Nonetheless, to paraphrase a famous author: time evolves, but something in us often does not. Today, arcades are trying their damnedest to slip into the ether of history. They’re taking with them high-scores and level completions and leaving us with a new set of bings and boops that alight our eyes with an ostensibly greater luster than ever before. How do we know we’re winning in the 21st century? By trophies and achievements, of course. The old methods still cling to the precarious precipice harder than a Stallone impersonator, but trophies and achievements are the new digital booty; these are the modern accolades of virtual greatness.
With trophies and achievements, I can scientifically prove that I’m a great Just Cause 2 player – yeah, I platinumed it. Drool.
With trophies and achievements, there is no cheating, there are no loopholes, and there is no leeway. Based on a foolproof algorithm, I got it fair and square; read it and weep. It’s undeniable objectivity at its purest; that’s why the mass of trophies outweighs traditional leaderboard rankings. Am I right? Probably not, but bear with me.
All of our daily, real world needs are often taken care of without our direct input, and those that are, frequently feel ancillary; sure you work to pay your mortgage, but it doesn’t feel as if you’re actually accomplishing anything – you didn’t pour the foundation, erect the frame, shingle the roof. If you did, kudos to you good, burly sir; now, come do mine.
But for most of us, illusionary constructs such as achievements and trophies stroke our innate need to actively participate in the manufacture of our lives or, more pointedly, the manufacture of our digital lives that often feel realer than our very own. Plus, they’re shiny and perfectly sit in a sleek box for all to see.
In Rust, I’ve built a shelter, a fire, and a bed. I’ve defended myself from a glitchy, yet fierce boar and managed to not royally piss off any of my Grylls-esque compatriots ambling about the island. I’ve run a hundred miles and climbed a hundred craggy peaks. I feel accomplished, a digital Mallory of sorts.
But I don’t feel as accomplished as I should; I mean, no one’s seen me do all this awesome crap. There’s a void in my soul and it needs filling. I need an achievement, a trophy to tell me, “Hey, what you did was good. Awesome. Damn, you’re a badass. Take this shiny goblet of win and drink it down. Don’t worry; there will be more. Wait while I tell your friends. No, don’t get up. I’ve got this.”
It’s not as bad as getting a crown for showing up, but it’s damn close. When I get a trophy or achievement, I’m being rewarded for something I didn’t necessarily do; yes, my savvy grey matter navigated that intricate maze of booby traps and adorably ferocious enemies in Bit Trip Presents: Runner 2, but, in reality, what I’ve done is an illusion. Physically, I’ve sat in a comfy chair in my comfy den and played, more or less, a lazy god. And, as gods do, I think I deserve a reward for my measly efforts.
For me to feel good (dammit) I need a shrine built in my honor.
That Got a Bit Feisty, Huh?
OK. This is all well and good. Understandable, in fact. However, the problem is this: I don’t necessarily desire a trophy for the in-game deeds I’ve done, yet a reward that embodies the emotional ethos of my psychology and physiology. It isn’t enough I’ve beaten the level, gathered all the stars, or went a surprising 30-1 in team deathmatch. It’s that I need a visual representation of that accomplishment to complete my self-validation. A picture or it didn’t happen, if you will.
In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow defined the basic hierarchy of human needs, both psychological and physiological. It applies here ...
Following basic carnal needs such as survival and procreation, an individual begins to pursue superior desires, such as Belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization. At any given time, an individual often experiences multiple and dissimilar levels of Maslow’s Needs in tandem – e.g. spontaneity and sexual intimacy, self-esteem and employment. However, these latter three tiers – Belonging, Esteem, and Self-actualization – play pivotal roles in success, gaming, and achievement hunting.
See, in Rust, I’ve satisfied my inherent physiological need for safety, survival, and, in some ways, procreation: my avatar is adequately prepared for his reincarnation after his assured and eventual death. Moreover, I’ve fulfilled my need for self-actualization in the region of creativity. I had to think of how to build my house without schematics and a basic understanding of architecture; how to safely hunt the glitchy boar and deer that fawned about like dull, clumsy lugs; and how to chop wood without an axe, how to mine ore without a pick.
Similarly, sims such as Sim City and Tropico satisfy our creative urges, build problem solving, conjure spontaneity, and help us understand resource management, among other things. An analogous process takes place in real-time strategy and turn-based strategy games. But even these tasks, meant to satiate our primitive desires, have begun to grow mundane after years of use and reuse.
From childhood, my obsessive personality, an arbiter of psychological insecurity in what Freud termed as “fixation,” spurred me to incessantly chase the roadrunner, the high-score, and now, in my adulthood, the trophy. The high-score is outdated and uncool. Trophies are hip.
Naturally, I want to be hip. Consequently, I want trophies. And to some, this is could be seen as goal-hunting as much as trophy-hunting; my goal is approval and I am running headlong after it. In fact, instead of using this faux excuse as vindication for my obsession over trophies, I’m obsessing over my Belonging, Esteem, and even Safety... in some extents.
Some games were ruined in my journey to achieve a greater platinumed status, to claim every prize as my own. I grew to loath Infamous and its obtuse map that deftly hid every blast shard. I hated Bioshock 2 for its multiplayer trophies. Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for that damnable Mean Bean Machine (which, I might add, gave me horrific night terrors of anthropomorphic beans dancing to Dr. Robotnik’s maniacal laughter).
I became a weary eyed Midas, an incessant seeker of treasure and acclaim. I wanted to walk the path of the penitent man, discover the Holy Grail, and drink from it, too. You know, without becoming a skeleton in the process.
I passed up a lot of great games, too – Folklore, Amnesia, and the Total War franchise. No achievements, no play. I knew my friends wouldn’t see my trophies, see all the cool things I had done, see my greatness if I played those games.
It’s chest-thumping 101, but I caved anyway.
So What Do I Do Now?
Achievements and trophies provide us with a quantifiable confidence, a qualitative self-esteem, and an assessable belonging. We gain respect from our peers if we’ve unlocked all the weapons in Demon’s Souls, platinumed Red Dead Redemption, or gained all achievements in Halo. Instead of the esoteric and monolithic end-level high-score, platinums and gamerscore prod players along to PLAY MORE.
Instead of level-completion bragging rights, accolades are scattered throughout the gaming experience. There’s an atta’ boy behind every goon, car chase, and fetch quest. And we don’t mind because these digital plaques validate us, legitimate the hours we’ve spent grinding to unlock them. It doesn’t matter they’re ultimately ephemeral. It simply matters that, for that cursory moment in space-time, we feel good. And isn’t that what gaming is about?
These rewards make games more interactive, not more addictive. Our psychology is hardwired to seek out gratifying tasks; it’s logical to implement systems that reinforce this mentality. So are we addicted to trophies and achievements? Probably not.
Instead, if we’re dependent to anything, it’s validation, esteem, and love. We want to be accepted as the hip cats, the cool Lukes, and the moxy Mollys. We want our friends to be jealous and, deep down, we want to be jealous, too. We want to spur ourselves forward, ever endeavoring after that white whale. In the end, trophies and achievements are the natural evolution of the as-addictive high-score.
In the end, we’re all trophy hunters. We're all just hunting something different.