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. Niels Bom ()

    Inbox zero is another treadmill imho. You can have zero emails in your inbox and still not have done anything useful. Just bouncing emails back and forth.

    Good article! (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      You’re right Niels, e-mail can be treadmill. I guess the trick is answering meaningful e-mail and processing the other necessary e-mail as efficiently as possible. I don’t know though, is there such a thing as meaningless, necessary e-mail? (Reply)

      • Jim Thompson ()

        What he said was ‘inbox-zero’ is a treadmill. An achievement that may not mean anything. (Reply)

      • Niels Bom ()

        Hmmm, good point.

        I think most email is meaningful, but I think most emails have a far lower priority than other stuff, and other ways of communication are a lot more efficient sometimes.

        I guess the argument against inbox zero I’m trying to make is that I don’t think it’s a good idea to let your email drive your work.

        Nah..whatever :) (Reply)

      • Alex ()

        Yes, there is meaningless but necessary e-mail. You get a flat, boring e-mail with something you need to know. Or even something that you’ve been asking yourself.

        Like, you know there’s going to be a reception for whatever reason, somewhere, tomorrow. And you get an e-mail saying tomorrow’s reception will begin at 6 pm, kthxbye.
        Meaningful? Don’t think so. You’ll delete it right after you get back to the inbox after the reception. (Reply)

        • Jonathan Dahan ()

          You can look at inbox zero as being a bunch of smaller treadmills. You decide if continuing the conversation is worth your time, or if that mailing list is really doing what you want it to be doing. Responding immediately can form a habit, and if you do not evaluate your habits every once in a while that nagging can define you.

          Then again, I just achieved zero inbox for the first time last week, after needlessly ignoring people for a while, so time may make me eat my own words.
          .-= Jonathan Dahan´s last blog ..awesome island labs meeting =-. (Reply)

  2. Sam ()

    What’s fake achievement and what’s not is subjective. To you video games might be but for someone who’s a pro gamer and competes in tournaments they won’t be. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Well, you’re right in that systems can incentivize otherwise useless behavior, possibly redirecting the effort into a real achievement. Something like StackOverflow.com, which is a site for programmers to ask and answer programming questions. Answering gives you points and medals and perks. It’s a useless game, but the end result is a high quality programming FAQ.

      I don’t think you chose the right example though. Pro gamers (the few that exist) started playing for the porn, and now they play for money, which is another treadmill. It’s a treadmill on a treadmill. Nothing is actually accomplished by a pro gamer. (Reply)

      • tpp ()

        What do you mean nothing is achieved by a pro gamer?

        You’re saying that by making something that they love doing what they do for a living is not a real achievement?

        If I could get off my treadmill of working a bullshit job and replace it with earning a living doing something I love doing, I would most definitely consider it a real achievement. The real achievement there is increased quality of life and happiness. (Reply)

      • Soufiane ()

        “Nothing is actually accomplished by a pro gamer.”

        Hearing you, I feel like nothing is an accomplishment… I am sure that’s not what you meant in this article but, still, accomplishments are totally subjective.

        What’s an accomplishment for you ?
        is writing this article an accomplishment? :-) (Reply)

      • Pete Forde ()

        I was in polite disagreement with much of your article until I got to your comment about nothing being accomplished by a pro gamer. Way to shoot your larger point to shit, Pete!

        One of my close friends is a former pro gamer that today runs a hugely successful e-commerce hosting platform. As of Wednesday he has 25 people working for him, and he’s not even 30 yet.

        It’s just that you seem to have completely missed the point about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure — seriously, who are you to decide that someone else’s passion has accomplished Nothing in every sense? — but your critical logical flaw is that life is not a series of final outcomes.

        People try things, and they lead to other things… often simultaneously. Some of them will lead to greater things, while others are dead ends. However, many things just feel good while making other things possible.

        You are applying and overly literal view of how the world works, and robbing people of the right to discover their own personal value in the things they enjoy. (Reply)

      • Stacy ()

        Pro athletes don’t accomplish anything either, and yet there’s a national cult around them. There’s a danger in taking this argument too far and saying our entire society is worthless. (Reply)

      • noa ()

        Well, you could argue then that all human activity is a useless game, harmless fun but ultimately futile. And if you believed it you might be on the path to wisdom. (Reply)

        • Andy Baker ()

          That’s just what I was thinking. This blog post sounds like the writings of a man on the brink of enlightenment ;-)

          It’s the Dance of Maya, man, that’s all it is… (Reply)

      • ji ()

        Pete – Great post! I understand your point that a site like StackOverflow awarding points, rep, badges, whatevers, is pointless and some people pursue them without stepping back to ask why (which is a bullsh*t pursuit on their part).

        I would argue that some members that answer programming questions posed to them actually do take passion / interest in what they are doing AND their actions contribute to society (in this case – to the programming community in general and for the person asking the question specifically). It could also be a way for interested developers to initiate conversations, etc.

        Where would you draw the line on something like this? When do you think taking part in a service like StackOverflow crosses the line into fake achievement / pointlessness? Interested to hear your thoughts, thanks! (Reply)

      • Rodrigo ()

        Pro gamers help make games better for the millions of people that buy them. Many of they buyers play them to gain these ‘fake achievements’, but others, like you and me, play them just for fun. Even though we know they’re bullshit, we’re adding some joy to our lives by playing them. Doesn’t that make a positive difference in our lives, thereby making pro gamers actually accomplish something? (Reply)

      • Peter West ()

        You’re looking at achievement from the perspective of a scientist or engineer: something has to be produced or created otherwise it’s irrelevant.

        Have you considered that pro gamers might be playing for the enjoyment of honing a skill to perfection and being part of a team? For example Counter-Strike had no ‘achievement porn’ and yet had a huge pro-gamer following.

        The top end of multi-player gaming requires a lot of skill and strategy, just like any ‘real’ sport. Their achievement is not material, like some performers and artists, but it is still genuine.

        You can actually accomplish something in a computer game. Some of them are more challenging, interesting, beautiful and thought provoking than you give them credit.

        Although, I agree, most of them are awful, treadmill, bullshit. (Reply)

      • Greg ()

        Pete, I think this blog post of yours is an excellent example of achievement porn.

        In your terms, I think you’ve accomplished just as much as a pro gamer has. Which isn’t to say that you’ve accomplished nothing, nor is it to say you’ve accomplished a lot.

        The key is that last sentence of yours:

        Nothing is actually accomplished by a pro gamer.

        What exactly do you mean then by “real” accomplishment? I suspect your answer is something along the lines of “making a real positive difference in your life, or someone else’s.”

        That’s great, but the only issue is that for the pro-gamer, the activities he partakes in really *do*, in his opinion, make a positive difference in his life. It is, as Sam suggested, all subjective. What to you seems like “real positive difference”, to somebody else is “just bullshit.”

        On a higher level, *everything* your do, or even *can do*, is “just bullshit.” It’s odd, I know, but I think that if you were to take this topic to its limit, as suggested at the start of your essay, then I think you’ll arrive at the conclusion that you may as well throw your arms up in the air, sigh, and go about your bullshit, shaking your head at other people’s bullshit, as they shake theirs at yours. (Reply)

      • Micah Stevens ()

        Just playing devil’s advocate here, but what is your yardstick for accomplishment? Contributing to society? Individual learning?

        A pro gamer could be argued to promote both, through personal advancement towards one’s goals (gaming), or through contributing to the economy through the creation of value.

        Professional insinuates you get paid for it, so you are therefore productive in the economic sense.

        My thought is just that judging accomplishment is subjective at best. You should probably qualify those types of statements.

        Good subject though, I’ve been enjoying your blog, thanks! (Reply)

      • Dan Lewis ()

        You can keep playing this same game with any value system though. For instance, I can criticize your formulation of “real achievement” of friendships, the power of the human spirit, etc. by asking what the point of all that stuff is anyway.

        The answer is that either everything matters or nothing matters. And these are philosophical and religious issues that bottom out based on your answer to the question of the meaning of life. If someone started a religion based on the idea that staying at the top of World of Warcraft was an end in itself, you have no room to disagree without getting into these religious issues. (Reply)

      • Hardeep ()

        I think I’m just trying to understand what you consider a real achievement. You wrote: “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?”

        What would you consider a tangible difference in your own life? Or that of another?

        If I’d like to spend my days say working out until I can run faster than person X, is that a fake or real achievement? Is it fake because the motive is to run faster which in of itself may not be much of difference, or real because it’s a tangible difference (I can run faster, I have more stamina, I’m healthier, etc…) Perhaps, some examples of what you -would- consider to be real achivements?

        What constitutes a tangibly effective activity. Is this not subjective as Sam pointed out above? Taking the gamer example – perhaps it’s not a game like World of Warcraft where all you need is time performing relatively easy tasks and you “win”. Maybe another game like Counter Strike. I’d gladly like to hear anyone explain how top teir competitions in the game do not require real skill – hand/eye coordination, strategy, team-work, etc… Is getting better at such a game not a tangible difference in their own life? Or is it because it’s based on a virtual system it doesn’t count?

        Perhaps because prior to the games, there were other “more optimal” methods instead but isn’t the result the same? Just because an MMO such as World of Warcraft isn’t the best or most efficient means to make new friends – does that mean it leads to fake achievements?

        In your essay you brought up the example of the education system, and how knowledge can be a pre-requisite for real achivement. This leads me to think that real achievement may (must?) be something grander – an invention, discovery, a contribution of new knowledge or art, etc… But how many people really can get to the level where they can achieve something like that?

        And in the end what if the person is okay doing it -just because- they like doing it. If they are, then doesn’t just about anything they’re okay with doing count as a real achievement? (Reply)

      • Ryan ()

        While I agree with what you say in your essay, you’re wrong about Pro gamers not accomplishing anything.

        Acquiring money is probably the most effective way to feed yourself and put a roof over your head in this world at the moment, so the pro-gamer is at least accomplishing that.

        More importantly the pro-gamer is providing both entertainment and inspiration. Professional athletes provide a similar function. While a pro football player is out there having their body destroyed on the pitch, some fan is inspired by their performance. This inspiration could be almost anything and can range from simple joy to a desire to change their life. The love of something gives it meaning.

        Regardless, I enjoyed your essay. Thanks for putting it together. (Reply)

      • Sam ()

        So by your definition pretty much anything is fake achievement. Achieving something in sports is fake achievement, so is becoming a published author, so is developing a high traffic site and so on.

        You don’t have to contribute to the world at large for the achievement to matter. (Reply)

  3. jb ()

    Very nice article. Many thanks.

    One of my issue is to understand how to measure the “tangible”-ity of a difference in someone else’s life when I do something… (Reply)

  4. Apreche ()

    I’ve been saying the same thing for a long time, and I’m right there with you. I just want to point out two additional things.

    First is we have to consider these achievement/treadmill systems as tools of psychological warfare. By setting up an achievement system, you can have an incredibly strong influence over the actions of participants in that system. Almost nobody is discussing the moral and ethical ramifications of this. Then again, we let marketers and advertisers do as they please, and that’s basically the same thing.

    Secondly, not all games are mindless treadmills that are impossible to fail. If you want to play Final Fantasy, then sure. You’re going to win eventually, no matter what. The same can not be said for Street Fighter. It goes with board games as well. Uno or Monopoly are almost entirely games of random chance. Meanwhile games like Go or Tigris & Euphrates are extremely difficult. (Reply)

  5. Agile Cyborg ()

    >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.

    I’ve never been attracted to games as a lifestyle hobby due to their inherent capability to internalize existence. This isn’t a state I place a lot of value in.

    But, on the other hand, I’m not convinced that friendship, connections, influence, or verifiable success automatically result in ‘Achievement’ placed in the context you’ve presented here.

    The achieving life is often one bursting with its own style of disconnect. The gamer lives internally feeding his insatiable beasts while the financially-successful suburban socialite may live so external emptiness results.

    Many successful suburban families often become so embroiled with life code and management that their humanness becomes part of a group automation process. Automated life resulting in the subtle emptiness is highly regarded or widely accepted as long as it is connected to ‘Achievement’ while a hardcore gamer is sneered at as he plays contentedly in a simple house entirely cut off from society.

    I am not disputing your basic premise. I rarely post in blogs because few attract my attention like this post did. As a matter of fact I appreciate the approach on the whole but I had to take some issue with this notion of Achievement and how one defines such a state (outside Webster). (Reply)

  6. Jason Lotito ()

    This sort of thought process can be taken further and further, to the point where we get down the the basic question: What’s the point of it all? If we all die in the end, is anything really that important? Does anything really matter?

    At the same time, everything can simply be taken down to the base: Nothing takes skill, just time. Skill is just a reflection of how much time you’ve spent practicing and learning a subject. The more practice and knowledge you have, the more ‘skilled’ you are.

    It’s the “A million monkeys with a million type writers and infinite time could eventually write the Twelth Night” idea. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I think repetition is different from practice. I also think implausible events occurring are different from skilled, willful action. (Reply)

  7. Adam Ierymenko ()

    Another one that I’ve recognized is aspects of the startup world.

    It’s true that there are lots of people who have successful startups and lots who “get it,” but there seem to be a lot of people in the startup world (both on the business and techie side) who are playing a role playing game.

    In this case the “points” are the recognition that you get at networking events and similar things (online and off) for people who are in fact just playing the same RPG. You also get a huge sense of achievement when you get money, even if what you’re actually earning overall is less than you could make at a coffee shop.

    There’s also a lot of social power games and such that come into play in the startup world, which are sort of like the “dungeons” in World of Warcraft.

    I still work toward some startup-ish ideas, but I have withdrawn from the “startup scene” completely and try to have realistic reality-based expectations. I will also probably call any ventures that come out of this “companies” or “entrepreneurial ventures” not startups, since the startup *term* kind of annoys me now.

    Other big ones: stock day trading, online debating, etc. (Reply)

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  9. Christian ()

    I’m happy you mentioned education; I still have moments of panic when I realize I’m no longer on the track of the accepted standard.

    Spooky.

    You didn’t mention the presence of such games in the workplace. Fluffy titles, useless busywork, unrealistic expectations, office politics; they all reinforce the bad habit of achievement porn. It’s no surprise this is a problem, it’s being imposed within every aspect of life! (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      The workplace is just a continuation of our school system. I’m writing an essay now about that actually. Stay tuned. (Reply)

  10. Daniel ()

    What is accomplished by a sportsman or woman? Would you consider the Olympics one huge treadmill orgy? (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Oh yeah, it’s a big orgy. Lots of fringe benefits, heavy incentives for the individuals and the host cities, not too much actual accomplishment. (Reply)

  11. Hovik Melikyan ()

    At first your point seems to make a lot of sense. But then, video games are proven to increase your IQ (that’s proven on tetris in particular, probably not the easiest game but still a game).

    Or how about education: if graduation is called “achievement” and is usually celebrated as such, but at the same time it’s too easy not to fail, it doesn’t mean it’s bullshit. An educated person scores a lot better on an IQ test as a rule.

    Of course IQ tests are not goal on itself, but it’s some more or less accurate indication of your potential.

    If we are to look for some real bullshit, it’s a typical career, for example, in the software industry. As you go up the ladder you forget your real programming skills and instead improve your ability to produce bullshit emails, presentations etc. and watch for schedules. I believe same applies to many other areas and industries. But I think these people sooner or later come to realizing they do less valuable work than when they started. It’s just that management work pays well – this is why they don’t care.

    Basically I think we almost always know what’s bullshit and what is not. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I wrote this because the fact is that most people don’t know what’s bullshit and what’s not.

      Your worldview is utterly dominated by bullshit.

      The fact that we don’t see our education system (just for example, since you brought it up) as an affront to our human dignity is proof that our minds are warped by it. (Reply)

  12. Face ()

    There are a host of assumptions on incredibly subjective matters in this argument.

    For example, assuming pro gamers accomplish nothing is just plain silly. If not for the fact that their game playing can yield tangible economic results, or that they produce press and revenue for gaming companies, then understand that there are jobs that many people do (yourself included) that in the grand scheme of things do not amount to a whole hell of a lot.

    Another problem is assuming that everyone has been instilled with some neurotic drive to constantly grow and achieve and produce in every single effort.

    Understand that video games, or games in general (cards, bowling, etc) are process that PRODUCE ENJOYMENT. They are not useless activities for you to waggle your holier-than-thou finger at. Some people just like to spend their downtime unwinding in a manner you apparently dont approve of. But you can be assured that when people sit down to game, or to watch a game, or to play a videogame, they are doing so in order to feel better, to have fun, to blow off some steam, there are countless reasons. And “ways to feel better” are wholly subjective, and nobody can tell anyone how they should go about doing so.

    Catharsis and enjoyment are real, actual products yielded from playing games.

    If, at the root of your essay, you are simply bitter about other people being overly proud of their gaming abilities, or if you are disgusted at the lack of drive and motivation plaguing people today, understand this: pride and misaligned incentives, desire for play and unproductivity, and the existence of apathy and ennui, have existed for far longer than the video game, and they would still exist without it. (Reply)

  13. Mike ()

    What is “tangibly effective”, though? Going to college makes it easier to get a good job, which makes it easier to feed your kids. Is a college degree still a fake achievement if it puts food on my table?

    Are we all just wasting our time on treadmills unless we create a polio vaccine? Its way to easy to slip into nihilism with a critique like this one. Playing video games can make someone happy; that’s just as valuable as anything else in life. (Reply)

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  15. otakucode ()

    What about the very tangible benefit of learning how to explore a system, establish its boundary conditions, and optimize action to manipulate the system in the way you desire? That is a concept unique to videogames, and one that underlies all intellectual pursuits. Videogames aren’t entirely vapid, although the ESRB and other censorship organizations guarantee that videogames will never deliver the insightful and emotionally important types of content other mediums do. (Reply)

  16. Tim Gier ()

    A celebrity used her twitter account a few weeks ago to answer her followers questions. Now I know that her favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and that she thinks the best band ever is the Beatles. I’ll admit that I followed her myself for a few days, until I realized that she had nothing to say worth listening to (not to me anyway). I’m sure that what I have to say means little to most as well.

    My brother asked me why I was spending so much time trying to develop my “personal brand.” I told him that it was better than wasting time playing Free Cell. Now, I’m not so sure. (Reply)

  17. Tom ()

    Hi, I’m Tom and I’m an achievementaholic.

    My current addiction is flickr, I spent a couple of hours a day commenting on people’s photos and tagging them as favourites in an attempt to increase my exposure. This sits right on the dividing line between beneficial and bullshit. On the one hand I’m just trying to make myself feel popular and connected (bullshit), on the other I’d like to make a bit of cash selling my photos (beneficial).

    It’s a though provoking issue. You could argue that any activity that doesn’t directly put food on your table or a roof over your head is futile and therefore that most people’s professions and hobbies are just achievement porn. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I think that’s exactly what I’m arguing. But I don’t think it’s about food and shelter. I think it’s about people (see the essay from this week). (Reply)

  18. Mike ()

    Where do you stop though?

    You could say that winning a Gold at the Olympics is a fake achievement… Being able to run really fast or jump really high? Hardly a skill worth spending any time perfecting… (Reply)

  19. Doctor Professor ()

    Pete,

    Thanks for writing this – you raise some useful points and express them well. I’m glad for the role my essay played in inspiring yours.

    I agree that if I had stopped at switching from RPGs to action games and pronounced myself cured, I would indeed not have gone nearly far enough. That was a tentative first step; an attempt to start building good habits that I would then apply to other, more valuable areas of life. Games are still games.

    I don’t agree that all game achievement (as well as the wider array you get into) is necessarily fake, however. In a followup to the Addicted to Fake Achievement essay, I talked about the difference between the question of whether an achievement is fake or real and the question of whether it is artificial or natural – as well as the question of whether it is valuable or valueless.

    As far as I can tell, you are treating all three of these axes as equivalent. I argue they have substantial and important differences. Your big questions for “culling the bullshit” – those are the questions I would use to determine whether the relevant achievement is valuable.

    In general, the reason why we can do some things for money and not others is because the former category of activities generates value. If it didn’t improve someone’s life in some way, no one would be willing to pay you to do it. You claim in your reply to Sam that pro gamers don’t actually accomplish anything – I disagree with this. Pro gamers, just like pro athletes and sports players, as well as actors and musicians and all performers and artists, are able to go pro in the first place because people find them entertaining and/or inspirational enough to pay them. That entertainment and/or inspiration has value, and generating it is therefore a valuable achievement.

    It’s true that the correlation between wages and generated value isn’t perfect, but if you do manage to get a lot of money by doing something low-value, you can still turn around and put that money somewhere it will generate more value – through the right kinds of investment or charity. At large enough sums of cash, how you spend your money can be more important than how you earn it.

    This applies to most of the “treadmills” you mention. The trick is to recognize the external rewards (grades, money, followers, friends) as means to an end supplied by internal motivation rather than ends in themselves. It’s why the performance/mastery split I mentioned in my Addicted to Fake Achievement essay is so significant, and why you want your son to want to not steal instead of to not get caught. Internal motivators are much more valuable than external ones.

    I still agree with what I read as your fundamental point – it’s worthwhile to take stock of what you’re doing and and why, and to ask yourself if you’re generating as much value as you reasonably can. I just think you’re missing out on some potential value by conflating the valueable/valueless question with the real/fake and natural/artificial ones. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Thanks for taking the time to write. You’re right that I didn’t give your full article or its follow up a proper treatment.

      I actually had a whole section written about the ins and outs, but I deleted it. I have a tendency to wander when I write, so when I edit I have to be ruthless with myself. The full treatment of your work wasn’t necessary to my fundamental point, so it was cut. I apologize that I didn’t give you as much credit as you deserve.

      I’m consistently impressed by the way you move between games and deeper philosophical points in your writing.

      In any case, I’m aware of your axes because I did read the follow ups, but I felt like there wasn’t enough ideological “space” left here to treat them properly.

      The bottom line is, and I think we agree, that people spend a great deal of their lives neck deep in watery shit, and a lot of them don’t even know it could be any other way. I hope somehow, somewhere, I’ve given someone a whiff. (Reply)

  20. Helpful Hacker ()

    A few questions about your post:
    1. Why do you wear an eyepatch? Is it for style? Are you missing an eye? Have you considered a glass eye? They come in many varieties and designs, and I’m sure you could find one that suits your tastes!
    2. Do you dye your hair? If so, can you write a blog post about hair dying best practices? I think the community at large would like to know. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      My face was shattered under a car tire. I think I’d need more than a glass eye to fix it 8)

      My Moorish ancestors raped and pillaged my Portuguese ancestors and left me with jet black hair. That would be a pretty long blog post. (Reply)

  21. Krista ()

    I’d say another example is when you comment on people’s blog entries just to agree with them, but don’t add any insight of your own. I do that a little too often… especially on blogs of famous people like xkcd.
    .-= Krista´s last blog ..To do list updates =-. (Reply)

  22. Michael ()

    On the flip side of your argument: Real achievement is hard. If we knew how hard it is, it’d be much easier to quit. A lot of what you call achievement porn is what helps keep us happy while we’re spending most of our time trying to make a difference.

    (Example: My relationship to my girlfriend doesn’t result in any greatness from either of us, but our mutual affection makes us feel like we’re good, worthy people despite evidence to the contrary.) (Reply)

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  24. rushdi ()

    I understand what you are saying about fake achievement, It’s a valid point. The question is how would you then define actual achievement? (Reply)

  25. Jonny ()

    Enjoyable article. Interesting perspective, but it would seem like a lot of the activities you classify as bullshit or ‘games’ actually meet the criteria you set forth to qualify not being considered such. You also considered playing video games on your 110 inch tv fun, but bullshit. while leisure may not produce what you would call ‘tangible’ benefits, the benefits are still very real. In fact taking the opposite extreme, 0 leisure can and will have a negative impact on an individual. So I would say leisure has value, even if it is minimal. I guess the take away is value can only be assessed on a personal level. (Reply)

  26. Huy Do ()

    Nice read. I agree with alot of the sentiments, but games is more entertainment. Like most entertainment (don’t confuse with entertaining) there really is no “real” achievement involved. Re: pro gamers, would they not be in the same group as pro sports people ? What are the differences ? I mean manipulating a ball with your body is not much diff to manipulating a computer animation with your body. (Reply)

  27. b ()

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

    Sounds awfully like the skill needed to write this article. (Reply)

  28. Brian Slesinsky ()

    One trick is to play video games in order to achieve other goals. For example, playing Dance Dance Revolution for the exercise. Then the in-game achievements are encouraging you to exercise more – a nice hack.

    Outside video games, such examples are easier to find. (Reply)

  29. monkeyboy ()

    There is no such thing as meaningful activity.

    It is only meaningful to you while you are doing it.

    It is all about attention and boredom. Whatever holds your attention and makes you feel better is worth doing, as soon as it gets boring, move to something else.

    No passion, just a succession of obsessions until Death decides to close the curtains.

    No such thing as progress, or meaning of life, or living for other people or accomplishments/achievements/goals.

    Just live your life, enjoy it, be selfish while keeping your guilt level low and die with honor.

    The only thing you can accomplish in this life is: balancing the chemical elements in your body to feel joy and avoid pain. That’s it brother!

    Cheers mate,

    -memonkeyboy (Reply)

  30. Mike Lin ()

    Isn’t our entire society based on the side effect productivity of people aiming for the fake achievement of money? Is there anything wrong with that?

    I think fake achievements with side effects could be a pretty good way to get people in aggregate to do things.
    .-= Mike Lin´s last blog ..USB stick randomly ejects on Mac =-. (Reply)

  31. Tim Cinel ()

    From reading this, I get the impression that you don’t recognise selfish or intangible ahievements, only non-selfish or tangible ones. For instance – you claim that learning is not an achievement but you might consider teaching as an achievement. You do not consider skilled gaming (possibly involving strategy, accuracy and speed) an achievement but you might consider training enough to run a marathon an achievement. Some people (like me) would consider all of these things as achievements.

    I agree with Sam – achievement is subjective. (Reply)

  32. Praveen ()

    What do you mean when you say “actually achieving” something ? How do you define “otherwise useless” ? (Reply)

  33. Gary Bloom ()

    Some good insight, especially regarding education, however, you ignore that most achievements — making lots of money, getting a promotion at work, earning a certificate of expertise, robust influence over followers, and even acquiring “close friends” — may also be contrivances. “What really matters?” is not carved on tablets somewhere. (Reply)

  34. nathan ()

    I enjoyed reading this and you bring up some fun points points to consider.

    I want to address this notion: “Nothing is actually accomplished by a pro gamer.”

    I used to think sports were pointless, because nothing was really being accomplished. I later realized that there is a great deal being accomplished. It mostly has to do with providing people happiness. The thrill of observing and playing games and sports makes people very happy.

    Are the only worthwhile tasks those that directly provide basic necessities of life?

    Some of these ‘treadmills’ are certainly bad in my opinion, like the false education example. I think Sam is correct that they are for the most part, subjective. (Reply)

  35. Niels Bom ()

    Ow and in “actually” accomplishing stuff/ productively contributing to society: a lot of jobs in the financial world don’t “produce” anything, they’re just gaming the economic systems to squeeze dollars out here and there. Moving money here, then there.

    A friend of mine works in a High Frequency Trading company (Google it) and the whole company just games the economic system, nobody would care or notice if the company fell of the earth one day.

    Having a bigger perspective on this, is a good way to see it as well.

    Thanks for making me think. (Reply)

  36. Andre ()

    Couldn’t one argue that that the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction you get through unlocking that next achievement is good enough to make it valid?

    If something clicks in your head, is it not worthwile to pursue? I’ll have to distance myself and play Devil’s Advocate for this analogy but it rings true: Isn’t that what love is? Something that gives endless satisfaction when done right but ultimately it’s still just a heap of neurobiological randomness.

    Just spitballing here. It’s just that I’m always very careful when it comes to dismissing other people’s passion when I don’t exactly understand how or why to the fullest extent.

    As a long-long-long-time gamer though… I was happier when we didn’t have achievements. :) (Reply)

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  39. Paul Regas ()

    Wonderful article. Thought provoking, relevant, personal. I have yet to go back and read the original you cite at the top, but I will. I have successfully gamed the schools, the WOW (and Zelda, etc…) and the work. Now I find myself involved in the important work of reforming the game of school.

    There is much good in our schools; strong foundations of caring and dedication, talented people, smart kids. And yet much that needs changing. The big challenge for teachers is to understand the concept of achievement porn, recognize it, and work to eliminate it. There is tremendous inertia in a system of this size, but there are also many opportunities for growth. I’m looking forward to sharing this concept with my colleagues, and am confident that this perspective will have an impact. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Best of luck. I think you have a long road ahead. What you think the system is for may not be what it’s actually for. Stay tuned for an essay in the coming weeks about Education system, what it does, why, and what it would take to change it. (Reply)

  40. video games ()

    We could apply your thoughts to anything, social status? does that mean anything? Wealth? Does working 80 hours a week make you a happier or better person?
    Someone who enjoys their life and enjoys their fake achievements is all that matters. Whether it is video games, blogs, wealth, power. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    .-= video games´s last blog ..Mass Effect 2 Where can I find Element Zero =-. (Reply)

  41. Kitsune ()

    The thing is, a lot of the people who are submerged in achievement porn try to wake up. But it’s escapism. A lot of people, like me, turn to the achievement porn because the actual achievement is in short supply. I keep trying to wake-up – I know it’s fake. But, it’s difficult to strive for achievement, only know failure, and not feel the lull of fake achievement. I want to achieve, but there is nothing especially spectacular about me. The desire to achieve, combined with the honest pursuit of it, only means failure. And so it is very difficult to not turn to what is fake.

    P.S. Someone else probably pointed it out, but there is a little typo here: “I play games on a couple hours a week, because I they are fun.” (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      Thanks for catching the typo.

      A couple things:

      1) Achievement in infinitely abundant to you. Seek it, and it will be there.

      2) I have a dirty secret to let you in on. No one is especially spectacular. Not anyone. There are people who have goals and work to achieve them, and there are people who don’t. (Reply)

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  43. haig ()

    I think you made an important observation, that game-like incentive systems are all around us and we must be aware of which ones we choose to involve ourselves in. It’s not new, google David Foster Wallace and ‘this is water’ for a really eloquent and moving variation on this theme.

    But then instead of writing about this observation concisely, you go off the rails by taking your personal value choices and generalizing to everyone by telling people what they should or shouldn’t do. Who are you to say what is valuable to another person?

    Of course, you’re indulging in your own ‘achievement porn’ by trying to write an important blog post and get a higher score (visitors), and in my view, playing a video game instead of reading this post would have been more worthwhile. (Reply)

  44. Mike Coombs ()

    I think that is an achievement to get a good, polite, philosophical discussion going. Sharing or seeking enlightenment…achievement!
    .-= Mike Coombs´s last blog ..Always On =-. (Reply)

  45. johnwiththelens ()

    I think you are confusing your subjective view of non achievement with actually achieving nothing. And in my worldview the really enlightened can see that to achieve a state of complete non achievement would be an achievement in itself, such would be the impossibility of this task.

    There’s one theory that your article brings to mind. Malcolm Gladwell points to a study that shows that in general people who achieve a great level of success in their field owe their success to the amount of time spent practicing above all else. So Mozart started composing music at such a young age under the tutelage of his father and wrote his first masterpiece after 10000 hours under his belt. The same with the Beatles, Bill Gates, Boris Becker… Through persistence, and being on a repeated treadmill of practice these people created music that allowed others insight into their own humanity, built systems that literally changed the way we operate in our day to day existence, and showed the possibilities to us at the limits of human physical endurance. This is all stuff that is only irrelevant if you are either not a living breathing human, or if you have actually mastered the impossible by achieving truly nothing at all…

    I agree with the comment earlier that your blog would be meaningless under your own system. However with the application of time and practice who knows. (Reply)

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