I’m occasionally perplexed by my own gaming habits. During the past few years I’ve found myself setting aside or even foregoing certain games I’ve had every reason to enjoy. Even worse, I’ve occasionally spent hours on games that would normally bore me. It wasn’t until the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer beta that I could put my finger on what was up.
I wasn’t overly excited when I received a COD 4 multiplayer beta invite last month. Though I’m an Infinity Ward enthusiast, and I thoroughly enjoyed the single-player campaigns of both Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2, the series’ multiplayer components never drew me in. The beta languished on my 360’s hard drive for nearly a week before I checked it out.
Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop. On the surface it was just another well-built multiplayer shooting gallery, exactly what I expected from the franchise. There was an unexpected new layer to the combat, though: a kill- and experience-based ranking system, built atop the conventional multiplayer game, which offered a robust set of rewards. Every time I took an enemy down, I earned points toward a new rank. Every time I achieved a new rank, I unlocked new weapons, equipment or abilities. And each new unlock gave me a slightly new way to play.
The game even displayed player progress with a horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen that, in classic RPG fashion, inched ever forward toward the next rank. Each successful kill actually broadcast its value via an experience number that flashed for an instant above the downed enemy. Ranking up even triggered an immediate in-game notification, complete with cool visual and audio effects.
I kept at the COD 4 multiplayer beta for two weeks solid, cycling through the same three maps, eagerly working my way toward higher ranks, improved weapons and more useful perks. When I finally set it aside, it wasn’t because I’d become bored of its steady stream of rewards, I just couldn’t bear earning more accomplishments that would be erased when the beta closed.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how taken I was by the game’s system of ranks and unlockables. After all, it was the same press-lever-receive-treat mechanic that drove me (and millions of others) to sink countless hours into games like World of Warcraft. It didn’t matter that I was headshotting insurgents instead of hacking murlocs. The reward function and its effect were the same.
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?