In Their Own Words: The Achievement Component

Over the past 5 years, I have asked MMORPG players hundreds of different questions. The one that inevitably provides the most interesting responses is this one - "Why do you play?". The following narratives show how multi-faceted every player is and how motivations intersect and influence each other. Together, these narratives provide the foundation to any other discourse about MMORPGs. After all, if we don't understand why players are in these online worlds to begin with, then we can never truly appreciate the more complex phenomena that emerge from these environments.

Oftentimes, we project our motivations onto others and we fail to appreciate what "fun" is to someone else. The following narratives show how relative fun can be and the sheer diversity of ways of deriving satisfaction from the same construct. "Fun" means something different to different people.

The narratives are framed by the 3 main components, thereby illustrating how the different subcomponents can combine, but more importantly, shedding light on where more work still needs to be done. The presentation below extracts parts of long responses submitted by players and might create the illusion that players are more single-dimensional than they really are. This was done to make it easier to understand the spectrum of motivations. Most players in fact described their preferences along several motivations so make sure you browse through the profile tool to get a sense of how multi-faceted players really are.

At A Glance:

- Progress & Advancement
- The Seduction of Achievement
- The Grind
- Reaching the End Game
- Recognition & Competition
- Self-Sufficiency
- Optimization


While many players describe a desire to achieve in the game, there appear to be two different threads of where the satisfaction lies. One group of players derive satisfaction from the constant progress offered by the game mechanisms, while the other group of players are driven mainly to reach a goal (typically the end-game).

Progress / Advancement

It gives me the illusion of progress, I know that. I hate the level of frustrated progress in the r/w so I play the game and lvl up instead. It is *crack* for the achievement center of the brain, like cocaine affects the pleasure center. They need to regulate this industry, or many frustrated children will ruin their school progress. [WoW, M, 34]

As soon as the effort required by the treadmill from me no longer is rewarded with and equally significant reward, I lose interest and stop playing. Thus I rarely hit the max level because when I get close the cost/benefit ratio usually takes a nosedive and it feels like work. [WoW, M, 25]

Also, it is difficult to stop playing if I am very near the next character level. I feel achievement is my greatest motivation for playing. I can't wait to level again and get that new ability or skill or awesome weapon, but I never want to hit max level ... World of Warcraft does provide a lot of interesting 'end game' content that max level players can enjoy and I look forward to that. [WoW, M, 28]


The Seduction of Achievement

Other players elaborate on how achievement is structured differently in MMORPGs than from real life, and it is this difference that makes advancement seductive in MMORPGs.

It's encouraging because in an MMORPG you can see a consistent progression of development in your are getting better at a steady rate...In RL you don't level up when you get ahead, it isn't as obvious. [WoW, M, 31]

Part of the reason I play online games is to experience a sense of achievement. When I put a good deal of time and effort into an in-game task, I am rewarded in a way that's meaningful and measurable: I gain a new item, I finish a difficult quest and get experience points or money, I gain a higher level of proficiency in a skill or ability, or I gain notoriety in the virtual game community. The real world isn't like that. In the real world, there are few quantitative rewards for the effort one puts out merely 'to live'. In the real world, you have to run errands, shop at the grocery store, clean your house, do your taxes, keep all your papers organized, do the laundry, etc. etc.. There is no sense of 'achievement' or forward progression in these things -- they are merely daily must do's. There is no sparkly new item or new skill waiting for me after I do my 6th load of laundry in a week.

Then there's work: you go to work and do your job. You may be lucky and have a job that's incredibly rewarding and offers you a sense of achievment, but I'd bet that most folks do what they do out of necessity for an income, and not because the work fulfills them in a spiritual or emotional sense. Your reward for doing your job well is the occaisional promotion or raise. But it's never guaranteed. There are many factors involved in progressing in a career that make it much more complicated than 'to achieve y, I have to do x'.

As children, we are taught to 'achieve' by being given milestones with specific goals. 'If you eat your green beans, you can have ice cream.' 'If you get an A in biology, you can get your driver's license.' 'If you work hard at school, you will get into a good college.' 'If you get a 90 on a test, that is an A-'. We are graded in school, critiqued by coaches, evaluated by theatre and musical directors, sized up by our peers and family: we are always being judged both quantitatively and qualitatively as we make our way slowly and methodically to 'adulthood'. There are direct relationships between 'doing' and 'accomplishing' that I think disappear to an extent after we enter the 'real world'. Achieving becomes much harder, especially if you're not sure what goals you want to set for yourself to begin with. There is no structure anymore - the world is more freeform, and less supportive. There are no rewards hanging out there waiting for you to pluck them. You have to go out and create them, then strive to achieve them, and it takes a lot of effort, and a lot of time. While I personally own and run a successful small business, and have enjoyed reaching milestones and goals I've set for myself, they come fewer and farther between than i NEED, and so, playing online games allows me to find a positive outlet for that need to achieve on a regular basis. [WoW, F, 37]


The Grind

In fact, that sense of constant progress engineered by the behavioral conditioning of the game is so powerful that several players described the pleasure they derive from the grind.

When I became GM taming, after 7 months of constant taming (we're talking about several hours a day.. 10+ hours every single day almost 5 years ago). After I finally Grandmastered my animal taming, I was clueless as to what to do. I wound up creating a second tamer just to GM the skill over again (which I did). Now I'm working with a power scroll to become level 120 taming. [UO, F, 23]

There's a certain satisfaction to be had from levelling, I find. While there ARE things much more enriching and rewarding than mindless levelling, there's a certain.... feeling of zen to be found in the grind. I've spent hours on end in the same area, doing the same thing over and over, watching the exp bar creep slowly upwards... Just soloing, just me and the monsters. Strangely, it can be a nice way to unwind after a long day at work. Stock up on potions, set up the hotkeys, plan out the route you'll take, and go at it. A lot of people complain about hitting that bar to get the pellet, and I've done my share of complaining, too. I sometimes wish I could go faster, to get to the skills and areas and accolades that come with a high level... But the voyage is often just as important as the journey, no? And not every step is going to be fun and games. One has to make the most of it. [CoH, F 22]



Notice that in several narratives above players explicitly talk about never wanting to reach the end-game because they consciously realize it is the constant progress they enjoy. Now contrast that theme with the following narratives that describe the opposite desire.

I hate leveling. That's why getting to the top is probably the most important factor. It's not that I enjoy being higher than everyone else, I just hate leveling. In WOW, the leveling is just training for post-level cap PVP, which is a great Idea. Quick Leveling and END GAME CONTENT! I also like to be able to play a good/niche roll in groups, but I like to be able solo as well. If I can't do both reasonably well, there's no point in playing. [WoW, M, 18]

I do level fast. When my guild played SWG I was known as the master power-leveler. It actually has little to do with my need to be Uber or powerful, I think it has almost nothing to do with being Uber. I most enjoy the Endgame. I rather hate grinding so I try and grind out as fast as possible so I can enjoy my character fully at its highest level. WoW is the first game I have found where 'leveling' has been enjoyable. In SWG I was a huge collector. I even manage a Loot Drop fan-site in WoW collecting is not that important to me as there is no house to decor. [WoW, M, 31]


Power brings Recognition

Now, while some players desire to reach the end-game for their own enjoyment, others want to reach the end-game for a slightly different goal.

I basically play these games to become the most powerful force the game can allow. I want the best of the best items and people to truly respect my play style. I want to become a legend among players within the virtual mmorpg world! [DAoC, M, 25]

This player describes an achievement motivation that interacts with the community. It's not the case he wants to become powerful for its own sake, but he desires power because power is respected and recognized by others.


The Achievement components in one way or another are centered over the underlying theme of power and different ways of harnessing and deriving satisfaction from power. Players who enjoy advancement and progress for its own sake derive satisfaction from gaining power over time. Others enjoy power because it is respected. The following players enjoy the derivation of power that results from competing with other players.

My primary goal is to be competitive in player vs. player combat; this doesn't include griefing, though I'm not afraid to use such tactics to dispense justice as I see fit. My desire to stay competitive drives me to want to level fast, min-max, and gain rare drops. Those things in themselves aren't important to me, and I'd really rather it weren't important to the game, but if I intend to be competitive I've got to do the work to have the fun. [WoW, M, 19]

People sometimes mention it's just a game and the point of it is to have fun, I reply that to me being the best is most fun. I have always been extremely competitive, i grew up with a brother who is very competitive, so i have been used to competition since birth. I am also a sportsman, i train Judo for a local club which pays me to keep training as long as I am winning. I have learned to find satisfaction in winning and love all games, board, sports and electronic games, because in all games u have winners and losers, when i win I have lots of fun, when i lose i am motivated to improve myself, and when i improve myself i have a lot of fun too. [WoW, M, 18]



For other players, power is desired because it allows for self-sufficiency. Power for these players is not sought for social recognition, but rather, because it grants independence.

I don't like to be powerful, so much as self-sufficient/independent. I find the main drive of my leveling is so that I can go anywhere in the game, anytime I see fit, and not be too weak to survive there. That way my ability to hang with friends, or to explore the worlds, is not limited by my weakness. [Other, F, 26]

The important aspect of achievement to me is being able to complete tasks on my own when I so choose. I like to be able to complete a quest or gather raw materials without having to ask my guildmates for help all the time. I don't really care how fast I level but it is very important to me to have a large degree of self-sufficiency with regard to task completion, problem solving and resource gathering. [WoW, F, 25]



For many who choose this path of power, understanding the underlying game mechanics is crucial because power is derived from charts and rules, and thus knowing those rules becomes a form of power.

Well, when you prefer to solo, like I do, since I play at odd hours of the day, you need to get your character to minimize their weaknesses. So, min/maxing and getting good armor/weapons/spells is a big part of solo play. [EQ2, M, 19]

It took me forever to get my Shadowblade to 50 in DAOC. Over years of playing because the class was so gimpy. However I never gave up and I wound up with a really great template. Rare drops and leveling fast were never important to me - but making sure I found myself at the endgame with a playable character - that was everything. I had created 30+ templates and spent literally 40+ spare hours creating templates at catacombs and other sites to make sure I had the best build. Then when I finally got there and it all fit into place - that made it all worth it. [WoW, M, 25]

At lower levels, I didn't get too caught up in min-maxing. Spending lots of money or time to get the absolute best armor and jewelry seemed a bit pointless since the levels went by so quickly anyway. But as I got to the higher levels, I found myself getting more careful with optimizing my character - because whatever I went with I'd be stuck with for quite a while, and also to give myself as much of an advantage as possible in PvP. Just recently, I spent three days working out a jewelry/armor template that would allow me to max as many things as possible for my last set of armor when I hit max level. [DAoC, F, 23]


It's Not About Achievement

Of course, there are also players who don't find achievement fun, and some of these narratives are presented here.

For me, I play one main character. I have been playing her for years, and am still only level 25. Level isn't important to me, nor are riches. I feel a sense of achievement when I develop all the skills that are available to her. I like to be able to kick some serious butt, make some absolutely adorable armor, make a nice dinner, etc. Sometimes I will go on just to practice trade skills, and not do anything but, for example, buy batwings from newbies and make batwing crunchies, then give the food away to people who want it. [EQ, F, 34]

I'm not much of the achiever, I'm usually one of the middle to low levels in guilds/pas that I play with, because I' prefer to enjoy the game itself, instead of mindlessly leveling. I don't understand the desire to powergame where every little trick and location are mapped out so that you can run from a to b to c, but never take a second to read what the mission is or listen to what the NPCs say after you deliver whatever it was you stole, killed for, found, delivered. [WoW, M, 26]

It's not important to me at all, I just play to have fun. For example, it took me to 6 months to master pistols in Star Wars Galaxies, which can take only a few days for a determined person. [SWG, M, 37]