Are Trophies and Achievements Secretly Positive Reinforcement for Addiction?

Since the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 introduced players to achievements and trophies, players have been hunting them down to finish a game to its complete capacity. This addition had created a new kind of gamer, these gamers are called “achievement hunters.” Adding more to the experience, achievements are great for gaming, but do they also ruin games at the same time?

When achievements were first introduced, they were at the back of player’s minds they continued to focus on the story or upgrading their character for multiplayer, not really caring for them much at first, and if they really enjoyed a game a lot, they would head back and replay it for the trophies for just the fun of it. But now, especially with shooters like Call of Duty, some players find themselves rushing through games just to get the achievements or trying to get the majority of these trophies on their first playthrough. For some players, trophy collecting isn’t a secondary objective, it is the primary objective. It’s a bizarre thing to say, but collecting things in games is contagious. It started with Mario 64 having to collect all those stars and soon started to spawn a whole genre of collect-a-thon games and trophies are just the hybrid of long past games like Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie except now their collecting power has infected all games.

The allure of a achievements’ serine call is an obvious one; the more you objectives you complete, the more shiny objects you unlock and they acts as a gaming memoir to recount past experiences with a game. Achievements are something you can show off to your friends about especially if you achieved the feat of full completing like Skyrim that take days and in some cases months to complete. All of this may sound innocent and harmless (unless your skipping meals to get just one more achievement in Skyrim in which case, yes it’s very harmful to your overall health), you maybe asking yourself, “What’s your point? Why are you picking on trophies?” Well dear reader, the reason is this: it can have an undesirable effect on us. Gamers have become trained to unlocking these “rewards” that were like rats in an experiment. Trophies have a philological effect on us, it’s like Thorndike’s classic law of effect, but more along the lines of Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s experiment of action and consequences.

Operant Conditioning is the term of this achievements theory and Skinner is considered to be the father of it as he had introduced the Law of Effect to reinforcement, but what we want to focus on here is the positive reinforcement. All of us can think of examples of how our behavior has been affected by positive reinforcements and now trophy collecting is one of them. Skinner showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in a box that contained a lever that once the rat pulled on it would dispense a food pellet into a container next to the lever. The rats learned that by pulling on the lever, food would dispense, ensuring that they would repeat the action again and again.

This is happening to gamers to a lesser degree. In the case of the gamer, the consequence of hearing the unlock sound has begun to activate their reward center in the brain and apply positive reinforcement. Hear the sweet sweet sound of unlocking an achievement? You want to hear it again? Better start collecting! A simple sound may not seem like much, but scientific studies have proven that a positive reinforced no matter the degree will result in an repeat habit. Think about it, if every time you unlocked a trophy the ps4 controller gave you a small shock, would you want to keep collecting them? Some gamers have developed an unsatisfied gnawing obsession come over them until they have collected them all (just look at ThatOneVideoGamer), or in other cases become obsessed and frustrated when unable to achieve the harder ones. In extreme cases when presented with an older game that does not feature any sort of achievements, will gamers continue to find the point in playing it without incentives?