These days, pretty much every game has some form of metagame that awards you for just playing the game. Xbox achievements, Playstation trophies, Steam achievements, the list goes on. But what are we really getting out of these?
Some argue that it shows how "good" of a gamer you are. The bigger your score, the better you are. This can be misleading of course. In the early days of Xbox achievements, Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Burning Earth was notorious for just this reason. The game had only 5 achievements, all of which could be earned in less than 1 minute of starting the game. There are many games that fall into this category and even more websites that will tell you how to get all the achievements for a game as quickly and easily as possible. Having a lot of achievements may earn you some bragging rights, but it's hardly a quality indicator.
Another way of looking at achievements is that they add a challenge. If done correctly, they can encourage players to try the game in new and interesting ways. I can think of 2 from the Orange Box that fit this category. One involves beating the Ravenholm chapter of the game using only the gravity gun, no small feat in what is essentially a zombie infested town. Another achievement from Episode 1 requires that you fire exactly one bullet in the entire game. Both of these achievements are not easy, but certainly doable and provide a new way to play the game. But not all challenges are good ones. Many open world games feature some kind of collection quest and achievements tied to finding 10, 50, 100, etc. of a given item. Personally, I find these to be the most tiring achievements. They may prolong the game, but they do it by making the game tedious and repetitive instead of fun and interesting.
There's also the psychological view of achievements. Essentially, achievements are rewards given by the developer to the player for accomplishing something. This can lead to the perception that a game is more "fun" because it is giving you rewards. This may be true to an extent, but it can also be dangerous. I once read about a study involving children who were given a task to draw a picture. After they were finished, some were given a reward such as a dollar or praise. Others were given or told nothing. After being told to wait for their parents, the observers found that most of the children who were given no encouragement continued to draw on their own while many of those who were rewarded did nothing. The enjoyment became about the reward rather than the activity itself. While it may not be as true in the world of video games, it can have a similar effect. I have several times found myself trying to get a frustrating achievement, and in the process I stopped having fun playing the game. After I realized that I was no longer enjoying myself, the reward seemed pointless. On the other hand, there have been times where an achievement led to me enjoying a game more. Specifically, in Red Dead Redemption, there is an achievement for tying a woman to the train tracks and letting the train hit her. I didn't know about this achievement beforehand and after the achievement came up I was amused and pleased that the game (and the developers) recognized I had done something interesting and the reward gained meaning.
Whether you love or hate achievements, they're not going anywhere soon and I think it's at least somewhat interesting to step back and see what they actually add to games and what other possibilites exist for them.
The next Talking Point is going to be delayed for a while. Starting next week I'm working a lot of overtime and I'll be on the night shift. If anyone else has a topic they'd like to discuss in the mean time, feel free to post under the Talking Points name.