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Do players really need an achievement system? From a psychological perspective on motivation, perhaps it can give us some different inspiration.

Yongcheng Liu, Blogger

July 19, 2023

10 Min Read

Since Microsoft created the achievement system in the early 20th century, game achievements have always been an important part of the gaming community, despite constant doubts. Game achievement system was born as a tool to promote player activity, but it has made many players purely "achievement hunters." Do players really need an achievement system? From a psychological perspective on motivation, perhaps it can give us some different inspiration.

1. Do players really need trophies?

A game designer said on Twitter: "Unpopular opinion : achievements/trophies have been bad for gaming. It narrows games down, it disrupts and diverts attention, and it eats resources that could have made the game better."

His speech sparked discussions among many players, with both supporters and opponents. Supporters believed that achievements would make players focus solely on obtaining them instead of enjoying the game. They would just follow “level clearing TIPS” to earn platinum trophies or achievement points. Some opponents argued that game achievement system provided them with a goal to play the game, otherwise, they might not have challenged themselves with difficulty or competitive gameplay.

The pros and cons of the achievement system are not a single point of view. At least for many game developers and platforms, the existence of the achievement system has become an integral part. It can effectively extend the life of the game, guide players to experience the complete game design content, and provide players with a simple and direct game goal and positive feedback. But for players, the achievement system is not just a pop-up notification below the game interface. As an external motivation mechanism, it profoundly affects players' game motivation. More and more players are beginning to question: Do we really need achievement systems?

2. Internal and External Motivation and Over-Justification Effect

The birth of achievement system can be traced back to Activision's game "Chopper Command" in the 1980s, which had a common shoot-’em-up gameplay. However, the special feature was that if the player's game score exceeded 10,000 points, the player could take pictures or videos and exchange them for a specially made physical game badge from Activision. However, physical achievements and rewards were still cumbersome, and soon achievements began to shift towards the form of "electronic certificates". The first cross-game achievement system was born in 2005 when Microsoft first introduced the Gamerscore system on Xbox 360. Players could earn achievement points by completing game achievements on the platform, and the points from different games could be accumulated. Then in 2008, Sony changed the score to a more intuitive trophy system, where one achievement corresponds to one trophy. Players can unlock a platinum trophy if they obtain all the achievements. Trophies are more representative of a player's game completion than points and have become one of the most distinctive features of the PS platform.

Of course, players who play Nintendo consoles all year round know that Nintendo games do not have achievement systems. Regarding this, Shigeru Miyamoto, director of Nintendo, said: "I don't like to use external factors to attract people to invest time in games. I hope that players play games just because they enjoy it."

The game concepts of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo correspond exactly to the external and internal motivations of players playing games. External motivation refers to a person choosing to participate in an activity not necessarily because they like it or because it can give them satisfaction, but because this activity can bring a certain reward or avoid a certain punishment. In contrast, internal motivation is directly related to the activity itself. Since doing something can stimulate a person's interest and pleasure, the activity itself is the goal pursued by the player. In recent years, many designers or players have questioned the value of achievement systems, largely because game trophies, as an external motivation provided by the developer, could easily create an over-justification effect, which reduces players' internal motivation. The study of over-justification effects began in the 1970s. In 1971, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, invited two groups of college students to complete an intelligence test. The experimental group received a reward of $1 for each question they answered correctly, while the control group did not receive any reward. Then, they observed whether the two groups of subjects would continue to answer questions after the test was over. The results showed that although the experimental group worked very hard to answer the questions, they lost interest in answering questions after the test was over, while the control group continued to answer questions after the test. The over-justification effect represents the damage of external motivation to internal motivation. If too many external rewards are used to motivate individuals to do something they already want to do, it will reduce their internal motivation. Because this will make the individual believe that their behavior motivation comes from external factors, and once they lose external motivation, the individual will not continue to engage in this behavior.

In 2010, a presentation entitled "Achievements Considered Harmful?" at the Game Developers Conference raised the issue of the harmful effects of achievement systems on players from this perspective. Achievements themselves exist as external incentives in games, but after having an achievement system, many players' game motivation will gradually tilt towards unlocking those game trophies. Players may gradually lose their love for the game on the road to unlocking trophies and become purely "achievement" or "platinum" oriented players. Platinum trophies provide many players with a goal, but also make many players' goals stop at getting trophies and showing them off on social media.

3. What kind of achievements are "good" achievements?

Since external motivation can damage internal motivation in games, should we completely abandon achievement systems? In the study of motivational systems, the professor of the University of Rochester further tested the impact of "verbal rewards" on task motivation and found that individuals who received verbal rewards such as "you did a great job" had increased internal motivation in subsequent tasks compared to those who received no feedback.

Therefore, the over-justification effect is not inevitable. With more and more research, clearer results have been provided on the relationship between external and internal motivation:

  • non-contingent external rewards (rewards that can only be obtained by achieving a certain level of activity results) have less harmful effects on intrinsic motivation than contingent rewards (rewards that can be obtained just by participating in the activity), and have more promotive effects.

Non-contingent external rewards and contingent rewards correspond to two different types of achievements: evaluated achievements and contingent achievements. Evaluated achievements mean that the player will only be given a specific reward if they meet a certain standard, such as completing a difficult level or achieving a certain level of performance. Contingent achievements are rewards that players will receive just by completing a particular event or process, and many game flow rewards fall into this category. Contingent achievements are difficult to provide effective positive feedback to player behavior due to their low difficulty. Meanwhile, in recent years, overall game difficulty has become more friendly to more players, and contingent achievements are easy to be overused, which can instead attract players to focus on trophies rather than the game itself.

  • Unexpected rewards have a greater positive effect on internal motivation than expected ones.

This segmentation actually involves the design problem of the achievement system itself-should we hide the achievements or show them completely to the players? Aside from hidden achievements to avoid spoilers, most game achievements are mainly explicit, and explicit achievements provide players with a relatively clear goal and a preliminary understanding of the game. Players can also easily plan their game paths through game achievements. For example, in "Slay the Spire," in addition to the regular difficult level achievements, there are also some fancy level achievements that are shown to players-the creators suggest that players can choose to continuously increase the game's difficulty level or challenge some strange ways to clear the level.

Compared to explicit achievements, hidden achievements appear less frequently in games, but they have a better motivating effect on players' intrinsic motivation. Not letting the player know the specific trophy content in advance, and giving rewards to the player when they accidentally trigger or curiously try new content, can stimulate the player's game fun more than directly informing the player of the achievement content. Because this unexpected feedback is built into the player's own motivation to play, it will also motivate the player to make more attempts and distinct gameplay.

  • Intangible external rewards have more promotion and less weakening effects than tangible rewards;

Using tangible and intangible descriptions to evaluate the achievement system is not appropriate. After all, the platinum trophy is not really "platinum." For the achievement system, tangible/intangible actually depends on whether the achievement system carries other external values besides game incentives and self-satisfaction. For many players, the full achievement has strong social significance. From the perspective of the game platform, the achievement system is generally part of the community system. You can clearly see the number of this player's platinum trophies in the PS profile; Steam also has a dedicated "achievement showcase" for players to display their achievements. Single-player games naturally have less interaction among players. For some platform core players, they always need something to show their "status." This is also why single-player games attach more importance to achievement systems than online games. After all, online games have levels, abilities, and appearance, and single-player game players have almost no way to prove them except for trophies.

In addition, when the Platinum Trophy has become a thing with "a desire for victory", the nature of it will undergo many changes. There is a website called Astats, which will show real-time statistics of game achievements on the Steam platform, as well as the number of players' achievements completed, and provide rankings, etc. There are products for every need. Some games on Steam are achievement-oriented. Players basically don't need to do anything, just be online for two hours, and they can unlock more than a thousand achievements in the game. These "games" only serve for the external value of the achievements, and players no longer have any internal motivation for the game itself.

4. Summary

When the gamerscore system was first introduced in 2005, its aim was to increase players' activity in Xbox games and encourage more discussion among players. Two years later, Xbox 360 product manager Aaron Greenberg said, "We found that many players played Xbox games frequently because we offer (achievement) points that other platforms don't have."

At least for most players now, the achievement system is an inseparable part of many games. At the end of last year, when Assassin's Creed: Valhalla was released on Steam, many negative reviews came from the lack of an achievement system in the game.

Of course, the absence of achievements is not a big deal. Nintendo has always had an indifferent attitude towards achievements. They can add 999 "Yahaha" in Zelda, and whether players choose to collect them or not depends on personal preference. Therefore, for players, how to design achievements is far more important than whether or not they exist.

As an external incentive for motivating players, the achievement system itself carries the risk of over-justification effect. However, adding moderate evaluation achievements and hidden achievements in the game can not only avoid the over-justification effect, but also further stimulate players' internal motivation.

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