear serves the same purpose. LOTRO characters can have three different costumes prepared simultaneously – one made of actual operating gear, two merely cosmetic – which players can switch between with a click of the mouse. Prize garments like furry cloaks, fearsome helmets and colorful tabards reveal information about how many hours you’ve spent skinning snow leopards, how much success you’ve had in the PvP zone, or how early you preordered the newest game expansion. There’s an incredible amount of information posted around the game world, communicating data about the real player at the wheel, encoded into the trappings and argot of Middle-earth.

All that achievement data would muddle into coldly statistical background noise, but by dressing it up with trophy garments and heroic honorifics LOTRO has reconfigured it into jargon. The achievements lure you in with a bit of mystery – each Title is something new to discover – and reward you with tools for expressing yourself through your character.

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Gear is imagery. Titles are riddles. Both allude to previous adventures. If you leave your character open to inspection, other players on your server can browse all three of your outfits. What they find is a triptych, a description of your character or play style in three costumes or less. That’s what achievements should be: not a report card of your performance, but a way to express yourself without saying a word.

Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and designer, co-founder of Gameplaywright Press, and sometimes a sneaksy Hobbit. You can reach him at will[dot]hindmarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

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