A Sum of Parts: The Point of Points and The Gamification of Videogames

gamification of video games

At a time when the hype (and disdain) around points, metrics, achievements, and gamification generally was at a high, Bulletstorm arrived with the most crass, blunt, in-your-face points and achievement system in recent time. Skillshots, as I’ve previously explained, give the player points and achievements based on how they kill different enemies, how many enemies they kill simultaneously, and how quickly they respond to quick-time events.

The points the player receives for these actions don’t discreetly tick over in the corner of the screen, but are splashed in flickering neon right there in the middle of Hunt’s vision, overlapping whatever action it was the player did to get the points in the first place. The meaning is clear: what you do doesn’t matter; getting the points for it matters. Bulletstorm works hard to stress that, as players, numbers matter to us. Right or wrong, we will do something just to make the numbers go up. 

Gamification is not a process of making things more like games, but of simply inverting the role of points.

It’s easy, as someone invested in videogames, to have a negative reaction to gamification, as it makes videogames themselves seem awfully reductive—as though all there is to videogames is a metric of making numbers go up and unlocking achievements. But I look at it slightly differently. Gamification is not a process of making things more like games, but of simply inverting the role of points. And, in the process, videogames themselves have been gamificated.

Broadly speaking, points in videogames, traditionally, were just a metric representation of what the player really got out of the game, something emotional and gratifying. Just like graphics and sounds, points were just another way to represent things. In Dungeons and Dragons or any other tabletop role-playing game, for instance, the numbers on the sheets of paper and on the sides of the dice weren’t the end-goal, but the representations of what was ‘actually’ happenings: the satisfaction of cleaving a dragon’s head right off; the hilarity of a short bow snapping and whacking your halfling in his own head. The points merely rendered some intrinsic quality eligible to the players trying to perceive a fictional, imagined world. Likewise, in early videogames, points worked as a quick, easily understood shorthand in lieu of any real goal. Then, as we learned how to hide the numbers within the videogame itself, we created games that didn’t need the shorthand of points at all to offer the player an emotional investment: Half-Life, Donkey Kong Country, Abe’s Oddysey, Dear Esther. 

But over time, by design or by accident, the role of points changed. Instead of standing in for some other, intrinsic, emotional goal, the numbers themselves became the goal. While we may still happily gain twenty points to cleave a dragon’s head, it’s just as true that we would happily cleave a dragon’s head in order to gain twenty points. Instead of being the stick, points were now the carrot. Points themselves, for better or worse, are something we like to chase after.

It’s this desire to accumulate numbers that gamification taps into, taking what is merely meant to represent what we get out of a game and instead making that the sole objective of that game. Gamification inverts the role of points so that we will run an extra kilometre, leave another comment, or buy another coffee in order to get the points.  At its best, it motivates people to do something they usually wouldn’t do. At its worst, it exploits people into doing something they wouldn’t usually do.

This inverting of the role of points inevitably feeds back into game design so that in many cases points themselves become the primary goal. Videogames themselves are being gamificated. 

It’s this full circle inversion of what points do that Bulletstorm’s skillshot system lampoons. The skillshot system is explained in-game as the leftovers of a training exercise for an Echo Squad sent to the planet to clean up the bandits. Their leashes were used to record how well they performed, and points were awarded for the best performers. The importance of these points was that they could then be exchanged for much-needed supplies and ammunition. But this isn’t so much a currency with which items are purchased as it is a customer loyalty reward system, swapping points for prizes. The skillshot system, leftover in the ruins of this lost paradise, is a gamificated system. Bulletstorm is a gamificated videogame.

Which begs the question: as I risk my life lining up a particularly tricky skillshot for the extra points, is Bulletstorm motivating me or exploiting me? Even with all these serrated girders and slow-motion kicks, without the skillshot points, it would just be easier to shoot everyone dead with the most conventional weapons in my armoury. Skillshots both motivate and exploit me into using the weirder weapons and the environment around me in all kinds of unique and grotesque ways. I’m no longer getting points as a reward for my actions; I am performing my actions in order to receive my points.

There is something in watching big numbers get bigger that is satisfying in and of itself.

But, really, points have always been like this. Why else would stomping on a goomba in Super Mario Brothers give me 100 points instead of 1 point? There is something in watching big numbers get bigger that is satisfying in and of itself. Perhaps it isn’t a question of being motivated ‘or’ exploited by points and gamification, but of being motivated and exploited. Bulletstorm doesn’t motivate and exploit me any more than does any game with points, but it draws attention to this dualistic, contradictory nature of points.

In fact, motivation and exploitation sums up Bulletstorm pretty nicely. I am both motivated and exploited by the skillshot system. Hunt, Ishi, and Trishka are all simultaneously motivated and exploited by Serrano. By being tempted into performing all kinds of gratuitous murders, by being the butt of the game’s jokes, by getting drunk when I really don’t need to get drunk, by chasing down that extra fifty points I really don’t need, Bulletstorm makes me as a player realise not only that I am both being motivated and exploited by the game—but that I love being motivated, and I love being exploited.