The Pavlovian Nightmare

By Jonathan Barnes, 4 years ago
Earlier this week, I found myself with a free afternoon and decided to fire up for some multiplayer. One of my good friends from college then came online and we proceeded to play for the majority of the afternoon. As we chatted about this and that, a thought occurred to me… I had all of the multiplayer achievements for Mass Effect 3, I was literally advancing myself towards no new achievements as I played. A scary thought washed over me:

Am I having… fun?
Since the advent of achievements, so much of gaming has become a Pavlovian response. Yes, we all have fun gaming, but it’s not really fun unless we’re earning achievements. Each little 'pop' is an instant validation, an achievement [sic], and these gratify us beyond the gameplay. But has that gratification superseded the enjoyment of actually playing the game?

As that series of epiphanies washed over me, my friend and I began a discussion about some of our favorite games of this generation. I quickly realized that I had gained all of the achievements in most of my favorites (namely,,, and both of the previous Mass Effects) and had very little desire to revisit them. This lead me to (somehow) a scarier thought.

I’m a big proponent that games are art. Yet, unlike every other art form, many gamers don’t burn to revisit the classics once they’re 'finished'. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read The Great Gatsby, 1984, Farenheit 451, and Fight Club. I’ve also lost track of how many times I’ve seen The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight, Psycho, and Anchorman. Even further, I don’t even want to know how many times I’ve listened to Pearl Jam’s Live on Two Legs. I can tell you, however, that I played through BioShock exactly three times.

Why is this? Has the Pavlovian need to hear those achievement pops and validate ourselves through gamerscore overwhelmed our desire to revel in excellence and really take the time to allow ourselves to enjoy greatness?

I know such insinuations might make me a philistine in the church of gamerscore and are apropos to high treason on the forums of TA. Hell, I’ll go so far as to say that I’m not immune to the draw of 'the pop', but at what point does such a draw influence us to cast aside the mastery of titans like Ken Levine, Todd Howard, Sid Meier, and Casey Hudson to feed our need for some cheap gamerscore through inferior games?

To go a step further, are we (as a gaming culture) willing to condemn a stellar game because of bad achievements? Has the meta-game of achievement hunting surpassed the actual game?

As a point of reference, one of the unspoken rules the Newshound staff has in our stance on official reviews is to point out the achievements in our review: Are they grinding? Are they easy? Are they fun yet challenging? In my experience, I’ve never really docked a game points for bad achievement design, nor have I given out brownie points for good achievement design, but the thought is always cognizant somewhere in the back of my critical mind. Let’s lounge for a second in a land of hypothetical to consider a question:

What if 75% of the achievements in (or your absolute favorite game) were glitched and permanently unobtainable, yet the game itself was flawless, glitch-free, and perfect. Would that destroy the game for you?

Again, I come not to bury achievements, nor to praise them… I simply come asking a question:

Can you enjoy a game without achievements?
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.