Video games: A constant supply of achievement

By Ryan Winslett in Infinite Ammo
Friday, April 13, 2012 at 10:00 am
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There are few things more wonderful than that feeling you get when you know you have achieved something; looking back at what you've been working towards only to realize that you have finally reached your destination. You did it. You accomplished your goal. You take a moment to enjoy the rush of endorphins and then move on to the next task, rejuvenated by the excitement from your recent success.


I think that's why I'm a list person. As I plan for a busy afternoon, crowded work week or hectic weekend, I jot down all of the things I want to accomplish, eagerly anticipating the sense of glee that will overtake me each and every time I get to cross something off of that list.


That sense of achievement is also one of the reasons I enjoy being a journalist so much. Every day boasts a never-ending series of deadlines to make as I work feverishly (or so I tell my bosses) to submit copy and photos. It's a steady succession of goal-effort-success, paid off each week in the form of a physical product I can hold up and say, "Look at what I have created."


Yes, it's egotistical. But it also feels wonderful. I'd eat that feeling three times a day if we could kill it, cook it up and slap it on a plate. And I doubt I'm alone here. We all love that feeling of accomplishment. It hits in quick bursts, though, which is probably why mankind is so obsessed with success. We just want to do better and better, thus making ourselves feel better and better each time we accomplish one of our goals.


That is exactly why many of us play video games, too: They allow us to escape into a world where instant gratification is in constant supply.

 

Accomplishing something in the real world usually takes time and something resembling actual effort. If you want to spruce up the backyard, you might have to tuck in for an entire weekend. Have a big presentation at an upcoming meeting? That's going to cost you a week of looking up stats, double checking figures and putting everything together in a way that will make you look brilliant in front of the co-workers.

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When it comes to video games, we get bombarded by a never-ending swarm of positive reinforcement. A villager thanks us for saving their farm and even hands us an extra sack of gold for the effort. Experience points fly out of our enemies to let us know just how great a job we are doing. We level up, grow stronger, upgrade our gear and improve our stats, all in the matter of minutes. And if that wasn't enough, we now have Achievements that actually reward us for earning those other rewards. These let us know that, not only are we playing a game, but we are playing it like a true champion.


You spent two hours washing the car? I spent that time saving the entire planet, friend. I also collected 50 wolf pelts, took out some goblin bandits and singlehandedly delivered three warring kingdoms from the brink of destruction. While you worked towards that single accomplishment high shining up the Dodge Neon, I was ODing on good feelings thanks to my game's constant stream of reminders of just how awesome I am.


Not only do games constantly reward us for minimal effort, but they also pretty much guarantee said rewards. In the real world, you're not always going to succeed. You can spend weeks preparing for something only to fall flat on your face. Or just as bad, all of that effort can go completely unnoticed. You could spend a full day busting your butt on a project only to have your boss glance at it and tell you to get back to work on the next thing.


Not so in video games. The vast majority of this electronic entertainment is fairly simple to grasp and excel at. Within minutes of booting up a game, you're watching coins pop out of your enemies, listening to the citizens of a lowly village cheer on your exploits or having an over-excited announcer scream phrases like "Good job!" and "Excellent!" at you for having half-decent timing or pressing a few buttons in the correct order.

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I think it's interesting that this addiction to achievement has led to games being made out of ordinary daily occurrences. Creative titles have started popping up that make a video game out of doing chores or exercising. Why? Because that sense of achievement you feel after walking a mile will be magnified by a hundred once you see that it has also pushed you up to level seven in Workout Quest. Vacuuming the carpet is only mildly satisfying as far as accomplishing a goal is concerned. But if doing it nets you 1,000 points and unlocks a new shirt for your avatar in Choremageddon, you might start cleaning the house once a week rather than every six months.


Whether or not we like to admit it, we all live for that feeling of achieving whatever it is we set out to accomplish. We can't help it. Accomplishment makes us feel good, and so we will chase down that high, drag it to the ground, and hold on as tight as we can for as long as it will let us.


But the real world can be an ugly, unforgiving, and unappreciative place. Our efforts aren't always rewarded, and long spells of that negativity can lead to some of the worst feelings imaginable. I'm not saying that we should all run and hide in the land of video games, just that I'm glad to have a pastime that allows me to easily plug in and enjoy a constant i.v. drip of success whenever the world's got me down and I need to feel like a winner.


Infinite Ammo is a weekly column by Ryan Winslett about video games, the industry that make them and the people who play them. He can be stalked via his blog at staticechoes.com and followed on Twitter @RyanWinslett.


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