Over-Achievers

Gaming's greatest achievement (points).

With a grand total of 311,673 gamerpoints, Xbox Live User Stallion83 has won more in-game achievements than any other player. Indeed, he's earned the full 1000 gamerpoints for no less than 204 of the 437 games he's played on his Xbox 360, a Herculean accomplishment of time, effort and, in a great many cases, skill. And yet, as the URL of his website, www.1milliongamerscore.com makes perfectly clear, Stallion83's quest for numerical glory is not even halfway done.

Late last year, Armour Games released a free to play browser game titled Achievement Unlocked. The instructions read: "Who needs gameplay when you have ACHIEVEMENTS? Don't worry about beating levels, finding ways to kill enemies, or beating the final boss... there are none. Focus solely on your ultimate destiny: doing random tasks that have nothing to do with anything. Meta-game yourself with ease! Self-satisfaction never felt so... artificial!" To date the game has received 1,156,149 plays and enjoyed countless mentions and dissections on blogs and gaming websites around the world.

You know your idea has made it when close to 1.2 million people play a parody webgame about it. Come to think of it, you know your idea has made it when Sony steals it wholesale to use in its own console's online superstructure. Or when Blizzard builds it into the framework of the most popular MMO in history. Or when The Simpsons, that sieve of all cultural detritus worthy of satire, make it the subject of their game's very first joke, rewarding players with an Achievement merely for pressing the start button on the menu screen for the first time.

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Microsoft has been quick to respond to the Achievement love-in, allowing for web gamercards and Xbox.com integration, and making them more visually exciting in the NXE update.

It didn't take long for gamers' initial reaction to the Xbox 360's meta-reward system to turn from uncertainty to acceptance. For many, like Stallion83, it was then just a short hop to all-consuming obsession. That we should have become so enamoured with Achievements should be no great surprise. Maintaining an indelible record of our in-game accomplishments somehow ascribes them a greater sense of purpose and worth. And, by keeping a running tally of all the points we've ever won, the very act of playing videogames is turned into a high-score challenge, a meta-game that plays out across our entire videogame library, not just within individual titles.

But for all the satire, every gamer knows that Achievement points, as ridiculous and vacuous as they might appear to the outsider, reveal deep truths about why we play videogames. Humans like to be told they are clever and talented and skillful and videogames are machines precision-designed to do just that very thing. They may first hurl us on to spikes, blow us up and punch us in the tits, but these setbacks only make the accomplishments all the sweeter. Master a game system and, in contrast to the fickle vagaries of real life, you will have your reward. And we have become so accustomed to having our worth as a gamer relayed by a number - a high score in Pac-Man, a character's level in Final Fantasy, a number of kills in Halo - that simply watching a number slowly increase is often enough to convince us that what we're doing is somehow worthwhile, perhaps even that we are somehow worthwhile.

The truth is that Achievement points are, for many, the glue that holds Microsoft's Xbox Live service together, the reason why we buy a cross-platform game on one particular system and not the others, one's gamerscore simultaneously a badge of bragging rights, a measure of how thoroughly we play our games and, most troubling, an irrefutable record of how we spend our days.

From the perspective of a developer, however, Achievements have a great many other tangible benefits. They allow game-makers to tap into the different reasons why different players play particular games, sending one group off to collect a thousand orbs, another to accumulate ten thousand kills and another still to work to become the best in the world.

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The gnome quest in Half-Life: Episode Two is at the extreme end of the meta Achievement scale. (Thanks to PC Gamer's Tom Francis for the use of this screenshot.)

Some developers employ Achievements to encourage players to use all the in-game tools available to their character, or even to explain in explicit terms how the game systems work. Many developers use Achievements to make jokes or wry commentary. Dead Rising's 'Zombie Genocider', awarded for killing 54,594 zombies was drolly-trumped by Left 4 Dead, which offered 'Zombie Genocidist' for killing 53,595 of the undead. Almost all of Civilization Revolution's Achievement names will be hilarious to hardcore RTS nerds (and impenetrable for the rest of us).

Of course, at their worst, Achievements seek to somehow make up for a lack of interesting in-game challenges, sending players off on empty fetch-quests and inane collect-'em-up hunts. But at their best, they inspire us to play the game in new and interesting ways, subverting the games rule-set, and, in the case of Geometry Wars' Pacifism Achievement, even birthing new game modes in future sequels.

So we mock Achievement points because they spell out in large numbers what is so pathetic about videogames. But we also celebrate them, because, when used in funny, creative or interesting ways, they also spell out what is so compelling and wonderful about videogames. Because for every Achievement in which you have to do nothing more than play through a tutorial there's another that subverts convention, rewarding you for skipping it instead. For every fetch quest that has you collecting dogtags for the millionth time, there's another that makes you fight the baddy with your arms tied behind your back. And for every Achievement you earn in jest for pressing the start button, there's another that only rewards the single best player in the world. With that in mind, turn the page for ten of the very best.

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