Your road to recovery starts here.

When the Xbox 360 arrived back in 2006, consumers were wowed by the stunning next-generation visuals, wireless ergonomic controllers and its ability to output HD resolutions. People started frantically purchasing the new ‘must-have’ console, all the while blissfully unaware of the demon that stirred within the matte, greyish, white plastic casing.

Unbeknownst to the majority of consumers, the Xbox 360 was Microsoft’s Trojan horse for one of the most dastardly and addictive features known to mankind. Something so sinister that it could force normal, mentally stable gamers into spending hours upon hours on a game, all for the soulless reward of obtaining an insignificant accolade, accompanied by a numerical value. Something that could even change the way people played the very game itself, consequently affecting their entire experience. Something so maniacal, so twisted, that it could actually be the deciding factor as to whether a game is purchased or not. Of course, I’m talking about Microsoft’s Achievement System.

Hello. I’m a recovering achievement addict. If you’ve made it this far then you may have acknowledged that you are in fact an addict. Congratulations. You have successfully completed STEP 1 of the 12 STEP program. Due to the fact I now consider myself cured of this serious, time-threatening addiction, I thought I’d share with you my experiences and specifically what steps you need to take and what you need to remember in order to conquer the biggest scourge in the modern gaming industry.

First Contact

I first encountered achievements when I played Call of Duty 2 on the Xbox 360; I thoroughly enjoyed the experience without even realising what achievements were. Whenever they popped up during my play through I completely disregarded them.

After playing different games, I realised that achievements weren’t specific to just one game and gradually my curiosity grew. I occasionally began checking what they were and acknowledged them with, “oh, that’s kinda cool”. Soon this curiosity became a habit, then before I knew it, an obsession.

A friend at school had added me through Xbox Live who also owned a copy of Call of Duty 2. “Great,” I thought, “Someone who I can discuss the game with and play online.” Innocently, I talked about how impressive the graphics were, which levels I found difficult and generally about the console itself.

“Have you completed it on Veteran yet?” he smugly asked, “I’ve nearly got 1000G on it now.”

“Erm, no,” I hesitantly responded, “I’ve completed it so I’m playing something else. I haven’t tried to unlock any achievements really.”

I eagerly began my mission to obtain the bragging rights I desperately desired. My competitive instinct was alive, filling my veins with the hunger to succeed.

“Oh. Well, it’s solid on Veteran. You probably wouldn’t be able to do it anyway.” He nonchalantly replied.

Now, I tend to regard myself as a good gamer. Throughout the years I’d earned my stripes and I’d be damned if some newbie to the console market was going to arrogantly dismiss my abilities.

“I’ll complete it on Veteran.” I stated, with my pride and integrity questioned I even exclaimed, “I’ll get a 1000G no problem!”

I eagerly began my mission to obtain the bragging rights I desperately desired. My competitive instinct was alive, filling my veins with the hunger to succeed. “Wow” I thought, “Achievements are a great idea! It means I can be more competitive with my friends!”

Fool’s Gold

Many hours passed as I slowly crept towards the 1000G mark. Instead of experiencing new titles, I was playing a game I had already soundly beaten and enjoyed. However, now there were pieces of intel to collect, specific actions to perform, all of which added nothing to the original experience. As each achievement popped, a wave of relief washed over me knowing I was one step closer to the end. Many more hours passed until I finally accomplished what I had set out to do. I had obtained 1000G.

Strangely, I experienced mixed emotions. On the one hand I was happy that I had proven my friend wrong, but on the other, the pleasant memories that I once had of Call of Duty 2 were gone. I would now forever associate it with a painful, time-consuming and tedious experience. In hindsight, I had wasted my time, for nothing more than an intangible award. “At least I have my pride,” I thought.

Unfortunately, this stupefied pride arose with each game I purchased. I had to make sure I had a good percentage of the achievements; I had to prove I was a worthy gamer to the millions of people out there. I forced myself to complete mundane tasks, played games differently and ended up purchasing games solely on whether the achievements would be obtainable without too much effort. Yes, gaming was still enjoyable, but it was a constant chore. New games felt like work, old games were overplayed to the point of saturation. I had to be careful not to “stain” my profile with a game containing impossible achievements. My relaxing past time had become an intense imposition.

I forced myself to complete mundane tasks, played games differently and ended up purchasing games solely on whether the achievements would be obtainable without too much effort.

An Old Foe Becomes A Friend

Admittedly, when I look back at the vice-like grip achievements had over my favourite past time, it’s almost laughable. However, it was only after obtaining 1000G on Call of Duty: World at War that I had the most remarkably obvious epiphany that achievements were in fact ruining my gaming experience.

Although I had met the requisite standard of 1000G, I had bizarrely been denied the accolade of fully completing a game on the New Xbox Experience page. I couldn’t fathom why this was the case. I’d obtained the once required standard of 1000G so where was my pathetic, yet deserved, reward? Well, I was now told that I had to put even more time into playing Call of Duty: World at War (an average game at best) online, tasked with achieving the highest possible experience ranking no less. And what was the Gamerscore that I’d receive for this achievement? Astonishingly, I would receive a grand total of zero. That’s right, nothing.

This was the final straw. I had tried to ignore the gradual rise in unattainable Gamerscores which fluctuated when titles had downloadable content added, games which had all of their achievements based online, or worse, when achievements were glitched and failed to unlock, but now they expected me to unlock achievements worth 0 G? I was fuming, only realising in my anger the colossal inanity of achievements.

The fact that countless developers had already managed to successfully convince me to invest more hours than I ever desired into their game was bad enough, but did they really think they could get away with forcing me to unlock an achievement that required hours of investment for a total of zero points? It was time to go cold turkey.

Free from the shackles of addiction, I began to realise just how bad achievements can be. Like many, I championed the fact that achievements added value to a game; they can provide a much needed sense of longevity to the countless relatively short experiences available today. For the most part, I can accept this argument, although, when I saw FIFA 10 rewarding players for actually quitting online games against other opponents, I knew that Microsoft had created a monster.

The Princess Is In Another Castle, And That’s…Ok

There was a time before achievements when games contained fantastic hidden surprises, in-game unlockable content and fantastic depth. People wanted to find new nuances with their game, they didn’t need to be constantly reassured or rewarded for completing a level, nor did they did need developers dangling a carrot in front of them just so that they’d try out a new gameplay mode or purchase extra content. Developers actually spent time making sure you received value for money. Instead, today we are provided with shallow 4-6 hour campaigns, artificially bloated by the need to collect achievements, or a deceptive reliance on an in-depth online multiplayer component.

In their most simplistic form, achievements are a great idea. Like the high score leader boards in arcades, everyone likes to compete and compare themselves against other gamers. However, when developers blatantly use achievements to unfairly tap into a gamer’s competitive nature just to mask the glaring flaws of their game, it’s simply unacceptable. To reward people for unfair sportsmanship is the exact opposite of what people enjoy about collecting achievements. To bend the rules of how achievements operate and are earned contravenes the very essence of competition which is based on fair play.

I honestly wonder how many gamers could go back to playing games without achievements. Even iPhone games now come with achievements. Of course, there will be a minority out there who play games simply for fun, or put hundreds of hours into an online game so they can be the very best. However, I think the sad truth is that the majority of modern day gamers would only do the latter if they knew there was an achievement waiting for them. This horrifying, bold statement was reinforced when a number of people on Halo 3 asked me to help them get an achievement online, and by help I mean stop playing the game how it is meant to be played.

Unfortunately, achievements are here to stay, so if you can relate to any of the above, and you want to cure your addiction to achievements once and for all, please follow the 12 STEP program below:

DISCLAIMER: ADDICTION MAY HAVE BEEN OVER EXAGGERATED FOR DRAMATICAL EFFECT.

STEP 1: Admit that you are addicted to achievements. Be honest with yourself.

STEP 2: Do not look at achievement lists before buying or playing a game. The achievement list will most likely already contain spoilers for the actual game, but it will subconsciously alter the way you approach the game. Play the game the way YOU want to play it.

STEP 3: Do not purchase games which rely on achievements to add perceived depth and value to a game. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of developers who release terribly shallow games, hoping to entice gamers with the easy achievements on offer, or use achievements to add more ‘value’ to a game.

STEP 4: Deliberately “stain” your profile. This is one of the most difficult but crucial steps in succeeding. By “staining” your profile, you are proving to yourself that achievements don’t matter and will not dictate how and when you play certain games.

STEP 5: Deactivate achievement notifications. Unfortunately this can only be done on the Xbox 360 and will deactivate other notifications such as ‘download complete’ or when your friends come online. However, it’s a very effective tool to wean you off achievements.

STEP 6: REMEMBER: The achievement system isn’t fair. Numerical values may attempt to highlight how difficult a certain achievement is, but at the end of the day, if you have maxed out one game’s Gamerscore, someone who has picked up barely any achievements in 10 games or less may have a higher score than you.

STEP 7: REMEMBER: Unlocking all the achievements for a particular game does not earn you more respect as a gamer. This is a common pitfall with achievements. People believe it gives them some sort of elevated status over other gamers. This is of course a farce.

STEP 8: REMEMBER: Achievements do not make the game any better. Remember all those fantastic games you enjoyed without achievements? Would achievements really have made them any more enjoyable? The answer is NO.

STEP 9: REMEMBER: The majority of gamers use your Xbox Live profile to see what games you own, not how many achievements you have unlocked. People are more interested in seeing if you own the same games as they do so that you can play together. They are not interested if you have obtained 1000G for Hannah Montana.

STEP 10: REMEMBER: Achievement hunting can dramatically decrease your gaming enjoyment. If you spend your time grinding away at a difficult or ridiculously time consuming achievement, the game will become a chore. Gaming is supposed to be fun.

STEP 11: REMEMBER: No one is constantly watching or judging your Gamerscore  Apart from your friends, (who may or may not check your Gamerscore), strangers or celebrities will not be eagerly viewing your progress.  

STEP 12: REMEMBER: Good games have their own in-game achievements. Remember the days when unlocking items and getting high scores was enough? Though usually masked or linked to an achievement, good games have their own secrets and achievements built into the game.

FEATURE BLOG IMAGE: Flickr user Kitkatherine

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