Fifty-one hours and 34 minutes into Just Cause 2, I’ve completed 55.16% of the game. Of the 369 locations I’ve discovered throughout Panau—that’s all of them, by the way—I’ve fully completed 111. I’ve assassinated 26 out of 50 colonels, collected 1,131 of 2,700 resource items, and killed 2,571 enemies. Oh, and I’ve destroyed 134 gas pumps.
Somewhere in there, I think I finished the story.
In my 22 hours and 45 minutes with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I’ve managed to rebuild 67% of Rome. Although my total sync progress is still only a paltry 23.76%, I have destroyed nine of 12 Borgia Towers, synchronized 18 of 24 viewpoints, and collected 44 of 144 treasures. If I want to take the coveted top spot on the Courtesan’s Guild board, I’ll need to commandeer 10 guards’ horses without killing their owners. Apparently Rome’s prostitutes have a pressing interest in illicit equestrianism.
Pick a game for a current-gen system, and more than likely it’ll be able to spit out a ream of statistics from its pause menu. Time played. Percentage of objectives completed. Portion of map discovered. There’s a relentless, almost fetishistic focus on making gameplay data explicit for the player. It’s not uncommon to see, having collected an item, a little box pop up in the corner of the screen informing you exactly which of the 523 total items you’ve just found. The game interrupts itself to deliver tracking data. It’s like a teacher hovering over your shoulder mid-test, announcing the impact of every right or wrong answer on your GPA.
From a developer perspective, it makes perfect sense for games to track player behavior in such minute detail. Gameplay metrics can be enormously useful tools for analyzing what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly. In this era of The Patch, The DLC and The Sequel, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Where else should developers look for ideas on how to improve their games? As a player, I want gameplay data to be the starting point. Cut the features that aren’t getting used, and bolster the ones that are.
And why not make at least some those metrics explicit in-game? They can be an efficient way of showing the player the wealth of things to do in the game world. Especially in open-world games, it’s crucial to make the player aware of all the potential objectives. Apart from the rare phenomenon like Minecraft, “freedom” only takes you so far. Measurable goals make that prized sense of progression less nebulous, and, if implemented well, can encourage players to more fully explore the game world. To some degree, the focus on data is the logical extension of the High Score; it’s an incentive to master the game as thoroughly as possible.
But here’s the thing about data: It’s seductive. The more information you have at your disposal, the better you can maintain the feeling of understanding, of influence, of control. But no matter how facile our access to information has become, we still face the problem of figuring out what it means. And what to do with it.
If the 21st century has taught us anything so far, it’s that information—and the ease with which it can be stored, analyzed and shared—is the key to power. In a year in which Twitter is helping topple regimes and WikiLeaks is dominating the foreign-policy conversation, it’s easy to see why people are so invested in collecting and sharing data. It’s democratic. It’s empowering. (Case in point: my mother-in-law signing up for Facebook. Talk about your Shadow Brokers.)
Just as in the political sphere, though, an abundance of data in a game does not equate to understanding or value. When you pack your game with hundreds of side-quests and sub-objectives—and especially when you display the mechanisms for tracking progress against these goals prominently in the user interface—you run the risk of devaluing your narrative. You could be awarding priority to behaviors that are not necessarily essential to the core experience. You’re in danger of sending the player mixed messages on what your game is really “about.” If you look at my gameplay stats for the original Assassin’s Creed, for example, you’d wonder why they decided to give that strange title to a game about collecting flags.
More importantly, by smothering players with metrics, you’re endangering your value proposition. At a certain point, the allure of the potential fun ahead symbolized by those incomplete objectives turns to indifference or antipathy. By overwhelming players with data on all the objectives they’ve failed to accomplish (or could not accomplish without an additional hundred hours of play), you’re risking making players feel the opposite of mastery. Players are not necessarily hardwired to filter out what data matter; some even feel guilty about not achieving a perfect completion percentage. In those cases, filling in the gaps in the data set becomes the goal, not the actual game experience itself. Like teachers who give every classroom activity a point value, you’re confusing the reward system with the reward. The reward for working hard in school is not the grade, which is an inherently meaningless thing. It’s the gains in knowledge and skill that the grade reflects. At least, that’s how it should work.
Naturally, it’s not quite that simple. Red Dead Redemption is an interesting example. Without the incentive of the various “challenges” (hunting, collecting flowers, etc.), I wouldn’t have explored the game world nearly as thoroughly as I did. I wouldn’t have bothered to watch the sun rise in golden splendor over New Austin if I wasn’t out in the hills picking flowers. My favorite parts of RDR were those moments that transcended the story, that let me experience this beautifully rendered, fictional landscape for what it was, without needing some arbitrary goal to work toward. Ironically, it was the arbitrary goal that got me there in the first place. Sort of like how I only came to realize grades weren’t important after I’d spent twelve years killing myself for straight A’s.
Just as we do with other metrics, we have to learn to read performance data in games as a reflection of value, not the other way around. As a reformed completionist, I sometimes struggle with separating data from meaning. But it’s getting easier as I force myself to think more critically about what matters to me in each game I play. While it’s interesting to know my accuracy with the Springfield rifle was 81.8% in RDR, it’s more meaningful to know I’d gotten better at shooting by the time I acquired that weapon. My accuracy was a reflection of my growing mastery, not an end in itself.
Come to think of it, though, there was at least one meaningful statistic in that game: I apparently harvested 8,641 pounds of meat. Suck on that, Oregon Trail.