Filling bars, or, how a system of meaningless points modifies my behaviour almost constantly

As always, Penny Arcade communicates my own actions and feelings more succinctly and hilariously (yes, that is a word, thank you) than I ever could.

It started, years back, with XBox Achievements. Basic concept: complete a goal in your game, and be rewarded with an Achievement. That little ‘plink’ and the name and value – value – of your achievement pops up for all to see.

Yes, value, because of course each achievement is worth a certain number of Gamerpoints, with more challenging achievements being worth more.

You can’t opt out, and almost every game has achievements for finishing a level or whatever, so you can’t help but get them. And then you start thinking. “oh! There is an achievement for killing 20 villagers. There’s another for killing 25000 zombies! I can do that.”

And then, you are lost.

If you’re like me, anyway. I’m still inordinately proud of getting 100% of achievements in Mass Effect 2 – including finishing the game on Insanity difficulty, etc. (see? So proud).

And these points aren’t worth anything! They’re just a number, which steadily increases as you play different games, and increases a little faster if you go out of your way to complete objectives. I believe there’s now a rewards program where you can acquire actual Microsoft money points somehow, but it’s peripheral. That little ‘plink’ sound, that increasing number (compare with your friends’!), the special box on your dashboard where your 100% games sit… it’s insidious.


And like in the comic, it really is the most basic form of action/reward. The bars are empty. The number of points is low. That’s bad. So you can do things (things you were going to do anyway! Things that are just a little bit out of your way, so why  not?) and you can fill the bars, you can increase the quantity of points. And then you feel good.

I’m assuming the basic equation is:

[buy game] –> [play game = (get enjoyment)] –> [earn achievement = (get enjoyment)] –> [(want more enjoyment) = (acquire more achievements)] –> [buy more games]

So… yes. It works, though! There are sites dedicated to finding games with easy-to-get achievements and to sharing and bragging about your gamerscore.

PS3 has the same with Trophies, Steam has similar achievements (though tragically doesn’t quanitify each one with points)… and then there’s Foursquare.


Foursquare essentially gives you points for going to places. You check in to a location (house, coffee shop, train station, bar…) on your phone, and receive points for that check-in. More for being the first amongst your friends to go there, or for becoming the Mayor (another incentive to have regular haunts).

Of course businesses love it. Especially in the US, I noticed while I was over there – the majority of stores have a ‘check-in here!’ sticker on the front door. Businesses provide specials for a certain number of check-ins, discounts for mayors… so many ways to keep people coming back. Personally I’ve both avoided and sought out venues based on their Foursquare ‘tips’ – semi-reliable advice left by other internet people.

All of this aside, though, there’s still those points. And the badges. Oh, the badges.

There’s a points leaderboard, always taunting you with your best-ever score. I don’t care about that. I care about badges.

You get them for going to certain types of shop a number of times, sometimes within a time period. It’s horrifying. Look at that thing! It means I’ve gone to over 30 different cafes, and I love it. I go out of my way to find new coffee places, just so I can bump that number up to a seven. They have me! They have me. The tendrils run so deep, the hooks in my brain inescapable.

In the end it’s moderately harmless… I think. I might spend more time wandering around than before, but that’s good! It means I find and go to new places, rather than just staying at the old familiar ones (though Foursquare rewards that, too).

Foursquare is huge. There’s similar location services too. There’s one for watching TV shows and movies, even. I never got into that, but I doubt it would take much.

And so yes. We really are that easy to manipulate. Consciously, I know this, I’m acutely aware of it. My lizard brain, though? Boy, does it love filling those bars.



Filed under psychology

2 responses to “Filling bars, or, how a system of meaningless points modifies my behaviour almost constantly

  1. Liz

    I think your equation is pretty spot-on… but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I love filling bars. It’s definitely interesting to think about, though.

    Also, I LOVE MISO. You can’t resist forever.

  2. Pa

    Of course it works both ways:

    On the other hand, I suppose I’d like to be told when Vogel’s Premium Oven Crisp Muesli is on sale at Coles. Just not by Coles.

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