Going after certain achievements teaches new ways to play old games.
Mitch Krpata once tried to describe the different ways that people play games. One of the categories that he came up with was the Completist gamer: “A Completist may be less interested in maximizing his ability to play a game, and more interested in making sure he doesn't miss anything [. . .] The reward is having no mountains left to climb.” (“"A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Skill Players: Drilling Down", Insult Swordfighting, 10 January 2008).
I’m definitely a Completist. I enjoy exploring every inch of a game world for collectibles and side quests. Normally, achievements appeal directly to this compulsion as they are (essentially) another kind of collectible. However, my Completist nature was recently challenged when I played Mass Effect 2 on the Insane difficulty. There’s an achievement for completing the game on Insane, and it taunted me as the only achievement that I was missing, but I underestimated just how hard the increased difficulty would be. I wanted my whole crew loyal for the end, but there were multiple missions that I avoided because I knew how hard they’d be. My galaxy map soon became so cluttered with so many abandoned side missions that it was hard to read the name of each nebula. I had beaten the game once before, so I knew what was necessary and what wasn’t. I constantly wondered, “Should I complete everything, or should I just complete the achievement?” And I wondered why, exactly, I was playing the game on Insane. Was I playing for the challenge or for the achievement?
I think the answer is that it's a little of both. Insane is hard but also very rewarding. I can’t play like I used to; I can’t "run and gun" at all or play through most of the game using just a few squad mates. I actually have to think ahead. Squad placement and biotic powers are more important than ever. It matters who I bring with me since no one person is all-powerful. I rarely use the same squad twice because I know what’s coming, and I pick my companions specifically for that situation. I change the way that I play, all because of an achievement.
But then I start playing the "Last Stand" game mode in which you must defend an EMP bomb from waves of enemies. Enemies are always focused on the EMP, so I’m able to run behind them and strike silently but I always take too long and the EMP is destroyed. There’s just too many of them. Part of me wants to stop, but the lure of an achievement is powerful. So I keep playing and keep learning. I figure out that getting spotted is good. It distracts the soldiers from the bomb (explosives are integral for the same reason), and I purposefully carry one loud gun and one silenced gun. I also learn to use my Last Known Position offensively. I completely change how I play, and now I understand why the game is described as “stealth-action” instead of just “stealth.”
In all of these examples I experienced a new aspect of the game while working towards an achievement. I felt like a true hero beating Mass Effect 2 on Insane. I felt like a true spy beating Splinter Cell: Conviction on Realistic, and then I felt more badass than Bourne when playing Last Stand. I felt like the master of my environment in Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed. Finally, I felt like a small man alone in a large and beautiful and dangerous world in Far Cry 2. My reward for unlocking a new achievement wasn’t whatever arbitrary number of points that the developer applied to it; my reward was finding a new way to play an old game.