A scene from my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve: Barbara Stanwyck and Charles Coburn, a pair of con artists and professional card sharks, are chatting in the morning before they go to work fleecing a wealthy target. Coburn breaks out a deck of cards, eager to show her a trick. He deals the deck by fifths, then reaches into the stacks and finds all four of the aces. Stanwyck is delighted and baffled. Coburn shrugs. "You don't really need it," he says. "It's just virtuosity."
True talent may be its own reward, but most game developers have done everything possible to eliminate skill as a barrier to entry. If you can wrap your hands around a gamepad, the prevailing attitude is you should be able to play and enjoy just about any mainstream game. Even those of us who paid our dues in the 8-bit era will admit it's nice to occasionally spend an hour playing a game without risking an aneurysm. Nonetheless, games that lack the agony and ecstasy that attend accomplishment are often worse for it. Sometimes we want the opportunity, however pointless, to showcase our abilities.
Which is why achievements are one of the current console generation's most important innovations. They bridge the gap between the skill-players and the dilettantes, the old guard and the young. Achievements reserve space for skill without barring the less adept from enjoying a game. Best of all, they can subtly transform novices into finesse players.
Achievements have unjustly earned a reputation for catering to our worst completionist instincts. That's why so many gamers fall victim to "achievement whoring," the single-minded and frequently joyless pursuit of a game's moving goalposts. But this phenomenon is a problem with the player, not the concept. A thoughtful set of achievements does more than tease obsessive-compulsives. Rather, it illuminates the trail from basic game mechanics to advanced techniques that players must master before they can claim to have finished the game.
For instance, the achievements in Team Fortress 2 offer a lifeline to newcomers who are trying to make sense of the initial chaos of multiplayer combat. Without the guidance these achievements provide, it would be easy to be confused by what each class is supposed to do. Furthermore, early experience in TF2 seems to suggest that life is cheap and disposable, and that the point of the game is to run at the enemy and hopefully kill a few of them before you fall in a hail of gunfire from an army of hostiles, rather like Butch and Sundance.
TF2's achievements, however, tell a different story. They set benchmarks for you to accomplish in a single life, slyly pushing you to rise above the amateurish 1:1 kill to death ratio. These achievements demonstrate that the game isn't a melee, but a team effort that depends on coordination, cooperation and individual skill. You earn "Play Doctor," for instance, by switching to the Medic class and healing 500 points of damage on a team without anyone already filling that role. Valve is saying, "Hey dummy! Someone has to be the Medic, so be the bigger man and put down the rocket launcher." It establishes the Medic as a vital and indispensable piece of the tactical puzzle, encourages awareness of your team's class composition and rewards you for accepting responsibility when it's required.