Achievements: Fun Collectibles or Psychological Conditioning?

This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

Editor's note:I've never been much of an Achievement guy, but I've definitely seen many people fall prey to Microsoft's siren song. Paul analyzes what is arguably a very simple call-and-response formula for addiction. -James


When I first heard the Achievement unlocked sound, I would look at the screen or occasionally check to see how many points I had unlocked. I hadn't heard the response enough times during those first months, but Microsoft had conditioned many others to yearn for that sound. Soon after the Xbox 360 hit the market, the great achievement race began.

As I migrated from the PlayStation 2 and the Wii to the Xbox 360, my compulsion to pause the game and open the Achievement menu began to grow. During these pauses, I started to scroll the menu and look for other Achievements that were ready to be unlocked. Like so many others, I had started to pine for that sound.

I began to notice that my friends who are avid gamers were spending less time with their other systems and more time plugged into Xbox Live on their 360. I've started to question why this happened. The Trophy system on PlayStation 3 sucked me in, but it didn't have the same effect as the Achievement system.


I first noticed that old Pavlov was in the neighborhood when I was making breakfast. Using my Xbox, I was listening to a podcast on my TV. Suddenly, I thought I heard the Achievement notification — of course, it was the sound of a friend logging into Xbox Live, not an Achievement. The point is that I had put down my spatula and walked into the other room to see what the "ding" was all about. At that moment, I realized that Microsoft had conditioned me to keep an eye on my screen.

I am not saying this is malicious, but if they add this sound to, then we should start questioning their motives. Microsoft is aware of this. Director of Programming for Xbox Live Larrry Hryb — perhaps better known to gamers as Major Nelson — has added the Achievement sound to his blog. He writes:

"For most gamers, this sound causes an increase in heart rate and a Pavlovian reaction that causes them to tap the Xbox 360 button to find out what achievement was unlocked and how many points were added to their Gamerscore."

Keeping Pavlov's notion of classic conditioning in mind, I've mapped out what is happening to some people. First we have the Unconditioned Stimulus and the Unconditioned Response — the things that stimulate the basic needs that drive animals or people and the responses that those things elicit. For example, gaming is a stimulus, and its associated response is feeling content and entertained.

Xbox 360 games feature the ring of the Achievement bell — or what Pavlov calls the Neutral Stimulus. Over time, people associate the sound with playing games and being entertained. When people move to other video game systems, the Microsoft Achievement notification is conspicuously missing. Eventually, the Unconditioned Stimulus and the Neutral Stimulus become conflated. The result is that the Neutral Stimulus becomes the Conditioned Stimulus, and it elicits the Conditioned Response — which, in this case, is wanting to play Xbox 360 games because gamers have formed a connection between Achievement notifications and entertainment.

Because of the Achievement sound, the gamer starts to yearn for that iconic ding — possibly to the point where they can't have fun on anything but the Xbox 360. The sound becomes the driving force to play. If the Conditioned Stimulus is not present, the response is to go back to playing Xbox 360 games.

The same could be true of PS3, too, but since the Trophy system came much later, most avid gamers had the Xbox 360 first. Logically, the Xbox 360 has had more time to condition responses among the gaming public. Over the past few months, I've been playing a lot more PS3 games, and I've started to exhibit a similar response to Trophies.

This isn't a conspiracy theory. I just want to know why my friends who have all three current-generation systems play on the 360 so much. Recently, I've been playing Final Fantasy 7, Ghostbusters on the Wii, Final Fantasy 3 on the DS, and many games on various systems. I've made a break with my conditioning. Hopefully, others can do the same.

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