The thought first occurred to me in Battlefield 2 as I felt the impact of a long-range headshot while sliding down a zip line in the middle of a fire fight. It may be the most efficient way to travel in a playground, but in the battlefield it leaves you unable to return fire for the duration of the slide. You’re effectively hung out in the open like a slab of raw meat before a pack of hungry dogs. Making it across unscathed would have been more shocking than what befell me. So why’d I keep doing it?
As I completed my tenth zip line run, up popped a little icon accompanied by a military fanfare, and suddenly I knew the answer: because I was weak.
It hadn’t always been like this. There was a time where I was happy to focus my attention only on eliminating the opposition, stealing their flag or planting the bomb. Quake 3 was my first real addiction. Hours better spent studying were whiled away rocket jumping, gibbing and dominating, made even better with the knowledge that it was a contest between real people involving real skill.
Counter-Strike eventually offered something new beyond the standard team deathmatch. My first few hundred games were a disaster; coming late to the party is never fun, particularly when the other guests are crouched beneath the tables with Desert Eagles aimed at your chest. Eventually, though, it clicked, and the change of pace illuminated my gaming world with new possibilities. When I was at my best, I was a member of a team, with a clear role and motive. I celebrated every success with others who shared my ambitions.
I felt a real sense of progress on a personal level. With (too many) hours of practice, map layouts fell in to place, tactics became subconscious decisions and I was able to assess multiple actions and outcomes in quick succession. There was an intangible feeling of getting better, but it was only demonstrable in the game. With nothing to go back to, nothing to egg me on, Counter-Strike became stale. Oh, look, it’s de_dust again.
PlanetSide was my first taste of something better: a persistent world. With kills came experience; with experience came greater ranks; and with greater ranks came weapon unlocks. At the time, the ability to swap a different set of skills every 24 hours meant you could always be valuable to your faction. On attack? Be a flyboy. On defense? Switch to an engineer. It was never that simple, of course, but it worked. Away from the game, I could view kill counts, kill/death ratios and global performance. It was loose and simple, but it went beyond simply measuring twitch reflexes: It made me more emotionally invested in the game. Switching sides after I realized there were benefits to playing as another faction was never an option; this was me, my persona, my experiences woven into the game world itself.
Some of these advances were trappings of the MMO genre that PlanetSide awkwardly inhabited. In the more traditional FPS arena, unfortunately, developers paid little attention to PlanetSide‘s innovations. Then Battlefield 2 came along and changed everything. It showed me how weak I was.
Pre-release, EA DICE announced the addition of badges and ranks to the series, and that attaining in-game promotions would unlock new weapons. This led to a mild uproar in online forums about how it would hopelessly unbalance the game for those who didn’t have a billion hours to plough into it. In my head, however, I immediately thought: ace!
Before I even had a copy of the game, I felt compelled to play. I would be fighting for ranks. Ranks would give me weapons. I would use these weapons to shoot people in the face. It made perfect sense, and it got straight into that little bit of my mind I hadn’t really used since I placed my initials in every slot of the high score list on the local Time Crisis machine back when I was 18. These weapons would be evidence of my success, my prowess, my enduring manliness.
The weapons, ranks and unlocks (accompanied by lovely sounds that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside) became the flame upon which I cooked my true heroin: badges. Battlefield 2 had badges for everything. Five minutes in an anti-aircraft emplacement, jump from 30,000 feet, knife 50 players, use the zip wire 500 times – the list goes on. These ridiculous challenges became the entire focus of my online life and, judging by other players on the same servers, I wasn’t alone.
It had an incredible effect on how matches played out. In any game, there are plenty of players trying the Rambo technique (and usually failing), but at least they generally shared your objective. In Battlefield 2, however, badges gave these players something that existed purely for their own benefit. When the tide of battle turns against you, a helicopter gunship with a good pilot can be game-changing. Unfortunately, your team’s chopper is likely hovering near the skybox, killing time while the fella in it waits for his “15 minutes piloting a helicopter in one round” badge.
Nonetheless, the Battlefield series held me tight in its grasp until the release of Call Of Duty 4. With little to no chance of it working on my ageing PC, I did what any discerning gamer would do; I sunk a mass of cash I didn’t have on an Xbox 360 and a copy of the game.
In the blink of an eye, multiplayer gaming morphed in front of me. Any appearance of cooperation quickly disappeared under a never-ending stack of achievements. I wanted to get 10,000 online kills in Gears Of War. I wanted to destroy 100 walls in Battlefield: Bad Company. I wanted them all, and suddenly …
… suddenly, I’m not a team player. The ebb and flow of battle has ceased in favor of flipping a jeep and endlessly repairing it to get to the next rank. My focus on the team’s common objective has faded; instead, I’m running around hillsides trying to stab people for their dog tags. I’m oblivious to the absence of camaraderie as I floor the throttle to chase a Rockstar employee through Liberty City.
On the one hand, I’m more motivated to play games after their “new release luster” has worn off than ever before. On the other, I’m entirely neglectful of how my experience is affecting others. It’s become the prevailing attitude in online games, and multiplayer gaming is suffering as a result.
Achievements, unlocks and ranks encourages players to have experiences they may otherwise have missed, or adopt play styles they may otherwise have ignored. But it also empowers them to be selfish and creates an excuse for antisocial behavior. If developers encourage players to concentrate on their personal advancement rather than their teams’ success, then what’s the point of cooperative multiplayer, anyway?
We all need to get onside a little bit more. Developers need to think about the potential impact unlocks can have on the balance of the game, and players need to stop chasing them at their teams’ expense. In short, we need to emphasize the group over the individual. An award geared towards the player will encourage him to try to achieve it on his own. Awards geared towards the group can motivate team play, encourage coordination and improve the experience for everyone.
Darren Sandbach has been fighting on virtual battlefields for longer than it took to take down the Third Reich. He longs for an alien invasion where he can put his new skills to good use.