The Falsehood of Quantification of Self

I wrote about achievements a while back, and my opinion remains decidedly negative. That does not preclude, however, that I, as a human being, am prone to pursuing them anyway within the context of the video game’s objectives. To give a particular example: Ridge Racer 6 presents a rather tough achievement list, requiring you to overcome certain races with arbitrary handicaps not enforced in-game. Thus, you need to play without nitrous on many track even as you gather it by drifting. Your reflexes work against you, but your knowledge of the courses (gained through, really, playing each course again and again through World Explorer mode) makes up for it. How do I drift most effectively through each turn without losing speed? What’s the best configuration for this course, the best drift style for my own personal inclinations? In that sense, this isn’t so much an “achievement” as a challenge presented to someone who became an expert through repeated play.

Ridge Racer 6 World Xplorer

I’m about 35% through all the races as of this date…so yes, I have a long way to go.

Still, when that little two-tone sound comes up, I can’t help but feel satisfied. I completed this challenge, and now everybody (or nobody, really), knows it. Heck, I know it’s almost wrong to think that way, but I still do look at that achievement thing. Not that I take time out to get every achievement in every game, but having my Xbox gaming history truncated and demonstrated into a single numerical value…makes me happy, for some reason.

Ted Loring points this out in his own (positive) write-up of achievements:

Why are people wired like this?  Three words: Quantification of Self.  Quantification of self is a relatively modern phenomenon and it isn’t only associated with video game players.  For example, people who are into fitness can be obsessed with quantification of self.  Going for a simple jog may involve a GPS device, a heart-rate monitor, and a pedometer.  By the end of the run, the jogger knows how far she has run, how many steps she has taken, and how many calories she has burned.

Once upon a time, tracking such statistics was only possible in the world of professional sports, but now technology has made it possible to track so many things.  Now add the video game player to the concept.  It is the perfect fit, a combination of technology and recreation.

I like getting these achievements.  In fact, it has almost become a distraction to me and has sometimes overshadowed the game itself.  I must give a true confession.  I have played at least two games not because I had fun with them, but because I wanted those points.

I don’t happen to own a smartphone or similar device, but I see this in many of my own gaming habits, both past and present. I play lots of JRPGs, admittedly; some I complete, some I do not. The ones which give me a tangible indicator as to my own success – i.e., levels going up – I tend to finish. Final Fantasy V, for example, does present numerical indications of the relative strength of your party when you level. Unfortunately, not many people in the West (not sure about Japan) particularly like Final Fantasy V, due to these numbers not actually mattering a whole lot in the course of a normal game. Many bosses and enemies can, at times, usurp expectations with instant death attacks (Exdeath comes to mind) or requires particular strategies to overcome a certain ability the boss will use (the elemental spirits in the Forest of Moore). In either case, leveling will increase your stats a little bit, but not enough to compensate. Job class switching, however, will solve the problem with a good stratagem behind it.

On the other hand, you’ll notice that more and more JRPGs contain giant superbosses or dungeons – in fact, they’re nearly impossible to complete unless you hit the level cap AND obtain the best equipment and armor. I like Tri-Ace games (Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile), but many of them proceed completely overboard with the whole concept. Multiple dungeons with crazy bosses defeated only by level grinding and a very specific, not usually fun, strategy? No thanks! Love your games, just not your end game content. But people love this stuff; we love it because, well, numbers go up and we’ve quantified how strong we are. It explains the appeal of NIS games, surely!

But these are not fun, inherently. It’s more in the vein of a MOBA, where the “metagame” of learning new stuff simply overtakes the actual “playing” of the game – get on leaderboards, feel your number going up, repeat. Likewise, the metagame of achievement hunting overtakes the actual “fun” of the game (as in Ted’s case above, where he plays an Avatar (Airbender one) game and Peter Jackson’s King Kong purely to take their achievements). Numbers go up, I feel good. You’re not truly doing anything but presenting some overarching structure to a formerly enjoyable-in-itself pastime.

The problem with the quantified self, of course, isn’t the numbers or the wonderful satisfactory notions its provides. Rather, it’s the same problem with social media in general: the puffing up of self. I should know this as a frequent user of the Internets, but every day you fight that inclination to tell people you matter. How many friends? What do I like in terms of movies, music, media, etc.? What can I say that will make people affirm me. It’s all working within the same ecosphere of personal quantification. But I am not a number; I am a free man.

I am a free man precisely because I already died in Christ:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

With Galatians 2:20, I no longer need to care what people think about me, or find them sizing me up by my special number. God knows who I am, and that is all that one requires. The Bible continually repeats this concept throughout:

34 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 35 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? 37 For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

The loss of life, in the physical sense, isn’t a big concern. Your spiritual status, noticeably lacking an air of empirical tangibility, means all. That makes faith a difficult proposition, if Mark 8 reveals anything, but we must lose our constant desire for status at the altar of Christ. There isn’t an alternative; I must become lesser so he can become greater. That’s why I find the whole concept so dangerous: it just emphasizes harmful habits in the most underhanded way without the walk of the Spirit.

4 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

Galatians 5

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • Ted Loring

    Exactly so Zachary. I’m glad you wrote about this and even carried my thought process out to completion. I never said it in my blog entry but the Gospel doesn’t work with an achievement-based system because no one – none of us – can ever earn enough “points” on our own. We need a savior who breaks the point system and puts a better one in place – grace. *DISCLAIMER* Honestly, I would never even had tried getting those points from King Kong & Avatar if the games had not been literally handed to me by a friend. So for me it was much more of an exploration than an addiction.

    • Zachery Oliver

      I am not condemning your gaming habits, haha. Achievements just scare me a bit.

      Almost like a video game version of grace versus works, now that I think about it…