Researcher and Malmoe University associate professor Mikael Jakobsson notes that "there's been a lot of talk recently about how achievements are extrinsic awards systems" -- that is to say that it's something outside of the game, an arbitrary reward that you're given for just about anything, versus the gold stars you get in school for a job well done.
"This to me isn't false exactly, but it's a very small part of the whole picture," he says, in a GDC Europe talk focused on lessons from achievement design and play. "To me, achievements are more like quests. They give you a task to conduct, just like a quest in World of Warcraft for instance," he said. "It gives you something to do, and it also gives you a reward."
"I don't think they're extrinsic, either," he added. "It's just that the achievements aren't necessarily a part of the game you're playing at the moment. They're more part of the Xbox Live MMO game that everyone on Xbox Live is playing at the same time as they're playing the separate titles."
For the purposes of his research, he is just talking about the Xbox 360, and the Xbox Live MMO is pretty much invisible, he says. We only see the achievements, or quests, but there's also your avatar, and gamertag which ties all your achievements to a character. If you think about it as a metagame, then the achievements aren't outside the gaming experience, "they're just part of the other gaming experience."
"A lot of console gamers look down on PC gamers," says Jakobsson. "This is a fact. They especially look down on people who play MMOs. They tend to think people who play MMOs are wasting their lives, and possibly addicted. … But at the same time they happily play this Xbox Live MMO and have a lot of fun with it."
The actual gameplay in this meta MMO isn't that interesting, he says. It's a lot of grinding involved. "Sometimes you need to do some grinding, you need to do some sweating and bleeding to make the reward feel greater," he said, referencing his previous MMO research. The research for this project consisted of listening to hundreds of hours of podcasts, interviewed people, and so forth.
"I think there's a lot of conflict between not wanting to be perceived as liking achievements, but still wanting to get them," he said. "They might even want to hide their feelings and not want to come out as an achievement lover."
In spite of the mixed bag that achievements can represent, he says that "a lot of the success of the Xbox 360 can be attributed to the achievement program."