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[What's the point of achievements, and how do they interact with us in the real world? In this in-depth Gamasutra column, game designer and author Ian Bogost contrasts airline mileage programs with Foursquare and Xbox Live Achievements.]
I am one of those frequent flyer freaks. I count my elite qualifying miles and plan trips to maximize their accrual. I orchestrate complex bookings based on the class of service available and my ability to upgrade it. I can tell you which seats are optimal on a Delta 767-300 versus a 767-400. I can explain the intricacies of award ticketing on my hometown airline. I wept when Singapore Airlines ended its Delta SkyMiles redemption partnership.
And I'm a lightweight, relatively speaking. Visit the FlyerTalk forums and you'll find a diehard underground community devoted to maximizing promotional earns to get miles at the lowest possible price. You'll find maniacs planning "mileage runs," trips made for no other purpose than to gain frequent flyer mileage or elite qualifying status.
Loyalty programs like these were invented to reward repeat customers. But unlike the coffee card from the local cafe, frequent flyer programs involve considerable complexity to operate effectively.
One has to know, for example, that an M-class ticket earns 50% greater miles and qualifying miles than an K class, but that elite level trumps fare class for upgrades, so a Platinum on a K-fare for a low-volume city pair and date might enjoy a first class upgrade anyway for a lower fare cost, although he'd earn fewer miles than the M-fare Gold back in coach.
This scenario might be further complicated by, say, who buys the ticket. If it's the company's dime, why not buy the M-fare under the guise of flexibility, and get half again as many miles, plus a more likely upgrade? Such is the mindset of the frequent flyer.
A frequent flyer program is not a game, but it is a system of complex rules. For this reason, we often talk about "playing" or "gaming" the system. It's sort of a misnomer: while errors sometimes create exploitable opportunities, loyalty programs are tightly controlled and closely revenue-managed. The game is not so much a process of cheating the system as it is one of exploring its possibility space and interpolating mastery within it. The fact that the rules are opaque and often change makes the process both challenging and gratifying.
The rewards for such mastery include social value (elite status), service value (free upgrades, special queues), and exchange value (flight rewards). Most amateurs focus on flight rewards as the primary motivation for using a frequent flyer program (and they seldom earn enough for those awards).
But experts focus on service value and the social value. Once you fly enough, the benefits of shorter lines and first class upgrades become far more immediately appealing. Besides, business travelers have a hard time finding time to travel for pleasure anyway.
The social value of frequent travel shouldn't be overlooked either. While it might seem silly to the outsider, social standing motivates people in any club. Like the Prada triangle on a carry-on, the Platinum tag confers intangible information about its bearer, for better or worse.
As loyalty programs have evolved, their operators have become more and more aware that the exchange value of points earned in these programs is often a less motivating incentive for loyalty than the social and service value of those same points. When mileage runners plan an end-of-year cross-country expedition to earn or retain an elite level, they do so partly because that accomplishment will yield more bonus miles for award redemption.
But they do so at least as much because having status feels good, impresses others, and offers immediate and repeated benefit at the airport and in the air. People do crazy things for miles.
Few people call Xbox Live Achievements and PSN Trophies "loyalty programs", but that's indeed what they are. They offer players incentives to continue buying and playing titles for one console over another. Developers are required to include Achievements or Trophies in their games, and players can earn them by completing specific tasks, some central to play (reaching a certain level) and others peripheral (completing a time run).
Achievements and Trophies primarily confer social status. They are displayed on a user's profile and communicate something intangible about overall video game adeptness. Some have marveled at the effectiveness of these programs, since the points awarded have no exchange value whatsoever. And to some extent, that astonishment is well-placed. It's indeed not possible to trade-in points from one's Gamerscore for, say, new games, or for Microsoft Points.
But that's not the whole story. Achievements offer a compact way for players to communicate with one another about their accomplishments. They serve an evidentiary function, affirming particular feats and prowess. This service value is similar to social value, but offers more than just status: it gives players a way of verifying their in-game acts during social encounters.