A scene from my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve: Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn, a pair of con artists and professional card sharks, are chatting in the morning before they go to work fleecing a wealthy target. Coburn breaks out a deck of cards, eager to show her a trick. He deals the deck by fifths, then reaches into the stacks and finds all four of the aces. Stanwyck is delighted and baffled. Coburn shrugs. “You don’t really need it,” he says. “It’s just virtuosity.”

True talent may be its own reward, but most game developers have done everything possible to eliminate skill as a barrier to entry. If you can wrap your hands around a gamepad, the prevailing attitude is you should be able to play and enjoy just about any mainstream game. Even those of us who paid our dues in the 8-bit era will admit it’s nice to occasionally spend an hour playing a game without risking an aneurysm. Nonetheless, games that lack the agony and ecstasy that attend accomplishment are often worse for it. Sometimes we want the opportunity, however pointless, to showcase our abilities.

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Which is why achievements are one of the current console generation’s most important innovations. They bridge the gap between the skill-players and the dilettantes, the old guard and the young. Achievements reserve space for skill without barring the less adept from enjoying a game. Best of all, they can subtly transform novices into finesse players.

Achievements have unjustly earned a reputation for catering to our worst completionist instincts. That’s why so many gamers fall victim to “achievement whoring,” the single-minded and frequently joyless pursuit of a game’s moving goalposts. But this phenomenon is a problem with the player, not the concept. A thoughtful set of achievements does more than tease obsessive-compulsives. Rather, it illuminates the trail from basic game mechanics to advanced techniques that players must master before they can claim to have finished the game.

For instance, the achievements in Team Fortress 2 offer a lifeline to newcomers who are trying to make sense of the initial chaos of multiplayer combat. Without the guidance these achievements provide, it would be easy to be confused by what each class is supposed to do. Furthermore, early experience in TF2 seems to suggest that life is cheap and disposable, and that the point of the game is to run at the enemy and hopefully kill a few of them before you fall in a hail of gunfire from an army of hostiles, rather like Butch and Sundance.

TF2‘s achievements, however, tell a different story. They set benchmarks for you to accomplish in a single life, slyly pushing you to rise above the amateurish 1:1 kill to death ratio. These achievements demonstrate that the game isn’t a melee, but a team effort that depends on coordination, cooperation and individual skill. You earn “Play Doctor,” for instance, by switching to the Medic class and healing 500 points of damage on a team without anyone already filling that role. Valve is saying, “Hey dummy! Someone has to be the Medic, so be the bigger man and put down the rocket launcher.” It establishes the Medic as a vital and indispensable piece of the tactical puzzle, encourages awareness of your team’s class composition and rewards you for accepting responsibility when it’s required.

Achievements aren’t simply teaching instruments, however. As they progress in difficulty, they rapidly become true feats of skill and luck. They are the stamps on your gaming visa, proof that you have been in the Zone. (Or at least an “achievement server,” but those primarily seem to be the preserve of hardcore players who just want to unlock the tools that Valve tied to achievements.)

Achievements can go a long way towards solving the dilemma Kieron Gillen posed last year in “Hard Times,” where he argued that the “entryist movement” of making games accessible to all skill levels had essentially crippled high-difficulty play. He writes: “If ‘Grandma Mode’ is available, hardcore gamers are more likely to waltz through the game than attempt a harder difficulty. There’s no point to putting yourself through a tougher experience if the end result is the same. Fundamentally, the entryist movement has failed – the bottom level has been lowered, but the top level, the level at which games were originally designed to be played, has been weakened in turn.”

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The entryist movement may have eliminated the necessity of skill, but the achievement movement brings it back into the picture. Completing a game no longer requires mastery, but unlocking all of its achievements does. Achievements play on the part of human nature that climbs mountains “because they are there,” offering a challenge that competitively minded gamers can’t refuse.

Often these incentives are strong enough that they quietly transform less experienced players into exactly the kind of hardcore gamers that wouldn’t touch “grandma mode.” Players who legitimately pursue achievements, at times handicapping themselves at the game’s behest or striving for a moment of technical perfection, have no choice but to increase in skill, to the point where entry-level gaming becomes unsatisfying. Someone trying to earn the “What Are You Trying to Prove?” achievement in Left 4 Dead, which requires completing all four of the game’s campaigns on the highest difficulty, will rapidly lose interest in playing the game at a lesser difficulty. Achievements eventually turn gamers into those snobs who tell you that you haven’t really played a game unless you’ve beaten it on the highest difficulty, “the way it’s meant to be played.”

Unfortunately, the body of knowledge on utilizing achievements is woefully underdeveloped – Valve is the exception rather than the rule. There is no game that has so fully integrated achievements into play as Team Fortress 2, although the Half-Life series and Left 4 Dead both throw down a respectable number of gauntlets. It’s also worth noting that Valve has never used achievements to block players from enjoying the entire play experience. I can play TF2 without all the unlockable weapons and still have a great time, because I can still play all the classes and play a vital role on my team.

Yet even solutions like Valve’s can cause problems. My friend Alex took issue with the notion that achievements had a salutary effect on gaming. He’s a hardcore Team Fortress 2 player who competes in an organized league. In his mind, Valve’s approach can do as much to damage the game as it can to improve it. “Some achievements do support a proper play-style, such as the Scout achievements leaning heavily toward doing things like capping intel and control points. It reinforces the idea that the Scout is an objective-oriented class,” he said. “But your team’s Scout isn’t doing those things, not at all. He’s the guy sitting at the spawn point trying to get his 1000 double-jumps.” In other words, gamers who can’t see achievements without developing a myopic obsession with them can quickly ruin a game’s balance.

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Killzone 2‘s approach is another example of good intentions gone awry. It forces you to log a lot of hours and turn in some pretty respectable performances before the full multiplayer experience opens to you. Mitch Krpata thinks that this is going too far: “The problem is the exorbitant commitment Killzone requires to play the multiplayer as advertised. You’re promised deep customization and endless gameplay options, and that’s not what you get. … I’m glad that Killzone‘s multiplayer gives you something to strive for. Still, there comes a point at which the game’s attempt to provide incentives becomes a case of withholding content from the player.”

This is a problem that has dogged the racing genre for years, with developers insisting on locking tracks and cars despite of the protests of racing fans. Forcing players to jump through hoops to enjoy integral parts of the experience, like character classes in a team-based shooter or track and ride variety in a racer, alienates players who lack the time or inclination to spend 10 hours of grinding before getting to “the good stuff.”

Drawing up a solid list of achievements requires walking a fine line between creating busywork for players and adding actual value, and there are many games that feature a desultory achievement list that you can only unlock through endless grinding. Empire: Total War, for instance, offers achievements for assassinating twenty people (a game mechanic with little purpose and poor odds of success) and killing one million enemies, which requires hundreds of hours of play. Those looking to be rewarded for spectacular feats of generalship will have to continue waiting.

In fact, it’s notable that the art and science of achievements is highly developed in the shooter genre, but comparatively primitive elsewhere. Perhaps this speaks to the limits of the “entryist movement,” which culminated alongside the shooter’s conquest of mainstream gaming. Genres with more complicated and arcane gameplay have not arrived at a point where there is a “novice gamer” who needs help, and the people who play games from these genres generally don’t need achievements to feel accomplished.

“Revolutionary” is a strong word for something as seemingly trivial as a pop-up window patting you on the back, but we’ve only seen the beginning of achievements. If they fulfill their potential, they could change how players perceive difficulty and challenge in games. Instead of choosing between “Grandma Mode” and “Nightmare Mode,” they could learn the ropes from low-level achievements and push their skills to the limit with high-level ones. And hopefully, by the time they reach the summit of a game’s achievements, the achievements themselves will be beside the point. In the course of earning them, players should learn that they don’t really need them. Virtuosity is its own reward.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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