The psychology behind achievements is something that stretches right back to gaming's origins.
Ever since the days when videogames were restricted to noisy arcades that smelled of old smoke and teenagers, they have been differentiated from other forms of entertainment by their continuous encouragement of player achievement. Back then, achievements took the form of high scores, level completions, and generally "winning", in the words of a certain actor who's a hinge short of a cat-flap.
While games have evolved massively in the twenty-odd years since arcades ruled adolescence, those basic ideas of progression and completion remain integral to the experience. Yet we never really stop to ask: why is the illusion of accomplishment so central to games, and why do gamers need that sense of achievement from the games they play?
The answer lies in several foundational theories of psychology, and how the mind is built to cope with the world. In short, an addiction to achievements is an addiction to being human, and being human starts with the desire to punch a tree.
The indie sensation that is Minecraft may seem an odd place to start an article about achievements, especially when Minecraft's own achievements are irrelevant, but bear with me. Incidentally, have you played Minecraft yet? No? OK, go play it for an hour and then come back.
All done? Good. Now remember that feeling when you punched a tree, collected some wood and built a small wooden hut to hide from the unfathomable horrors lurking in the night? Remember the satisfaction swelling in your chest after making a shelter that kept you safe? That was your brain congratulating you for fulfilling a basic life requirement. For satisfying a need.
In 1946, psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined a theory which placed human life requirements in a hierarchy. At the base of this hierarchy come basic physiological needs such as the need to eat and breathe, and safety requirements such as shelter and security of resources – essentially everything the body needs, and everything that Minecraft's gameplay involves.
Although these basic needs for shelter and resources in Minecraft are an illusion, the feeling of satisfaction gained from achieving those needs is completely real. It could also be argued that this is why FPS games are so popular – it's not killing itself that provides the satisfaction or entertainment, but surviving against the odds.
Once basic life requirements have been achieved, according to Maslow, the brain seeks satisfaction of other needs such as love and friendship, esteem and, ultimately, a sense of achievement. Gaming in its wide variety of forms can provide virtual satisfaction for these needs too. Achievements are one of these ways - an additional method by which games cater for our compulsive drive to improve and better ourselves.
They exist for the same reason videogames exist: to provide an illusory challenge which satisfies the desire for accomplishment. But achievements are distinct from the high-scores of old. The view of gamers and developers alike on this most fundamental aspect of gaming has altered over the last three decades.
In a way, the difference is staggeringly simple; somebody somewhere took the word "achievement" and pluralised it. Now, instead of being presented with a high score or a series of credits at the end of a game, achievements are scattered like breadcrumbs throughout a gamer's experience. The new gaming model of achievements bears some resemblance to experiments in psychological conditioning undertaken in the 1950's, the most famous of which are B.F. Skinner's experiments into "operant" conditioning. These experiments were designed to teach animals to behave in a specific manner by responding to various forms of repetitive stimuli. For example, in one of Skinner's experiments a pigeon was given a piece of food every time it turned around. This positively reinforced that that particular behaviour, encouraging the pigeon to turn around more.
In the same way, a constant stream of achievements in a videogame can subconsciously encourage the player to carry on playing. Now, the idea of psychological conditioning has an assumed malevolence to it, and a tendency to conjure Brave New World style images of brainwashing and control. Indeed, the mainstream media frequently falls over itself to cite this similarity as another reason to demonise videogames (think of the children!). Yet conditioning is how all thinking beings learn to interact with the world, how to avoid hazards such as fire and satisfy basic needs such as hunger. Moreover, achievements are an extremely mild form of reinforcement, easily overridden by a rational human mind. In other words, people aren't pigeons.
That being said, achievements, like games themselves, don't exist solely for the player's enjoyment. Developers can track achievements and use the statistics for further development purposes. For example, Steam tracks achievement statistics for every game available on the service. The statistics for Team Fortress 2 give a comprehensive list of achievements and the percentage of players who unlocked them. Through this developers can work out which achievements are easy to unlock, which are hardest, which are the most popular and which are the least.
Going further, such statistics can help developers work out how gamers are playing their games. For example, the third most unlocked achievement in TF2 is "Race For the Pennant – Run for 25 kilometers", indicating that the majority of players are extremely mobile when playing. The statistics also suggest it is far easier to survive being burned, bludgeoned and receive explosive damage in one life (Rasputin) than it is to survive a direct hit from a rocket (Crock Block).
Knowledge of these numbers can help developers tinker with their games. If players move around a lot in TF2, it might help to tweak map-design to increase the player's fluidity of movement. Alternatively, if players move around too much and cause the game to become confused and chaotic, it may be wise to alter the map so that it hinders player movement and encourages them to think more tactically.
The advantages to achievements in development are plain to see, but there might also be drawbacks, once again related to player psychology. Achievements can act as guidance on how to play a particular game, externally motivating your method of play. As they become increasingly assimilated into gaming culture, it is possible that they could override a player's own internal motivation for playing. So, in an open-world game such as the upcoming Skyrim, players might forego exploring the world in their own manner in favour of an achievement for, say, climbing to the highest point on the map.
The risk of this happening is fairly small, and subject to personal opinions on whether such external motivation is a negative thing. I've always held games that maximise player autonomy in highest regard, but achievements could reasonably be viewed as another play option offered by the developer. Achievements might evoke a natural psychological response, but they don't force themselves upon you.
Actually, that's a good word to keep in mind when thinking about achievements: natural. Achievements cater to a natural human need, the desire for a feeling of accomplishment, no matter how arbitrary or superficial that accomplishment may be. As a species we like to set challenges for ourselves to overcome. It happens in sports, in business, even in our daily routines (incidentally, this weekend I'm really going to clear out the garage). We strive to excel in whatever we pursue, and gaming is not exempt from that rule. Ultimately, achievements supply a demand, and because of the way we're psychologically constructed, it's a demand that will never truly be fulfilled.