The Nintendo Wii is the unquestioned sales champion of this generation’s consoles, there’s no disputing that. But if one is to delve past pure numbers (which admittedly is the point of creating them in the first place), it’s hard to dispute that the Xbox 360 has brought forth the most innovation and pushed the industry forward. Of course, there are things that other companies did first or better—Nintendo with motion control and Sony with the Blu-Ray Disc storage medium, but Microsoft continued to chug along. Oddly enough, it’s the one thing that they implemented from launch that’s been such an impact on gaming culture that it’s spread to daily life as well.
Of course I’m referring to achievements. Sony countered on the PS3 with their trophies, but it’s really the 360 that brought the concept front and center into our collective consciousness. I’m never one to care what complete strangers think about me or my gaming prowess, but I have to be honest and admit that there’s something to hearing that little “bloop” and seeing that oblong oval trumpeting my completing another level or unlocking something I wasn’t even aware of. I also believe that achievements change the way that I play games. It allows me to go back and replay a game that I particularly liked if I want to attempt to unlock some of those more difficult or elusive achievements. I think Epic Games’ Cliffy B said it best years go when he termed achievements as “nerd cred.”
Being a hardcore gamer, I of course own all three consoles and have since launch. But aside from the must-have PS3 exclusives like God of War, Resistance, Little Big Planet, and Twisted Metal to name a few, all my multi-platform nods go to the 360. Why is that? It’s not the discs. I abhor switching out discs, especially on 3-DVD offerings like Blue Dragon and L.A. Noire. It’s not the controller. Truth be told, as much as I like the 360′s, I prefer the PS3′s. So what can it be? Simple, it’s the achievements. I guess that for all my posturing about not stroking my ego, there’s something to be said about my “nerd cred.” I’ve owned a 360 since launch (on my 3rd one now, an Elite) and my gamerscore is very close to 50,000 points. I don’t play as much as I used to nor do I purposely achievement farm (I do have children so we do play some ‘kid games’), but there is a sense of pride knowing that I have the second-highest gamerscore of all my friends list.
It’s quite an ingenious little device that Microsoft came up with. If you ask me, I’m telling you right now that achievements are just as Pavlovian as our cat knowing that when he jumps up on my leg to be pet that I’ll be feeding him. Unlike the Friskies, however, achievements are subtly placed in a wrapper so well that most gamers are blissfully unaware. Or they just don’t pay it any mind. There’s a problem with that, though. In our constantly-connected society, we’re being probed and prodded from every angle, all in an effort by corporations to figure out the best way to market good and services to us. This is where gamification comes in.
A rough definition of gamification is the implementation of game-style mechanics for non-game activities. Taken to the next level (no pun intended), gamifications can be used as the proverbial dangling carrot to get people to do things that are tedious or obviously not in their best interest. They can range from things as simple as an on-line consumer survey, or completing a grocery shopping trip. My experience with them has been fairly cursory. A friend of my brother created a news application for iOS devices. In support of the developer, I installed it and used it a bit so that I could give a fair and honest assessment when I reviewed it for the App Store. Within a few minutes of installing and creating an account, I was notified by Facebook that it had posted to my wall, saying that I’d read 4 articles. This irked me on two levels: I don’t recall giving it permission to access and post to my Facebook wall, and secondly, that’s just banal. Who cares. I know I can read. Everyone on my friends list knows I can read. I deleted the application right away and decided to not review it.
Situations like this are one of the reasons I’m not a fan of gamification and convergence in general. Don’t misunderstand. I know that convergence is and has the possibility to make our lives easier. But as the security breaches at Sony and PBS have shown us recently, our data is only as safe as the server its being stored on. Also, what about the other versions of gamification that exist out there? Just about every grocery store chain in the country has some form of a club card. It’s used at the registers to gain instant rebates and thus lower the overall price of our shopping trip. The flip-side of that is that the chain is gathering a database of each of the club member’s shopping habits. What they buy, when they buy it, and how much they’re willing to spend on it. This might be harmless enough, but what if this information were used for financial gain? The chain could sell its database to a large marketing firm. They could cull the data and decide that over Labor Day weekend that they’re going to raise the price of charcoal briquettes 200% because their data shows them that customers will pay the increase.
Okay, enough of the malevolence and conspiracy theories. The other, less evil side of gamification is a strict commentary on where we’ve come (or how far we’ve fallen, I guess one could say) as a society. Why has it become so difficult to do everyday tasks that we need to make a game of it in order to trudge through? I think a big part of it is that for the last generation or two (or longer), children have been growing up being told by their parents that they’re the best. And before I get hate-mail or comments, I’m a father and I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t encourage their children. But I also believe that there are some healthy benefits to taking lumps once in a while. My youngest son plays in sporting leagues where score isn’t kept and at the end of the season everyone is rewarded, regardless of the effort they put in. I call it the “everyone gets a trophy” syndrome. Yeah, when you’re little that’s fine. But we have parents who treat their teens and even adult children this way. I digress, this is a gaming post, not a parenting one. But hat’s one of the ways I see that gamification has been able to become so prevalent in society today. It could also be owed to the fact that gaming as a whole has become much more mainstream, and that gamification is simply an offshoot of that. I’m not saying gamification is a bad thing. What I am saying is that people need to be aware that everything is interconnected, and there are no actions without ripple effects.