The Trophy Dilemma: When Striving for Platinum Derails Enjoyment

Earning trophies has become a past time of many a gamer, but could they be ruining our gaming experiences?

Ding! Another bronze trophy pops up in the top-left of my TV screen, coupled with the usual sensation of satisfaction -- or is it more like mundane acceptance?

Choice or fixation?

Collecting and hunting trophies has been a very time-intensive hobby of mine since they were first introduced by Sony, building upon my already established eagerness to plow dozens of hours of my life into the virtual world and generally into video games. More recently, though, I've started to wonder if my desire to hunt trophies and hoover up those elusive platinum figures has been something I've actually wanted to do, or whether it's been driven by a more habitual, routine, or automatic instinct. Basically, I've been wondering whether I still do it because I enjoy it, or just because it's something I've become so used to doing that I don't know how to play any other way.

Early satisfaction, initial buzz

Following my dearly heartbreaking yellow light of death on my first PlayStation 3 (RIP Borderlands disc), I picked up a slim PS3 and had to create a new account, spawning a fresh start for my gaming obsession. The first 14 games I played on the new console were devoured by my attention and focus, and for each one I achieved Every. Single. Trophy -- including particularly rare platinums of Aliens vs Predator, Red Dead Redemption, and Alpha Protocol. Over the years, this trend continued, passing over into the PS4 era and into the present day, where I currently stand with 114 platinum trophies, and almost 9,000 total.

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Each time I heard that compulsive ping of the trophy sound, each time I saw that little gray icon, each time I worked towards getting that full blue or white bar on the trophy screen, I found myself getting excited, becoming notably enthused and experiencing a surge of motivation to keep playing and pushing forward. At the time, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the games I played (though not you, Brink; you were awful), and gathering up trophies felt like a rewarding way of showing my willingness to earn their completion, gleefully informing my school or college friends whenever I hit another milestone in my collection.

Indeed, trophies for me then were something to feel proud about, and I excelled at earning them like very few others around me at the time. I hadn't discovered PSNProfiles, trophy guides, or any of the related sites that are now so popular in people demonstrating their greater pull with the mini, virtual statues. Despite the allure of trophies, I still would play games I enjoyed simply because I enjoyed them. I fell into a roughly 360-hour abyss of MGS4's Metal Gear Online mode (and finished its campaign roughly 18 times, even earning Big Boss rank!), I had 6 days of play time on Modern Warfare 2, once getting an 81-0 record in a match. My point is, I remember those moments and single experiences more so than I do most of my recent trophy successes. Before, I could become wrapped up in an experience, whether it was good or shockingly terrible (looking at you, Stormrise).

Where did it all change?

Fast-forward to the current day, however, and my affinity for Sony's reward system has changed quite dramatically. No longer do I go into a game without having first consulted its trophy list, no more do I play through a game without having a consistent nagging feeling in my mind about a potential miss-able trophy. Within about five minutes of concluding and gobbling up all available trophies for the last two games I played through, The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, I had purged them from my hard drive and was 75% through installing the next game on my backlog. I couldn't feasibly achieve Wolfenstein 2's "Mein Leben" trophy without dozens of hours of practice, and The Evil Within 2's platinum would require another three playthroughs for me to achieve. As such, I disregarded and ejected them from my console and my mind, despite me thoroughly enjoying them! In fact, I'd have rated The Evil Within 2 as one of my favorite games of 2017, and Wolfenstein: A New Order is one of my top-rated FPS games of all time, but its sequel didn't even get a second thought of another playthrough.

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Of course there are exceptions, notably The Last of Us and more recently, Nier: Automata, both of which I rate incredibly highly in my personal favorite video games. Ditto that for the entire Metal Gear Solid series, games where I've played and experienced every inch of their content, without even so much as a fleeting consideration of a trophy. Is it a coincidence that I remember these experiences so much more fondly and vividly than those in games like Star Wars Battlefront 2, where the excessive and ridiculous grind to its platinum actually soured my entire experience with the game? 

Conversely, the opposite has also been true for some of my trophy exploits. I definitely wonder whether I would remember the aforementioned The Last of Us as fondly as I currently do had I not bothered to replay the game twice more to earn the rest of trophies, or delved into its surprisingly enthralling online multiplayer. In this case, and in the more recent incidence of Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, the trophy list actively encouraged me to dive back into the game, immersing myself in its world all over again, honing my skills or giving me the opportunity to spot the details I may have missed the first time around. Unfortunately, this is also countered with a game like Tekken 7, where I put the bare minimum into the game to achieve its platinum, then deleted it before I even tried to master a character or any of the mechanics that were available. All of this was despite me being incredibly excited to play Tekken. But the trophy motivation wasn't there, so I moved on.

Just move on?

The solution seems to be fairly obvious: Simply stop caring about trophies. Go back to my old self, and focus on the experience rather than an artificial "reward" system, which doesn't actually offer any achievement other than personal pride (here in the UK anyway).

In some aspects, I've done so. I regularly play Rocket League with a friend; I purchased games like A Way Out and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice not with trophies in mind, but the overall package and what they could offer me in terms of an experience; and I would add I have never bought a game with the sole purpose of earning its trophies. Unfortunately, the pull of wanting to achieve their platinums was still there throughout, nagging away as a persistent annoyance and source of some minor frustration.

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I spent some time considering how this bothersome feeling was maintaining itself in my mind, noticing the frustration when a platinum proved out of reach, too time-consuming or just generally being too difficult to achieve. I don't have the time and the opportunity to play through games as much or as many times as I could when I was younger. Maybe this has also been coupled with the sheer ridiculous number of games released in 2017 and early 2018 that I wanted to pick up and enjoy, of which I still have about 10+ to play. My enthusiasm for gaming is clearly still present and accounted for, but maybe the expectation to earn each games trophy list has proved far too high to reach. Maybe this acceptance that I can't attain 100% completion or every platinum I want to is what's souring my experience of now earning the ones that I do.

A trophy still worth striving for

There are still times despite all of this when I very much value and appreciate those trophies that require my full skill set as a gamer or that test my abilities in order to prove I've earned the right to own them. The euphoria of earning both the Injustice 2 and Mortal Kombat X platinums was palpable. Finally disarming the nuke to pop the last bronze on Metal Gear Solid 5 to earn my first MGS platinum after being a fan for years was fantastic. Those moments make earning trophies genuinely exciting and serve as a reminder that letting the excitement and motivation drive me to earn them, rather than the other way around, is the best way to get the most of its positive reinforcement system.

Perhaps this experience I've recently gone through with trophies is simply a change to my lifestyle, reflecting that I can't neglect my responsibilities and my time like I used to as a teenager. That I can't expect some virtual, artificial statue to provide me with the enjoyment and satisfaction that the game itself is offering, instead of expecting the reward in isolation to provide that enthusiasm.

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Time to lower expectations

Trophy hunting has become something of a big deal -- a quick look on PSNProfiles or other trophy-related website forums can testify to that. I'm no longer the top trophy earner of the people I know. In fact, I'm actually relatively low on trophy leaderboards, and that's all right. Perhaps it's time for me to return to actually enjoying earning those satisfying noises and blips on the screen, not enjoying the fleeting and passing moment of them popping. Time to get back to actually enjoying the games, and letting the trophies pop themselves.

Published Apr. 4th 2018

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