The Sense of Achievement

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Games vary in how rewarding they are to play. They vary from game to game and from person to person. They can even vary over time, as you could play a game for the first time and feel very rewarded and play it again sometime later and experience a different result. In fact, games becoming less rewarding over time is quite normal. A large amount of how rewarding a game is is the sense of achievement you get from doing certain things within it.

For example, making it past 70km in altitude (the border of space) in the Kerbal Space Program Demo, was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. However, I can now make it to the border of space (and far beyond) and yet it doesn’t give the same gratifying feeling as that first time.

Of course, different games are rewarding in different ways, and to different degrees. Games can be rewarding in the same way a movie is, by really exploring the characters and their emotions and so making their story real enough to the player that just continuing their adventures is gratification enough. Games like Heavy Rain and The Last of Us are good examples of this. Then there are games that are rewarding in terms of the gameplay or some other aspect of gaming (such as art-style or music). These are games which are fun to play. Many games fit into this category and many (such as The Last of Us) will overlap into other categories as well.

The above styles of rewarding players are linked to aspects about the game. Another whole category of gratification is by the player themselves. This is intrinsically linked to the player feeling as if they have actually accomplished something in the game. For example, two troop helicopter insertions in two different games, a multiplayer insertion in Arma 2 and a singleplayer insertion in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. The two insertions are very different. In Arma 2, all the other soldiers around me were real people, as were the helicopter pilots. People had planned it and we had all spent time gearing up for the mission. The landing went without a hitch and the helicopters departed safely. In contrast, I appeared already geared-up in the chopper in Modern Warfare 3, and watched as we swooped low over a beach, missiles flying past us against the backdrop of the burning, war-torn sky.

Why then, did the Arma 2 assault – which was less stimulating both visually and aurally – so outmatch the Modern Warfare 3 insertion in terms of how I felt afterwards? As you can probably guess, it’s linked to a sense of achievement. The game hadn’t funnelled me and my fellow Arma players into doing that assault, we had done it of our own volition without the support of the game. Many games have this to some degree, and it’s why there are difficulty settings on games. Very few people people enjoy the feeling of being babied through a game, and not having to challenge themselves in some way. Challenge is what sets game apart from many other mediums of storytelling, and as soon as you lose that it feels more like a movie or similar.

For example, after my success in getting into space in Kerbal Space Program, I made it my endeavour to land a manned mission on the moon safely. After many failed attempts I consulted by dear friend YouTube, and watch a few tutorials on how to do it. When I succeeded, the sense of achievement I got was less than what I got from getting into space, even though a moon-landing is a undeniably larger achievement. That’s because it wasn’t all me any more. I had brought in outside help in the form of a YouTube tutorial. Now this isn’t necessarily bad, because that tutorial taught me techniques which I can now use for other missions, but it is certainly an example of how the player is often responsible for a lot of the reward you can get from playing a game.

Most gamers will find the style which is most rewarding for them and will naturally gravitate towards those games, but if you’ve never tried player-based reward games like Kerbal Space Program, Arma or most of the strategy genre, you might want to give them a shot, and avoid tutorials unless you’re really stuck. Remember, something being difficult will just make it more rewarding to concur.

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