Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement

A while back, I discussed my experiences with the dangers of fake achievement and its potential for abuse. I’d become addicted, and regularly played RPGs to feel good about myself - I allowed myself to glow in the praise directed at my characters for their world-saving heroics, when all I’d really done is hit the right buttons enough times. Once I figured this out, and realized it was preventing me from accomplishing anything real, I set about the lengthy task of recovery. Step one was a game accomplishment that required skill rather than patience - collecting all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX.

The response to this essay was… mixed, to say the least.

There was one comment in particular that raised an interesting question, which I would like to address today.

“It’s ironic that he thinks beating ‘unchallenging’ RPGs is fake, but then spends untold hours in (mediocre) action games trying to get all of the achievements.

ALL games are oriented around artificial achievements, BECAUSE THEY’RE GAMES. Unless your life revolves around them, trying to analyze your personality through which games you enjoy is stupidity."
Comment by Traveler2112

Games are oriented around artificial achievement. But my essay was about fake achievement. And there is a tremendously vital difference between artificial achievement and fake achievement.

“Artificial” just means “produced by humans” instead of nature. If you and I decide to have a contest to see which of us can be the first to hit a bottle off a fence with a thrown rock, winning the contest is an artificial achievement. The goal is entirely constructed, and exists only in our own minds, but still requires genuine skill to achieve. “Fake” means “designed to deceive or cheat.” If I trick you into thinking you won the contest by having a confederate hide behind the fence and knock the bottle off by hand even though your rock went wide, the achievement has now become fake - you didn’t really do what we’re claiming you did, and no skill was necessary.

Football is just as much a game as StarCraft. It’s been around longer, and has greater social support (outside of South Korea, anyway) but “sport” is just a fancy name for “competitive skill-based game.” The rules of football are exactly as contrived as those of StarCraft, and scoring a field goal is exactly as artificial an achievement as surviving a Zerg rush - but neither achievement is fake.

Most of us are surrounded by artificial achievement. Homework assignments? Artificial. Job tasks? Artificial. Chores and errands and paperwork? Artificial, artificial, and artificial. And, of course, the games we play, of whatever variety.

This is a good thing. This is what allows us to have an economy, to grow and innovate and specialize, instead of everyone having to hunt or gather. Everyone goes and does their own artificial achievements, for which they receive their artificial reward - money, which has no intrinsic value - and exchanges it for (among other things) the natural rewards of food and shelter.

Yet no one is lining up to pay me for beating Sonic. That’s because there’s another important way to classify achievement - by value.

My video game skills don’t really do anything for anyone else, so there’s no reason for anyone to subsidize them. My professional skills are professional because they can be used to create value for others, and so people are willing to pay me for them. Entertainment is where this gets a bit fuzzy - playing football doesn’t directly help anyone not involved in the game, but the sport is popular enough that many people find it highly entertaining to watch skilled competitors. If video games become popular enough, a similar phenomenon can occur (again, StarCraft in South Korea).

So we have fake achievement, in which no actual achievement has occurred, and artificial achievement, in which something skill-based has actually been achieved - but it may or may not be valuable.

So, then. What happens when we play Guitar Hero?

Musical instruments are human inventions, as are video game controllers. They are equally artificial. If one person plays a song in Guitar Hero, and another person plays that song on their actual guitar, they are both executing learned motions that cause the sound of the song to be produced. Neither would be able to do so without their respective tools.

Yet, again, there is a difference in value. It takes a great deal more time and effort to gain skill with the actual guitar, and there’s a commensurate payoff - the actual guitar is vastly more flexible, able to play virtually any song regardless of whether the player has downloaded it to their game console, and no TV is required. A skilled guitarist can be a lot more entertaining than a skilled Guitar Hero player, by virtue of the fact that more personal creativity can be expressed with a real guitar.

Playing a song in Guitar Hero is a sort of musical form of option restriction. The player doesn’t have a choice about how to play the song, only whether to play the song. On an actual guitar, notes and chords can be changed, flourishes can be added or removed, the tempo can be increased or decreased. In Guitar Hero, the player either hits the right buttons at the right time and hears the song the same way it always is, or fails to and does not hear the song. Objectively, it’s pretty clear-cut: playing Guitar Hero is almost nothing like playing a real guitar. It’s equally real and equally artificial, but much lower value. But what about subjectively?

When I press the jump button in Sonic, and Sonic jumps, I feel responsible for the action. If someone asked me what I just did, I would probably say, “I jumped.” After all, when we control something, we perceive it as an extension of our selves. That’s what makes us such good tool-users.

But pressing a button is very different from jumping. If it’s pointed out to me that I haven’t actually jumped, I’ll immediately agree that all I did was press a button and it was the fictional hedgehog that jumped, and saying “I jumped” serves as a verbal shorthand. There’s a pretty clear line between the artificial-but-real achievement of being good at telling Sonic to jump at the right time and the completely fake achievement of being good at jumping myself - I’d have to have a loose grip on reality to decide that playing the game had made me better at jumping.

In Guitar Hero, the line is less clear. Holding a fret button and hitting a strum bar is not that different from holding a fret and strumming a string. The illusion is far more convincing (at least to the player). If it’s pointed out to me that I haven’t actually just played a song, I’d hesitate much longer before responding. The distinction is fuzzy: I performed actions that resulted in music. The game never actually claims to be teaching the player to play the guitar, but the brain may be fooled nonetheless.

“…if the player presses the button at the right time, the computer plays back a recording of a particular note (or set of notes) played by a professional musician. The music itself is potent and rewarding — Keith Richards really knows how to bend a note — but the real secret to the game is what happens is that fact if you miss the button, you don’t hear the note.

The brain whirrs away, and notices the contingency. When I push the button, I hear Keith Richards; when I fail to push the button (or press the wrong button, or press it late), I don’t hear Keith Richards. Therefore, I am Keith Richards!"
—Gary Marcus, What makes people want to play Rock Band and Guitar Hero?

As much as I love Guitar Hero, I’ve always been a bit leery of it for this reason. It edges dangerously close to fake achievement, to tricking the player into believing they’ve accomplished something they haven’t. Indeed, a popular fear is that playing Guitar Hero will substitute for gaining actual musical skill.

“It encourages kids not to learn, that’s the trouble. It makes less and less people dedicated to really get down and learn an instrument. I think is a pity so I’m not really keen on that kind of stuff."
—former Rolling Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman, as quoted in Rock stars cool over video games

Yet it’s not exactly clear that this fear is well-founded. Guitar Hero’s creators make a compelling counter-argument:

“Most people try to learn an instrument at some point in their lives, and almost all of them quit after a few months or a year or two. This, I think, is because the earliest years of learning an instrument are the least gratifying. When people play Rock Band, however, they very quickly get a glimpse of the rewards that lie on the other side of the wall. We’re constantly hearing from fans who were inspired by Rock Band to start studying a real instrument."
Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos, as quoted in Rock stars cool over video games

Besides the copious-but-anecdotal evidence of people turning from the games to real instruments, there’s the actual business success of companies that have banked on such transitions occurring.

“The games are bringing a new generation of players to the instrument, said Jeff Schroedl, vice president of Pop & Standard Publications for old-school music book publisher Hal Leonard, which runs GuitarInstructor.com.

‘We actually publish songbooks in hard-book form in conjunction with Guitar Hero and Rock Band,’ he said. ‘They’re the only sanctioned songbooks that work with the game, and those books are flying off the shelves.’

Sales of fretted instruments increased nearly $30 million in the last year, said Paul Majeski, publisher of The Music Trades. ‘The consumer appeal of the instrument is huge,’ Majeski said.

Guitar Center, which set up virtual shop in Guitar Hero and has offered deep discounts to gamers who buy real instruments, thinks ‘interactive videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band are minting more guitar players,’ according a representative of the store.
—Eliot Van Buskirk, Guitar Hero: Gateway Drug to Six-String Bliss

What does all this go to show? The fault, dear reader, lies not in our video games but in ourselves. Guitar Hero simulates being, well, a guitar hero, but it doesn’t demand the player let it serve as a replacement. Plenty of people let it inspire them to go out and do the real thing. They are not fooled by the potential for fake achievement.

(Just as when I abused RPGs for fake achievement, I was the one at fault. RPGs presented a potential for abuse, but so do many, many things.)

In the end, it all comes down to self-awareness: recognizing when our achievement is real or fake, seeing when it is valuable or valueless, and steering ourselves accordingly. It’s something we all must do for ourselves.