Monday, February 8, 2010

Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement

A while back, I discussed my experiences with the dangers of fake achievement and its potential for abuse. I'd become addicted, and regularly played RPGs to feel good about myself - I allowed myself to glow in the praise directed at my characters for their world-saving heroics, when all I'd really done is hit the right buttons enough times. Once I figured this out, and realized it was preventing me from accomplishing anything real, I set about the lengthy task of recovery. Step one was a game accomplishment that required skill rather than patience - collecting all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX.

The response to this essay was... mixed, to say the least.

There was one comment in particular that raised an interesting question, which I would like to address today.

"It's ironic that he thinks beating 'unchallenging' RPGs is fake, but then spends untold hours in (mediocre) action games trying to get all of the achievements.

ALL games are oriented around artificial achievements, BECAUSE THEY'RE GAMES. Unless your life revolves around them, trying to analyze your personality through which games you enjoy is stupidity."
Comment by Traveler2112

Games are oriented around artificial achievement. But my essay was about fake achievement. And there is a tremendously vital difference between artificial achievement and fake achievement.

"Artificial" just means "produced by humans" instead of nature. If you and I decide to have a contest to see which of us can be the first to hit a bottle off a fence with a thrown rock, winning the contest is an artificial achievement. The goal is entirely constructed, and exists only in our own minds, but still requires genuine skill to achieve. "Fake" means "designed to deceive or cheat." If I trick you into thinking you won the contest by having a confederate hide behind the fence and knock the bottle off by hand even though your rock went wide, the achievement has now become fake - you didn't really do what we're claiming you did, and no skill was necessary.

Football is just as much a game as StarCraft. It's been around longer, and has greater social support (outside of South Korea, anyway) but "sport" is just a fancy name for "competitive skill-based game." The rules of football are exactly as contrived as those of StarCraft, and scoring a field goal is exactly as artificial an achievement as surviving a Zerg rush - but neither achievement is fake.

Most of us are surrounded by artificial achievement. Homework assignments? Artificial. Job tasks? Artificial. Chores and errands and paperwork? Artificial, artificial, and artificial. And, of course, the games we play, of whatever variety.

This is a good thing. This is what allows us to have an economy, to grow and innovate and specialize, instead of everyone having to hunt or gather. Everyone goes and does their own artificial achievements, for which they receive their artificial reward - money, which has no intrinsic value - and exchanges it for (among other things) the natural rewards of food and shelter.

Yet no one is lining up to pay me for beating Sonic. That's because there's another important way to classify achievement - by value.

My videogame skills don't really do anything for anyone else, so there's no reason for anyone to subsidize them. My professional skills are professional because they can be used to create value for others, and so people are willing to pay me for them. Entertainment is where this gets a bit fuzzy - playing football doesn't directly help anyone not involved in the game, but the sport is popular enough that many people find it highly entertaining to watch skilled competitors. If videogames become popular enough, a similar phenomenon can occur (again, StarCraft in South Korea).

So we have fake achievement, in which no actual achievement has occurred, and artificial achievement, in which something skill-based has actually been achieved - but it may or may not be valuable.

So, then. What happens when we play Guitar Hero?

Musical instruments are human inventions, as are videogame controllers. They are equally artificial. If one person plays a song in Guitar Hero, and another person plays that song on their actual guitar, they are both executing learned motions that cause the sound of the song to be produced. Neither would be able to do so without their respective tools.

Yet, again, there is a difference in value. It takes a great deal more time and effort to gain skill with the actual guitar, and there's a commensurate payoff - the actual guitar is vastly more flexible, able to play virtually any song regardless of whether the player has downloaded it to their game console, and no TV is required. And a skilled guitarist can be a lot more entertaining than a skilled Guitar Hero player, by virtue of the fact that more personal creativity can be expressed with a real guitar.

Playing a song in Guitar Hero is a sort of musical form of option restriction. The player doesn't have a choice about how to play the song, only whether to play the song. On an actual guitar, notes and chords can be changed, flourishes can be added or removed, the tempo can be increased or decreased. In Guitar Hero, the player either hits the right buttons at the right time and hears the song the same way it always is, or fails to and does not hear the song. Objectively, it's pretty clear-cut: playing Guitar Hero is almost nothing like playing a real guitar. It's equally real and equally artificial, but much lower value. But what about subjectively?

When I press the jump button in Sonic, and Sonic jumps, I feel responsible for the action. If someone asked me what I just did, I would probably say, "I jumped." After all, when we control something, we perceive it as an extension of our selves. That's what makes us such good tool-users.

But pressing a button is very different from jumping. If it's pointed out to me that I haven't actually jumped, I'll immediately agree that all I did was press a button and it was the fictional hedgehog that jumped, and saying "I jumped" serves as a verbal shorthand. There's a pretty clear line between the artificial-but-real achievement of being good at telling Sonic to jump at the right time and the completely fake achievement of being good at jumping myself - I'd have to have a loose grip on reality to decide that playing the game had made me better at jumping.

In Guitar Hero, the line is less clear. Holding a fret button and hitting a strum bar is not that different from holding a fret and strumming a string. The illusion is far more convincing (at least to the player). If it's pointed out to me that I haven't actually just played a song, I'd hesitate much longer before responding. The distinction is fuzzy: I performed actions that resulted in music. The game never actually claims to be teaching the player to play the guitar, but the brain may be fooled nonetheless.

"...if the player presses the button at the right time, the computer plays back a recording of a particular note (or set of notes) played by a professional musician. The music itself is potent and rewarding — Keith Richards really knows how to bend a note — but the real secret to the game is what happens is that fact if you miss the button, you don’t hear the note.

The brain whirrs away, and notices the contingency. When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards; when I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don’t hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!"
Gary Marcus, What makes people want to play Rock Band and Guitar Hero?

As much as I love Guitar Hero, I've always been a bit leery of it for this reason. It edges dangerously close to fake achievement, to tricking the player into believing they've accomplished something they haven't. Indeed, a popular fear is that playing Guitar Hero will substitute for gaining actual musical skill.

"It encourages kids not to learn, that's the trouble. It makes less and less people dedicated to really get down and learn an instrument. I think is a pity so I'm not really keen on that kind of stuff."
—former Rolling Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman, as quoted in Rock stars cool over video games

Yet it's not exactly clear that this fear is well-founded. Guitar Hero's creators make a compelling counter-argument:

"Most people try to learn an instrument at some point in their lives, and almost all of them quit after a few months or a year or two. This, I think, is because the earliest years of learning an instrument are the least gratifying. When people play Rock Band, however, they very quickly get a glimpse of the rewards that lie on the other side of the wall. We're constantly hearing from fans who were inspired by Rock Band to start studying a real instrument."
Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos, as quoted in Rock stars cool over video games

Besides the copious-but-anecdotal evidence of people turning from the games to real instruments, there's the actual business success of companies that have banked on such transitions occurring.

"The games are bringing a new generation of players to the instrument, said Jeff Schroedl, vice president of Pop & Standard Publications for old-school music book publisher Hal Leonard, which runs

'We actually publish songbooks in hard-book form in conjunction with Guitar Hero and Rock Band,' he said. 'They're the only sanctioned songbooks that work with the game, and those books are flying off the shelves.'

Sales of fretted instruments increased nearly $30 million in the last year, said Paul Majeski, publisher of The Music Trades. 'The consumer appeal of the instrument is huge,' Majeski said.

Guitar Center, which set up virtual shop in Guitar Hero and has offered deep discounts to gamers who buy real instruments, thinks 'interactive videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band are minting more guitar players,' according a representative of the store.
—Eliot Van Buskirk, Guitar Hero: Gateway Drug to Six-String Bliss

What does all this go to show? The fault, dear reader, lies not in our videogames but in ourselves. Guitar Hero simulates being, well, a guitar hero, but it doesn't demand the player let it serve as a replacement. Plenty of people let it inspire them to go out and do the real thing. They are not fooled by the potential for fake achievement.

(Just as when I abused RPGs for fake achievement, I was the one at fault. RPGs presented a potential for abuse, but so do many, many things.)

In the end, it all comes down to self-awareness: recognizing when our achievement is real or fake, seeing when it is valuable or valueless, and steering ourselves accordingly. It's something we all must do for ourselves.


  1. A great read as always. I'll try to be more conscience of both my gaming and my real-life achievements.

  2. Well, I'm glad you cleared up some of the points from your fake achievement essay. It was through that one that I discovered your site in the first place, and it was not on good terms at the time.

  3. I don't understand why you go to the trouble of defining and explaining achievement as artificial. An achievement as we define it is inherently subjective, every achievement is man made, because it's just a concept.

    Becoming president isn't a more valuable achievement than beating final fantasy 1 to a 7 year old.

    I understand you defining and separating fake achievement, but artificial achievement is just... achievement.

    Have I used the word enough for it to have lost meaning? Good.

    Also - the warm fuzzy conclusion about self awareness is not comforting to parents. Not that I am one, but I've given it some thought, and children do not do introspection. So the structure of video games in their formative years can effect them for life, and that's why your fake achievement article was a winner.

    You don't need to cover your tracks dude, explore a new topic.

  4. @Doctor Professor

    I'm interested to hear what you have to say about the drum and vocal gameplay in Guitar Hero's younger brother, Rock Band. I think you make a sensible point about guitar play edging close to dangerous cognitive territory, but when you drum on Rock Band your playing a sort of beginner's drums set and when you sing you're, you know... singing. (Although it should be said that the way the game scores your performance--binarily note-by-note with a pass/fail grade for the entire song--pushes even these modes of play into a potentially gray area.)

    I'm particularly interested in the drums since, as you well know, I actually got so pumped up playing RB drums that I went out and purchased a real kit. Perhaps even more interestingly, I was able to play, just a little bit but for realz, the very first time I ever sat down behind some actual skins thanks to Rock Band. It was incredibly empowering. (And certainly made the $300+ purchase of the real thing much easier to swallow.)

    What I want to know, but won't get to until it happens, of course, is whether the guitar gameplay is headed that way as well. There have been hints, but only time will tell the whole story. Any personal opinions?

    I think you make a good point about the (non)difference between "artificial achievement" as outlined in the essay and what people mean when they just say "achievement." That semantic bobble aside, though, I generally found this post to be a valuable and thought-provoking extension of the original. It felt less like covering tracks and more like digging into the same ground.

  5. I mostly hate RPGs for the same reason you stopped playing. It's repetitive in its gameplay, and I'm seeking games that can be based on my reflexes or brain (Toribash, Quake3, SFIII3, O2jam: all time faves).

    But you're ommiting a detail on which I could write a book: humans have different approaches over life, and different ways to think, hence, feel satified.

    The Herrmann theory of brain dominance includes, for instance, a 'sequencial' way of thinking and learning. Sequential thinkers are said to prefer repetitive activitie, time management, schedules... utterly boring for us since we, gamers, are attracted to challenge.

    Real life is different, and what you called fake achievements can actually seen in life. It's not a matter of tapping a button, neither it is a matter of what the game will make you learn. It's a game.

    I hate MMORPG. I hate being smitten to smithereens by a dude whose only effort has been to invest time in it.

    But think about it. How many people do jobs that mainly require to invest time in it? We actually do need people who like repetitive tasks.
    Will you think "how can this accountant can be paid in the end of the month?".
    I take it you won't.

    Given, micro-rewarding doesn't work for everybody.Especially in learning.
    But then again nothing does...

  6. The point about Rock Band and Guitar Hero is an interesting one. They sit at the border between Artificial and Fake achievement.

    However, if you think about it, it would be entirely possible to make MIDI interface instruments (which cover the full range of notes possible on the instrument). Couple that with a game which uses them, and you could quite possibly teach people to play a real instrument while also letting them play a game.

    While making full MIDI-capable instruments would be a bit hard, a simpler starting point would be using a microphone plugged into a sound card and a game which scores you on how well your performance compares to a reference one stored in the game, factoring into account the difference in pitch of the player's voice compared to the reference one.

    Such a game would blur the line between Real and Artificial achievement, rather than Artificial and Fake achievement.

  7. @Partial Charge:

    The vocal and drum gameplay already in these games does, at the very least, approach the real. And guitar gameplay is headed that way as well, though it's hard to say how long it will take it to really get there.

    To me, the interesting part is that as gameplay approaches the real, the game approaches becoming a learning tool rather than an end in itself. I have fun pretending to play the guitar in Rock Band, but when I think of more realistic guitar gameplay, what excites me about it is the prospect of learning to play a real guitar.

    Which is something I could already do, of course. I actually have a decent guitar gathering dust in the corner of my bedroom. The problem, as Alex Rigopulos pointed out in the quote I pulled, is how much time must be poured into practicing before it becomes rewarding. Learning in the form of a game would smooth out the curve and make it much easier to maintain motivation. That's what I'm looking forward to.