Achievement Porn

Achievement Porn

Hacker News pointed me to an article recently called “Addicted to Fake Achievement“.

That article is about video games, but this one isn’t. The thesis of that article is that some games (it mentions Role Playing Games) don’t actually require skill, just time. You start with a weak character and perform some task that’s almost too easy to fail. You’re rewarded by gaining access to another task that is also almost too easy to fail. The process creates the illusion of achievement. His point is that he’d like to play more skill based games, which he thinks would provide a more “authentic” level of achievement because you have to practice them and master a skill.

The skill, of course, being mashing buttons in a particular way.

Which brings me to my thesis, which is that he didn’t go nearly far enough.

The article is surprisingly interesting, and his point cogent, but there’s a whole meta discussion that he seems to have missed: regardless of whether the video game you’re playing is skill based or treadmill based, it’s still a video game. Far be it for me to judge a person’s choice in entertainment media, but no one who watches reality TV labors under the illusion that they are achieving anything substantial. Any achievement in a video game is a “fake achievement.” And video games aren’t alone.

The Social Pathology of Fake Achievement

The game article, and the meta discussion surrounding it is actually part of an even larger discussion that affects more than just video gamers. Games are just a minor symptom of a systemic disease:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Why work hard for achievements, when you could relax and achieve the same? That’s not pathological, that’s how exponential progress works.

But why achieve at all when you can plug into any number of “achievement games” and get the same personal satisfaction? That’s when it becomes pathological.

Misaligned Incentives

Two days ago I got a call from the vice principal of my 5th grade son’s school.

My little guy can be a handful, but at school he’s an angel. Teachers love him, he always behaves. Except this time: he stole $10 out of a classmate’s backpack. So he’ll be getting punished, but there’s a line I need to walk here. I punish him for stealing to disincent him from stealing. But the true effect is to disincent him from getting caught stealing. His options for that are to actually stop (which I want), or just get better at it (which I don’t want). So the trick is to figure out a punishment that will make him think twice about stealing, but not one that will just make him more savvy.

Similarly, by creating profound pressure to achieve, our society has sprouted ways to exploit that insatiable drive by setting up “games” that simulate achievement, but that are actually meaningless.

Examples of Games

Gradubation

One salient example is our education system. Like a role playing video game, one educational challenge leads to the next, with each challenge being trivial for the people who are at the right level to undertake it. After years on a treadmill that’s too easy to fail at, players—students, in this case—are acclimated to the game of education, rather to real achievement. Their work for those years is not valuable at all, and often doesn’t even simulate what valuable work would be like: they have only managed to repeat patterns they’ve been shown back at the educators. This is the game. One possible side effect of this system is learning.

Even learning, when it really does happen, is not itself an achievement. Learning just tends to promote achievement because a prerequisite for many achievements is knowledge.

The only saving grace of the system is that education, while not directly fostering learning (which doesn’t directly foster meaningful achievement), tends to promote both as one of the possible side effects.

Another great example of a game that has an achievement side effect is money. People are rewarded for acquiring money, because money acquisition tends to promote achievement. Achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to money, and just because someone has money doesn’t necessarily mean they achieved anything. Again, achievement just a correlation—a possible side effect—of money.

How to Recognize Fake Achievement Treadmills

The good news is that these little “achievement games” are fairly easy to recognize once you realize what’s going on. The bad news is that more are cropping up at an alarming rate, sped largely by the intertubes.

Games fast becoming standard are the “followers” and “friends” games for example. Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, et al, all have their own ostensible raison d’etre, but the psychological underpinning they all share is this treadmill of achievement. This accumulation of points that’s correlated with whatever the intended benefit of the service is.

This explosive growth in “achievement porn” is why it’s more important than ever to get your mind right about what you’re doing with your life and why you’re doing it.

Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?

The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life? Is it a real, true prerequisite for a tangibly effective activity? Alternatively, am I totally okay with doing this just because I like doing it, laboring under no illusion that it benefits me or anyone else?

The hard part is ignoring the voice in your head that will definitely crop up should you discover that you’re on a meaningless treadmill. That voice will tell you all the really great benefits of your bullshit treadmill in an attempt to convince you that it’s meaningful.

I know that voice will pop up because like every bullshit treadmill that exists, it exists because it’s correlated with something we consider “good”. Just like punishment is correlated with good behavior, education is correlated with scientific advancement, and money is correlated with value, your treadmill of choice is correlated with something good too:

  • With Facebook it’s “reconnecting” or “staying in touch.”
  • With Twitter it’s “influence.”
  • With WarCraft it’s “forming friendships.”

The fact is that each of these correlations are pretty much true, but none of them are necessary, and they are almost never optimal. People had influence before Twitter existed. In fact, Twitter influence is a sorry substitute for robust influence over devoted followers. Close friendships formed before World of WarCraft came out, and the fact is that there are far better ways to connect with people for the purposes of forming friendship.

If you like these things because they entertain you and relax you, fine, more power to you. I have a 110″ inch screen in my media room that I play games on a couple hours a week, because I think they are fun. But don’t delude yourself: they are bullshit. They are treadmills that are impossible to fail at, that exploit our deep-rooted desire to achieve, and that are sorry substitutes for whatever you’re trying to convince yourself they are good for, friendship, connections, influence, or otherwise.

Get off the treadmill. Go for a walk.

Responses

  1. Derek ()

    What is the value of achievement without incentive?

    You make a lot of broad generalizations in this article. I like the idea’s you have but what is your background in sociology? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Your question confuses me.

      The incentives I’m talking about are rewards offered for achievements by a third party who values the achievement at least as much as the reward offered, when the achievement itself isn’t sufficient to motivate the achiever to follow through on it.

      You’re asking if achievements have any meaning without incentives, but I think you have it reversed: incentives become meaningful in the context of the desired achievement. (Reply)

      • pla ()

        First, I consider yours a truly insightful essay. So don’t take this as a hard negative…

        But I think the GP means that humanity has already beaten nature – We have no more real challenges, no incentive to achieve beyond furthering the goal of our own comfort; And if that provides our sole “real” incentive, how much less “real” can we consider it to merely simulate accomplishment via video games?

        Anything else – Rewards (including “pay” as you point out), praise, critical acclaim – All amount to equally artificial. Unless your action (or lack thereof) directly impacts your (or others’) ability to survive, it just amounts to an agreement to trade tokens-of-comfort beings that have already “won”. (Reply)

        • Pete ()

          Thanks for the comment pla. First, I think survival in the long term is a really hard problem that we’re not even close to solving–first we have to master ourselves and our own planet so that we can live on it sustainably. That will carry us through the next several million years potentially. Then we have to tame our sun, and eventually prevent the heat death of the universe. You may think it’s silly, but that’s what it will take to survive in the long term. They are problems worth solving.

          But even if you ignore that, I don’t agree with the premise that survival is the highest virtue. I think evolution built us that way, but it also accidentally made us capable of deliberately choosing our own highest values, our own meaning. When we choose that high virtue and meaning, and we work toward it, we are not on a treadmill anymore–then we’re doing meaningful work. (Reply)

          • Ben ()

            I think you’re straying from the point here. Long term survival of the type you’re talking about will never impact any individual person, at least none living now. On an individual level our survival and prosperity is almost totally decoupled from nature, as long as we avoid the statistically small chance of dying to disease or natural disaster we don’t really have to do anything to achieve our primary built-in objectives. It’s automatic as long as we’re part of a modern society and are willing to jump through a few simple hoops.

            The point, in this context, is that since all our basic needs are met that anything we do beyond that falls into the ‘optional’ category. Any sort of achievement, real or perceived, is functionally the same thing. If you get influence through twitter or your blog it’s the same, for you, as getting it from winning a Nobel prize or being a CEO. It’s only a matter of degree. (Reply)

          • Pete ()

            I think if you limit the context to be small enough or large enough, you can call anything meaningless. My only point is that while our individual survival may be more or less secured by external forces, there are impactful things we can still do in a context larger than our individuality. (Reply)

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  3. Terry Tiessen ()

    A well thought out piece. I was referred to this article from a comment thread on follow or not to follow etiquette on Twitter. I am a Web Philosopher who approaches the Internet phenomena from a sociological and psychological perspective and I find your take on web “achievements” fake or other wise very thought provoking. I will be listening (reading) to your thoughts some more in the future, thanks.
    .-= Terry Tiessen´s last blog ..Amazing Minisite Templates =-. (Reply)

  4. Tex ()

    Where are all the commenters who want to take advantage of porn achievers? I only made I through half of your comments, but I figured there be at least a few enterprising schemers in here.

    I think that this treadmill is there, who sees all the people running on it?
    .-= Tex´s last blog .."Don’t undertake a project" =-. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I’m also wondering where they are. Maybe they’re too busy building the obsessions of the future. (Reply)

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  6. Yanis Benson ()

    So you think there are _real_ achievements in the world?
    Bad news for you: the same mechanism which keeps most peoples from realizing that game achievements, “friends” and “followers” are fake achievements, keeps you from realizing all other achievements are fake too.
    Yeah, there can be difference just for you(because you probably think that science is “real”), but the logic tells us that there is no way one thing can be more “real” than another one in general.

    P.S. Sorry for my bad English. (Reply)

    • sigs ()

      A very good comment. There’s a fine line between brutal honesty and cynicism. In the end we’re here to pass on the genes, and other than that, to excite our nerve system to keep it going until we die.

      Anyone who dismisses other peoples’ achievements as bullshit is essentially setting an arbitrary standard, assuming we believe there is such thing as “meaningful work”. (Reply)

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  11. Karilee ()

    A couple of years ago there was a discussion in the forums of my World of Warcraft gaming guild, about whether playing had overall been a positive influence in our lives. I believe I was the only one of about a dozen who commented at the time who stated, without any reservation, that Wow had been good for me.

    Perhaps it’s enough explanation to say that I definitely needed something that was “almost too easy to fail”, coupled with a more predictable substitute for “friendship, connections, influence”, at least for a time. And while I was experiencing that, I found other things.

    I get that your essay isn’t about video games, but I think most undertakings may not have inherent value, once you step past the first level in Maslow’s Hierarchy. Your measurement of value is “a positive, tangible difference in my life, or anyone else’s life.”

    What makes a difference is so personal. Have I learned leadership skills I didn’t have before? Yes. Have I reawakened my writing skills and started a new stream of income because of someone I met in Wow? Yes. Did I save a marriage with a referral to some advice, in game? I’m told so.

    I don’t think I can explain adequately, but I think your vehemence in labeling in-game achievements “fake” goes further than it needs to. So I’m left both agreeing and disagreeing with you, which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your stuff so much.

    If I’d never played Wow, I probably wouldn’t have started blogging… and probably never read your site. One’s life can make the oddest connections, and the value you take from them depends a great deal on what you bring, how you choose to think about them, and what you create from those thoughts. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Karilee, you may be surprised to know that your story is similar to mine. Some parts of my childhood made it easier for me to come out of my shell, learn social graces and leadership, and develop self esteem all online, and in my case through the medium of a gaming guild (very much pre-WoW, but the concept was the same).

      Perhaps for me, at that age, in that situation, the optimal way to grow was to play games in a group. I took social lessons into offline life with me. I began learning writing, design, and web development because of that.

      The examples I chose were meant to target the fat part of the bell curve of people who engage in activities like WoW or Farmville–those people know who they are, and they know they are frittering their lives away. That’s why I think my follow up on this, about Meaningful Work, is important. The take away is: there is no right answer. For some Wow is a curse, for you it could be exactly what you need right now. It’s up to you.

      My admonishment is not to tell you what is worth your while, but simply to be brutally honest with yourself about that. (Reply)

  12. peter ()

    I believe this article would have had more impact had it stated some examples of what *real* achievements are. (Reply)

  13. Jeremy ()

    Once again, well said.
    Do a couple more on this topic, and you might wake some people up. (Reply)

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  15. Keith ()

    I really can’t agree with the two-dimensional distinction between fake and real achievements. Your article is interesting, but I don’t think that “achievement treadmills” can be easily assessed in terms of their value to society. How can you, for example, argue that a game is “bullshit” and not have a very real basis in establishing social constructs, value systems or learning opportunities?

    The definition of “game” seems to be diffusing its identity through media-rich and interactive online content, broadening into a full spectrum of “achivement” opportunities (both real and fake): anything from games in advertising to games designed to provide real learning opportunities to the user. What if online games can offer something more valuable than real human interaction? (Reply)

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  17. RJ Ryan ()

    Hi Pete,

    Your essay has been on my mind since you first published it. Thank you for writing it. You’ve changed the way I think about many of the things I do.

    RJ Ryan (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      You’re welcome. The next step is figuring out how to use it to your advantage and to the advantage of people in general. You can change the world Rusty, go do it. (Reply)

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  19. Bent Lee ()

    I have always felt that watching sports and getting involved with promoting a team gives people a false sense of accomplished. Every year people get all worked up for their favorite team, they wear the jersey a if they are on the team then they sit around and watch it on TV as if they are accomplishing something. Rinse then repeat next year or next season for another sport. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I think that’s right. Sports are a little more complicated than achievement porn, because they also facilitate tribal dynamics, but yes, it’s all a storm of false achievement. (Reply)

  20. Cristina ()

    Great article. Made me go for a walk and think :)

    I would like to know what you consider as an achievement worth achieving. I am sure you have not said it all in this article. (Reply)

  21. Fred Tracy ()

    I know about this all too well. I played World of Warcraft for a long time. The entire game is built around small, easy, meaningless achievements. Once you play long enough, you have tons and tons of shiny things that you can then use to be cooler than everyone else.

    Quite a waste of time, indeed. :) (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Yeah, you’re exactly right. I was in the beta of WoW, a that was enough to send me running for the hills (wait, where did those 8 hours go??) 8) (Reply)

  22. Andrew ()

    Interesting post. I was a pretty hardcore gamer back when I was in my early to mid teens. I played mostly racing and snowboarding games, and a few other games that would be considered RPG’s that were actually challenging. I haven’t played any new games since 2000, so I don’t know what the game market looks like today.

    I know for a fact that education is getting worse, and does not provide enough real-world skills, much like a video game, to help students out in the real world. We can enjoy ourselves and maybe learn something from both, but it is mostly rooted in repetition and regurgitation. I would hardly call that learning.

    Action is the best way to learn, not sitting in front of a screen mashing buttons. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Action is also my primary way of learning, but don’t forget that different people have different learning modalities… none of which include regurgitation 8) (Reply)

  23. Todd ()

    What about competitive games where skill is not measured against a preset bar designed to draw the user in with a false sense of achievement, but rather where skill is measured by victory against other humans? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      What tangible benefit results in the outcome of the game, or what skill that you developed as a result of the game will you use to change your life or lives around you? (Reply)

      • Pilsen ()

        Playing and getting better in a competitive game is extremely fun to me. Using those skills to win against another human player, or even win a tournament will make me happy. I believe just being part of the community as a player, giving other players someone to play against makes them happy too. I’d say happiness is an achievement one should strife for.
        Games are also great stress relievers.
        Another good point is that playing games in a foreign language and community is arguably one of the best ways of learning a new language. Learning a new language gives you a chance to communicate with new people from a different culture, possibly leading into a very rich experience.

        For most people games are probably just mindless timekillers, in which case they’d be better off doing something else. Maybe. (Reply)

  24. Eugene ()

    Interesting article, but “disincent” is not an English word. Did your spell-checker not flag it? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      It became one when I used it and you understood what it meant.

      I like it in this context because it evokes “incentives” which is a economics and game theory term.

      This is how language evolves. Unfortunately, “loose” is also fast making a breakout into the language, and it doesn’t mean the opposite of “tight” anymore… who knows what’s good or bad? (Reply)

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  26. Gary ()

    I’ve been noticing more of this stuff (treadmill games)all the time – it’s quite intentional – and worry about it. I know folks who spend stunning amounts of time and energy on guitar hero, get amazingly good, spend even more time watching other people play, and in the end THEY STILL CAN’T PLAY MUSIC.I know the philosopher above would say that music itself is ultimately meaningless (of course it is), but there seems to me to be an important difference between learning to play guitar hero and learning to play guitar.I actually dare to think that the difference is political (Reply)

      • Gary ()

        Because folks get conditioned to immersion in “game space” and pretty soon everything is a game – even politics. That has real consequences in real life.Games may be fun and even useful,and politics may indeed BE a game, but if you can’t remember why you are playing or even what you hope to win, you become irrelevant. Some people know that and encourage the process. (Reply)

  27. The Musty Man ()

    Liked the article but came away with a precarious thought about your closer:

    I’m not much of a gamer, less because I don’t like the games and more because I almost always decide there’s something else I’d rather be doing with that sliver of spare time. Games are left for rainy weekend afternoons and those occasional but inevitable 3 am sessions when I’m still too drunk to sleep. I do spend a significant amount of time hiking and encounter many of the same criticisms you’re advancing here.

    Climbing a mountain is suboptimal. It does not improve the mountain, there are much more efficient ways to acheive the same cardio-vascular result, it’s solitary, it’s time-intensive relative to the payoff, it’s a high carbon-footprint activity (you drive, and drive, and drive). Getting yourself to the top of the mountain requires a certain skillset and that skillset can be cultivated to ridiculous extremes, but the sad fact is that the ability to hike 40 miles in 2 days does not have practical applications sufficient to justify the time it takes to get yourself there – nor does it plug into any Level 2 skillsets. It doesn’t create anything, it generates no product, no revenue stream. Girls prefer bikers, swimmers and soccer players.

    I don’t want to conflate your analysis on video games with my analysis on hiking but if you’re willing to swallow education, it seems like hiking is similarly false-acheiving. You hiked Mt. Everest. Big fucking deal, it didn’t produce anything.

    I suppose the distinction then becomes about effort (you suggest as much when you talk about how video games are just mashing buttons), and maybe this exonerates the long hike and certainly the mountain climber, but it’s an odd way to go. I learned in law school that even a relatively simple task (reading) becomes catastrophically difficult when you are pitted against similarly motivated peers and graded on a curve. This would be just as much the case no matter what the skill – the issue is the competition. Acheivement in video games, especially multiplayer ones, requires mastery of a non-theoretical sort – I’m all the more a believer in this because I don’t have it and don’t want it. I hate multiplayer games because they require a real, honest investment.

    Anyhow, what I should already have come around to is this: I really liked your article and your central premise and I agree that there is a growth in surrogate acheivements of the easy sort, but your net is so wide that i’m not sure what remains. What would an actual “achievement” of the non-porno sort look like? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      This is actually something I talk about in my follow up essay, but to me the factor that separates achievement from porn is minds–if my action serves to expand or connect minds, then it’s meaningful. To me.

      To teach people how to love themselves and each other, to show people how to interact with the world in a state of childlike wonder instead of reptilian fear. To learn those things for myself, when I forget. All worthwhile.

      The rest is just details. That’s my answer, but your answer is up to you. (Reply)

      • The Musty Man ()

        I find my girlfriend’s 11 year old son pretty inspiring – he’s good at cracking open presumptions I didn’t even know I had. I suppose this is one of the things kids are especially good for. Anyhow, he’s huge on multiplayer video games, plays them something far beyond “too much”, but also generates these huge strategy guides – 15 page documents written at an easily collegiate level of understanding, all sorts of complex math, statistics, coding, hilarious jokes sprinkled throughout. It’s nothing I could’ve done and he’s widely appreciated on the relevant parts of the internet for what he’s doing. He’s learning math, statistics, economics – and he’s doing it in a non-curricular way based entirely on curiosity and the ability to think critically about anything. I think maybe this might be how I understand what you’re getting at – it is possible to mash buttons, sink into a couch and watch Buffy AGAIN, live passively. But even as I understand that videogames are bullshit, I suspect they are not ALWAYS bullshit. This 11 year old is acheiving something.

        Again, this isn’t criticism of your point. You’re a thought provoking writer, and I’m just sharing the thoughts you’ve prevoked. Thanks for the essay. (Reply)

  28. Bradley Foster ()

    I retweeted your article and admit I felt a little pitter patter of achievement. Seriously you raise very good points. As a coach with some integrity I fight for every little shred of credibility in an “industry” built on snappy aphorisms, cheerleaders and feel good motivational speeches. It’s great to read a blogger who cuts through the bullshit and calls a spade a spade. Keep up the great work!
    /Bradley Foster (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Thanks a lot Bradley, I appreciate the support. I think motivational speeches have their place, but I fill a need for people who need a kick in the ass and know it. I’ll do my best, keep reading 8) (Reply)

  29. Craig Talbert ()

    Your point here about education is similar to thoughts I’ve had before about how education compares to autodidactism. I’ve met a fair number of people that were either “masters of the game of education” or “automatons” depending on how you looked at it. I feel sorry anyone who thinks the purpose of education is to get straight A’s. At the same time I recognize GPA usually increases mobility, and in some situations people who are good at following directions and tolerating boredom will have an edge.

    Your points about gaming reminded me of another interesting comparison, take Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Chess players make a distinction between talent and character, both being important factors in matches. They are qualitative things, but I would say Bobby Fischer was at least as talented as Garry Kasparov, while Kasparov has a much stronger character. You can see the difference very clearly in their political and social savvy. While Bobby Fischer was isolated and marginalized, Kasparov is politically influential and relevant (no small feat in Russia).

    Games can help forge the kind of wisdom and grit that Kasparov developed, or the character-building may be limited your avatars. My guess is that it depends on both the attitude people bring to a game as much as on the game itself. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Yeah, I’m excited to see what “games” can be created that incentivize people do the right thing.

      And yeah, as a former “good student,” and someone who has been involved in higher education pretty deeply, I can confirm it’s mostly masturbatory bullshit. (Reply)

  30. Yvette ()

    It may seem silly that some people have to rely on virtual mechanisms to boost their sense of achievement but who are we to judge whether that is good or not? Everyone has different ways of coping and I think it is rather ironic of you to say that certain behaviors are false achievements; by your criteria, your blog and the mechanisms you have to promote your writings are your way of feeling a sense of achievement; how are you different from the person who plays so-called “mindless” games? The value of achievement is extremely subjective and for each individual, that feeling is very real. The real harm is when people try to impose their judgments on others and try to stir up negative connotations to an otherwise harmless activity.

    I think you also overlook the fact that some people who try to get this sense of achievement from games or Facebook, etc. are those who can’t them from other parts of their life. If playing games helps build their confidence, how is that different from someone who goes to see a counselor? Everyone is at a different point in life and just because the activity has no meaning for you doesn’t mean you can generalize that to others. (Reply)

  31. A.Alaalas ()

    8th grader: “Why do I need algebra?”
    Mr. Realist: “Forget it, you’ll never use it, do your own thing.”
    Dr. Careerist: “If you don’t get on the math track early you’ll lose your option to be a doctor/architect/engineer…”
    Ms. Thoughtful Educator: “It trains your mind to think and solve problems and that’s a big deal in your and others’ future.” (Reply)

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  36. Nils ()

    I don’t see how going for a walk will achieve “any positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life.” (Reply)

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  39. PeterD ()

    Not fair re education. My education resulted in a tremendous amount of learning. Mostly, I learned how to think for myself. Then you become an active participant in the life you’re living, because you’re not longer just “going with whatever random flow happens to be around you during the circumstances of your life. Believe me, I got that attitude via my formal education. Sorry if you werent so lucky.

    But then again I was educated in europe :) you must be talking about the US, right? Well, everyone knows americans are superficial and shallow ;)

    But then again, I’m highly driven, even at school, and I knew the difference between faking achievements and real learning. And I was singlemindedly after the real thing back then, as I still am now.

    You are right though; many people simply dont care that much. But don’t they spend their time with fake achievements simply because they’re lazy slackers who are actively looking to live a fake and lazy life? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Thanks for the comment Peter. Of course there are exceptions–you are an example, from what you say. But the issue isn’t whether it’s “possible” for someone to come out of a system with the desired skills and mindset. The issue is whether that’s the default: will any given person having gone through that system, end up with the ability to think critically for themselves and with genuinely useful and deep knowledge? The answer right now is “hell no.” The fact that you and I came through the system with those abilities is not a fact about the effectiveness of the system, it’s a statistical anomaly.

      In a good system, the statistical anomaly should be the failures–they should be the ones that somehow make it through without learning how to think and without the knowledge. But that’s just not the case.

      To answer your last question: no. There’s a thing called the Fundamental Attribution Error, part of which is thinking that the actions of other people have almost 100% to do with fundamental character traits. Like the kids who don’t excel in school being fake and lazy. But that’s not the case: the reality is that we respond to the stimulus we’re given, and we are largely the products of our environments. You and I as well as they. (Reply)

      • PeterD ()

        Hey thanks for your reply. Ok I concede your point. You’re talking about changing entire cultures here, which is a slow process of evolution. I, of course, blame the teachers, but then again, if they got a bad attitude from their teachers, it’s no surprise they teach that to their students. And so on and on backwards in time.

        Which puts an even greater burden on the shoulders of people who were lucky enough to be the anomaly. That’s how cultures move forwards, is it not?

        Dont you think, though, that a key realization of all over-achievers is that: “I create my own destiny. Although I have been influenced by my culture, there’s no way in the world my culture will hold me back if I dont want it to”? That’s also what my education taught me. To my eyes, people who dont believe that look like they created prisons for themselves to live in, let themselves in, locked the door behind them, and then hid the keys, while forgetting how they got there in the first place.

        But in this analysis, I’m not talking about the “character traits” you mention. I’m talking more simply about the YOU in there, the YOU that’s making all the choices, second by second. That YOU is deeper than all character traits. That’s where the freedom comes from. Without our own conscious existance at that fundamental level, we would be nothing more than a few mechanical character traits. But’s there’s more to all of us, if you go deeper.

        I personally find it an uphill battle trying to educate people in how to think for themselves. I tend to think if you dont learn this kind of thing in your teens/early 20s, it will be too late for all but the most exceptional. Your brain somehow looses its natural developmental impetus, and settles for mediocrity. You’ll have to struggle even harder.

        Still, evolution has always been an uphill trajectory – I wouldnt want it any other way. Nice to find your blog, will keep an eye on it :)) (Reply)

  40. Jhazzy ()

    Interesting article. Game achievements are “true achievements” for lazy people i.e. full-time gamers. They need to feel something great from what they do and they find it from these junks. Ugh… I hate it..

    My boyfriend should read this – I just hope he’ll understand the point. (Reply)

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  42. Matt Harding ()

    Pete,

    Here’s the thing: all achievement is basically bullshit. Look, the systems that we humans have created (especially capitalism) provides/creates this illusion of progress-as if we were/are all going somewhere. Achievement is directly connected to this idea of progress–of things getting better, faster, more. Your article exposes this idea that in certain venues, achievement is not simply expected, but encouraged by making things easy for the participant; however, in pedagogical circles this could be called “scaffolding”, right? We make things easy so that we can retain our participants–isn’t this always the case in our society? You seem to point to this idea that there is some kind of real, tangible achievement that takes more energy and has more value than the mere video game, or educational plan to make more money, but the truth is that there is no real truth–we have created this idea of achievement because it gives us fulfillment and therefore whether it is winning a high score on Donkey Kong, or surpassing your six-figure income it’s all the same in the mind of the achiever, isn’t it? In the end, your article seems like it has an axe to grind–perhaps you regret not winning the high score on Donkey Kong? I don’t know, nor do I want to know. In the end, achievement is in the mind of the beholder–perhaps you thought that you had achieved something in publishing this article on your blog? Has it really actually helped anyone? Perhaps, but perhaps not. We play this game because we are wired well for it and attempting to discount others in their singular pursuits sounds, at least to me, more like sour grapes than sure wisdom. (Reply)

  43. Matt Harding ()

    Pete,

    I was thinking too of earlier ideas/definitions of achievement –I checked out the OED and noted that the word first made it’s entrance back in the 15th century when it signified this idea of mastery or skill. Did everyone in 15th century England hone their swords and beat back the fierce Danes? Probably not. Most people were probably working their way through the muck and shit picking vegetables, but the bard knows that we all value the guy who gets to be Beowulf and so he tells tales late into the night to an audience that is really just sitting around wasting/killing time, right? Fast forward to our beloved post-modern era: here, it’s not enough to chill out nightly by the fire listening to tall tales because even our entertainment needs to serve some kind of purpose. Perhaps this guilt/need to serve some higher purpose is a leftover from our Puritan forefathers? I dunno. I agree with your carrot and stick assessment of achievement, but living as we do in a world where everyone wants not just their fifteen minutes of Warholean fame, but another life filled with meaning, purpose and magic is it any wonder that games like WoW do so well for themselves? Speaking of games, I also wanted to briefly comment on the idea that it is the game that is vitally important, and not simply the achievement. According to the Dutch philosopher, Johann Huizinga (sp) the game is at the center of civilization. While Huizinga may have gotten some things wrong, I think that his notion of the game as imaginary space is quite fitting when it comes to sites like WoW. It is in the imagination that we live our lives with abandon, where we experience liberation and act as the animals do who are free in their play. In this sense, WoW creates a space for people to remove themselves from the crushing weight of monotony that they may (or may not) experience in their daily lives, it is a space where magic happens and magic is all in the mind. One can perhaps spend one’s time “more productively” (ah there’s Puritanism/capitalism for you) by climbing Everest, but WoW could be the poor man’s Everest, could it not? What does it matter that one has climbed Everest? Well, since our society has placed great value on this act, it matters quite a lot (and let’s look at all the CEOs/business people that have laid out the coin and made the pilgrimage and for what, really? Couldn’t that money have been used more purposefully? Possibly, but then it’s first the idea of freedom in the realm of play that is being purchased, and not the oxygen tanks, crampons and obligatory Sherpas). Maybe acquired wealth is really all that separates the two sites of play? Maybe it’s all in the game. (Reply)

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