Pixelated honours: exploring video game achievements

by Connor Eddles

Pixelated honours: exploring video game achievements
May 15, 2020 Connor Eddles

You’re playing a game, and all of a sudden a little box pops up. Congratulations! You’ve hit an achievement. You’re one fraction of a percent closer to 100% completion. Nonsense frippery, or compelling structural innovation? This month, we explore the modern phenomenon of video game achievements.


1982 was quite the year, apparently. Blade Runner, The Thing and Conan the Barbarian all hit the screen, the Falklands War ground on, and a now-familiar company called Activision began a trend that has become a mainstay of video game structure and culture. In that bygone age, gaming was still in a sort of primordial state, and many of the conventions that we take for granted today were still being formed. Every game came with a physical manual, a sort of artefact that modern games eschew in favour of online wikis and forum discussions. 

Activision’s manuals for games like Dragster and Pitfall contained a proposition that other companies didn’t immediately cotton on to. A number of high scores were featured in every manual, with instructions to take a picture as proof should the player manage to beat one of these scores and mail it in to Activision; who would in return send a sewable fabric patch, much like those used by various scout organisations, to denote the player’s ability to beat what was considered a nigh-impossible score by the developers themselves. 

This system of patches was a clear forerunner to the video game achievements of today. But whereas modern achievements are handed out freely as the player progresses through the game, these original patches were only gained and worn by an elite cadre of players. 

Fast-forward to 1990 and the Amiga game E-Motion included what can now be considered the first truly electronic achievements. Termed “secret bonuses”, the game had five of them that could be scored through completely disregarding the rules of the game, or finishing levels through difficult and obtuse tactics. This would set the theme of video game achievements for decades afterwards, with certain legendary game badges only claimed by 1% or less of the game’s fanbase. 

While the 90s saw a few more examples of secret bonuses and proto-achievements, it was the Gamerscore system for the Xbox 360 that truly birthed the modern achievement as we know it. Introduced in 2005, Gamerscore applied custom achievements to all games available on the 360, and also awarded players points for completing them. 

A similar system was implemented in Valve’s Steam marketplace, including detailed statistics about each achievement; players could gain a certain satisfaction in knowing that they’d gained mastery over the game by scoring every one. A succession of story-based achievements serve to mark the player’s process through the game’s central plot. Steam achievements are awarded for everything from completing a game’s tutorial to defeating a final boss in a preternaturally fast time. There are few rules as to what constitutes an ‘achievement’ — they reward mere engagement as well as recognise high skill. 

Some of these achievements seem to be based more on luck than skill alone. The Halo games in particular included a punishing set of criteria for one of their achievements, rather than the more typical fare such as ‘complete every level on max difficulty’, or ‘accomplish a specific feat in under a minute’. In Halo 2, the player must complete the whole single player campaign in a mere three hours. What complicates this even further is the amount of randomly generated difficulty in the campaign. Enemies spawn in random locations, with random accuracy and random damage on their weapons. Attempting to complete this challenge on Legendary difficulty has proved to be an exercise in frustration.

Achievements can be used creatively, or even subversively. In the famous Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a certain boss can either be killed before their boss fight if the player is quick enough, or be made to die of old age by turning the system clock forward a week or simply not playing for a week. In The Stanley Parable, a slightly surreal game that seems to parody regular achievement structure, there’s an achievement for quitting the game and opening it again, and another one that can only be achieved by not playing the game for five years. A good deal of The Stanley Parable seems to be devoted to figuring out ways to exploit the achievements, and indeed the structure of the game itself. 

Modern gaming has been defined by achievements, to the point where a game without any is considered strange or even incomplete. Achievements help set the pacing of games with storylines, and formalise the skills acquired for those that do not. They tie fans together and provide shared experiences. And there’s still that elite cadre, even today, who hold to their names some of the most punishingly difficult achievements ever put into code. Some people even delete their save files and score every achievement again if they like the game enough. While researching this article, this writer wasn’t able to find a single modern game that didn’t have achievements.

So why are video game achievements so compelling? Simple gamification is probably at play — the well-recognised phenomenon by which engagement is encouraged through frequent rewards and high audiovisual feedback. This idea has been applied in many spheres, including management, and is a powerful way to drive engagement with a system. Some Steam achievements can seem so petty (such as an achievement for completing character creation, for example) that it’s difficult not to attribute cynical motive to their inclusion.

Are achievements used to pad otherwise trite or brief gaming experiences? They are now a decidedly meta phenomenon — often awarded and recorded outside the game itself, for display on a user’s digital profile. Many achievements involve a level of repeated engagement with the same content (a phenomenon known in gaming as ‘grinding’). A popup rewarding you for playing through the same area several times delivers the same tiny dopamine hit as the reward for the first playthrough, but doesn’t cost the developers any more time or effort. 

Like emojis and selfies, video game achievements are the sort of odd little quirk of digital life that few would have predicted and are easy to disparage. But they hold powerful sway over gamers, who use them to mark their progress and show off their experiences. It’s likely they’re here to stay.