Digital Dominance: Guns
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Digital Dominance: Goals

Last week we looked at the most popular depictive prop in videogames    the gun. This week, in the second and final part, it's the turn of the most popular verbal prop the goal.

kirby-air-ride-checklist-filled Why are goals so inherent to games of all kinds, especially videogames? It is not that games require goals - a tabletop role-playing game can escape them entirely. But there is something about goals that is essential to what we usually mean by “gameplay”.

There is still a widespread tendency to think of winning and losing as the quintessential hallmark of a game. Yet many games have no victory condition and yet still feel game-like. Consider Deus Ex Machina (Mel Croucher, 1984) or SimCity (Maxis, 1989). The temptation to always imply a goal may be misleading: all action implies outcomes, after all, and this observation extends far beyond games. We can't take the necessary link between action and result as saying anything important about games.

In this piece, the focus is not goals in the abstract sense but the very specific details that emerge from representing functional objectives in words (or numbers). Missions, quests and achievements are all examples of goals in this sense. Like guns, goals dominate the landscape of play, now more than ever before in the history of games.


Consequences of Goals

What happens when a game presents a stated goal to the player? One possibility is that the player does as the game asks; in a linearly structured game the player must comply or else stop playing (a reason this structure has severe commercial limits). Another possibility is that the player attempts to subvert the stated goal, to find a way to attain it that circumvents the expected course of action. Either way, if the player completes the goal they experience a sense of satisfaction or triumph. If they subvert the goal, they may also enjoy a perverse delight in having done so.

What if the goal is not stated? If what is expected of the player can be intuitively grasped, the ‘goal’ is merely help text – “eat all the dots” in Pac-Man, for instance. If its implementation is obscure, a puzzle results. Solving a puzzle is more rewarding than completing a goal, because struggle always enhances reward if (and it's a big if) the player perseveres. But tough puzzles are a minority interest in games precisely because of that ‘if’. Goals, on the other hand, are fast becoming ubiquitous. The importance of the ‘stated’ aspect of a goal, therefore, is that it reduces the risk of the goal becoming a puzzle.

Once goals are stated, an inevitable consequence is structure. A game with implicit or unstated goals can be freeform and unstructured, but most players facing such a situation won't know what to do with their freedom. Conversely, stated goals provide inevitable organisation. Linear chains of goals, parallel threads of tasks, long lists of possible activities... a game with goals has a structure, and structure is the game designer's secret weapon.

To keep a player interested in a game, it must present possibilities. Sometimes, the possibility to win is enough. Increasingly, however, the drive to play is sustained by structured goals – a reward structure (or, to make the debt to B.F. Skinner explicit, a reward schedule) gives the player multiple reasons to keep playing. It began with Dungeons & Dragons (TSR, 1974) and the class and level system, but now everything from Facebook to Xbox Live thrives on structured sets of interlocking rewards. Goals are inherently rewards, because to complete a goal is to feel satisfied; anything else you can offer for completing a goal (experience points, trophies, loot) is pure gravy.

Circumstances for Goals

As already mentioned, D&D set the scene for the dominance of goals. Never mind its inventive participatory storytelling, the parallel reward structures of experience for levels and treasure for equipment created the basis of all modern game goals. There are other stories to be told, of course – the rise of FarmVille (Zynga, 2009), for instance, is incomprehensible without recognising the contribution of Harvest Moon (Natsume, 1997 onwards) and Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2003 onwards). But nothing in modern games makes sense except in the light of the contribution of D&D.

However, the reward structures from D&D were for a long time constrained to the digital descendants of tabletop RPGs, and the goals were little more than target numbers of a resource to collect (i.e. XP). These games also used quests as a parallel goal mechanic, which conditioned the immediate activities of the player, but the form was laboriously narrative, and did not see much use outside of cRPGs. That said, mission goals were becoming widely used by the late 1990s, and were often expanded beyond the basics. GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) had a secondary goal mechanism whereby each mission had a target completion time, which would unlock a “cheat” if met. These targets were stated goals, although the exact rewards were secrets.

Kirby Air Ride (HAL Laboratory, 2003)  offered a significant development to the hidden goal system by offering “checklists” in a grid form, whereby goals are secret unless the player has completed a goal in a neighbouring square (see picture, above). Since some of the goals are inevitable – win 3 races, for instance – the player is given a means to explore the checklist space, and their play is focussed by an extensive array of goals, giving reasons to race different vehicles and so forth. The checklist system was an innovative way of structuring play, but it gained little attention at the time.

In a rare case of Microsoft being inventive, 2005 saw the introduction of the Gamerscore achievements system. This offered many of the advantages of the checklist approach, and by making most goals explicit it offered another level of play to all Xbox games. What’s more, by making this a platform standard it ensured all developers could gain the advantages of an explicit goal structure (whether they wanted to or not!). However, by scoring Achievements collectively (the ‘score’ in Gamerscore) Microsoft also collected these goals into a composite reward schedule. Depending on one’s perspective, this was either sheer genius or thoroughly pernicious – personally, I believe it to be a little of both. Goals under this system become habit-forming across the entire platform, and truly dominate play.

This is not the end of the story, however, since other companies soon came to recognise the merits of hooking players long-term with explicit goal structures. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward, 2007) upped the stakes in this contest. They ceded the single player mode to Microsoft on the 360 (putting all the Gamerscore achievements into this mode) but hooked players into their own reward structure in multiplayer, using an experience system in the grand D&D tradition coupled with badges linked to various goals and rewards, comprehensively holding player attention for hundreds of hours. The result was a highly compelling goal framework that is rapidly establishing itself as industry standard.

Nor are goals exclusive to the gamer hobbyists, as Facebook demonstrates – although in this context a little social competition is used as a driving force between commoditised 'friends'. Goals have become as ubiquitous as guns, if not more so, and play – in the sense of free and spontaneous expression – has been quashed by the addictive qualities of reward structures.



Modern Warfare is a poster child for the current domination of play by guns and goals – it has both in impressively large numbers, and equally substantial sales figures as evidence of the commercial benefits of going this route. But with games like this and the even more goal-saturated World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004 onwards) demanding hundreds of hours of attention from their audience, the blockbuster market begins to be closed to new faces.

The creativity of the 80’s is long gone, replaced by battles over the control of the most lucrative niches. As smaller numbers of games are able to compete for the attention of gamers at the upper end of the market, the medium of videogames as a whole arguably suffers. Creativity lacks a home – blockbusters can't stray far from the dominant forces, and mass market games must conform to the lowest common denominator in order to court appeal, while often having budgets too low to attain production values amenable to wide appeal.

The domination of videogames by guns and goals is likely to persist unless viable, creatively-driven, art-game movements can emerge that either subvert or discard both explicit achievements as the structure of play and weaponry as the focus of play. If this is not possible, games-as-art will flounder against the possibility of holding sufficient interest against the commercial mainstream, and will fail to earn attention, funding or respect. With the mainstream of videogames now quite clearly defined, the open question is whether the artistic potential of the medium will be explored, or left fallow.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.


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"The domination of videogames by guns and goals is likely to persist unless viable, creatively-driven, art-game movements can emerge that either subvert or discard both explicit achievements as the structure of play and weaponry as the focus of play."

Working on it. :)

Will you be at the GDC in Cologne?
If so attened this:

Michael: "Working on it. :)"

Glad to hear it - I always look forward to seeing what you and Auriea come up with!

Sadly, I can't make Gamescom/GDC Europe this year - I've booked the whole of July for five different speaking events, and I can't afford any more time away from my desk! :)

Hope to catch you guys soon!


I really like this take on the wider issues. The goal structures that bother me personally the most are the ones that damage the actual competitive game or skill-based challenge in a title - ie: it spoils what I enjoy :-)

I've had a bit of a rant about that here:

and specifically about COD earlier:

BTW, Agoners would love to still be friend's of iHobo, even if obviously our material is at a rather different 'level' than your own a lot of the time Chris :-)

Thanks for the kind words, Rik!

I can completely understand why a player such as yourself interested in the glory of the fair fight finds advancement systems frustrating. Of course, achievements can be neutral to performance - compare the achievements in Counter Strike: Source (which are cosmetic) with those in COD (which are progressive).

As for Agoners, of course you're a friend! :) I've added you to the list, although I don't know why you seem to defy alphabetical order. It's a bit odd. ;)

Update: I fixed the problem... previously, you appeared at the very bottom of the list for some unknown reason. I forced it to display a different order, and when I switched back to alphabetical it was fixed.

Yup, I actually champion those kinds of cosmetic progression systems:

"The “right” way to use grindable systems in videogames that are actually intended to be games or puzzles is to gain the advantages of the ‘carrot’ they offer, but not to damage the game/puzzle aspects at the same time – make the grindable system separate from actual game mechanics. "

This is why Xbox Achievements don't usually bother me, but the ability improvements tied to level-up systems in a game like COD does. In fact I love Achievements that are actually skill-based to get, for a very different reason - because they are visible outside the game (and socially networkable) 'proof' that you've done something. I actually prefer the PSN name of "Trophies" for this reason, as that's exactly the aspect of Achievments that I like. Playing (and generally cheating past any skills needed as much as possible) "to get gamerscore" is the antithesis to this! I also hate badly designed Achievements that have detrimental effect on a multiplayer game (there's a lot of older stuff on Agoners about this ^_^).

Glad the sites are still friends! ;-) Since you were one of the main people who inspired me to try to write :) Glad it helped you find out some ordering bugs in the software too... must be my software tester 'abilities' coming through even in the site name!

Rik: regarding Xbox Achievements, as someone rather prone to the compulsiveness of reward structures, I find the whole Gamerscore thing very difficult to deal with, and prefer to avoid it. The PS3 Trophies are much less intrusive, since they don't work collectively towards a higher level reward schedule. Of course, this probably also means the Trophies are much less effective at keeping players compulsively hooked to the PS3, but never mind. :)

All the best!

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