I’m not a psychologist.
In fact, the closest thing I’ve done to actually psychology, besides sitting in an intro class in college that I struggled with, is messing with people through conversational bait-and-switch tactics. My wife’s (not) a fan.
But an exchange happened between my wife and I as she sat watching me play through Assassain’s Creed 2, as I realized what it would take to 100% complete the game:
“These feathers are stupid. And there’s 100 of them! Aaaargh.”
“What’s the problem?”
“There’s not a snowball’s chance I’m finishing the game now. I refuse to waste this much time.”
Why was this such a big deal, trying to 100% complete the game? What does that even mean, anyway?
One word: Achievements.
We all love rewards. It’s how we get to the gym, because we reward ourselves with a tasty snack. It’s the concept behind fitness trackers, to give you a sense of accomplishment if you reach 10,000 steps.
And when Microsoft introduced us to the concept of gamer points upon release of the Xbox in 2001, it revolutionized how we game.
Think about it: Before achievements, the only tangible rewards for beating a game were…well, knowing you’d beaten it. Or by dominating your friends in LAN parties or online. But there was no real incentive to do the little things in a game, such as tedious side quests or gunning for a specific goal, such as jumping off the highest building and going SPLAT on the ground.
But now? You get that small tug of “Yeah, I did that” when you snag an achievement. Some are obvious: Beating the club champion in Kinect Sports, completing levels in Halo 4, or keeping your Mass Effect crew members alive get you rewards.
But so does hitting electronic equipment with your javelin in track and field, or finding all of the hidden terminals as you battle the Forerunners, or winning enough times at the space port’s slot machines. Often completely arbitrary, these achievements take intentional time and effort to do, and many times cause the player to handicap him/herself to get them.
Psychology has a term for this: Positive reinforcement. Pet owners may know the meaning, even if they don’t know the term: When your pet does what you’re training them to do (i.e. use the bathroom in the litter box, fetch the paper, etc.), you reward them with a treat, praise, or some other form of encouragement to cause them to do it again.
It’s a form of “operant conditioning” – molding the animal’s behavior to continue to reap the rewards by doing what we want.
You’ve made the connection back to Microsoft, right? Yep, we get that little taste of satisfaction when we get that notice to pop up on the bottom of the screen telling us of our success and subsequent gamer points reward.
Since the Xbox and invention of gamer points, Sony took note and introduced us to trophies on the Playstation 3, and you can (correctly) guess it took the same approach to giving gamers new incentives to play. And as the latest and greatest gaming consoles have shown up on store shelves, gamers’ expectations have come with checking the list of achievements/trophies to see what strange/crazy/difficult challenges there are to complete.
This also might explain why Nintendo, with a discernable lack of achievement-reward system, has fallen off ever since the Wii’s spike in popularity for its ingenuity. Just beat the freaking game before buying another one, right?
But then again, I’m no psychologist.