Achievement Unlocked: How We Ended Up With Gaming Achievements and Trophies

July 14, 2020

No modern game would be complete without achievements or trophies. They challenge players to go the extra mile and get more out of every single game.

However, achievements have not always been a part of gaming culture. And the earliest examples of achievements would be downright unrecognizable to the modern gamer.

How did gaming “unlock” achievements in the first place? Here is the history of how we ended up with gaming achievements and trophies.

Getting the High Score

For gamers of a certain age, their first experience with gaming came from arcade and pinball machines. These games offered thrilling gameplay and graphics, all for one quarter at a time.

The only real downside with these early gaming experiences was that they were very ephemeral. Players couldn’t really leave their mark on the games they played. All they could do was pump another quarter in and chase that digital dragon once more.

That all changed with 1978’s Space Invaders. This was the first game to feature a high-score system. Players who did well could sign their names to the high score board, effectively challenging others to beat their record.

While Space Invaders dazzled at the arcade, the Atari 2600 brought video games into the home in a big way. And this system would begin the transformation of high scores into genuine achievements.

Challenges and Contests

There were natural limits to the high score system. Players’ achievements could be lost when enough other players got a higher score. Or when the arcade machine was unplugged (something that happened most nights).

For many of their Atari 2600 games, Activision decided to do something a bit different. They included challenges in their game manuals, asking players to achieve certain scores. Those players could then take a picture of their score and send the photo to Activision.

Once Activision verified that the player met the challenge, the publisher sent the player a special iron-on patch. That’s right: Activision turned high scores into video game Boy Scout badges. And if that’s not cute enough, the patches came with letters from game characters congratulating players on their victory.

It’s an adorable idea, and these patches have now become very colorful collector’s items. It didn’t take long, though, for gaming achievements to go fully digital.

Secret Bonuses

Nowadays, most game achievements and trophies are public knowledge. They give players something to strive for and enhance the bragging rights of anyone who meets the challenge.

Once upon a time, though, many games included achievements as a kind of hidden Easter egg. And this all started with the 1990 Amiga game E-Motion.

That game included five secret bonuses for players to discover. Some of these bonuses were very strange, including failing selected levels in the worst possible way.

Sure, they were largely hidden and entirely contained within a single game. But E-Motion ushered in the first digital achievement system beyond simple high scores.

Not-So-Secret Bonuses

Over the years, more games would include these kinds of single-game achievements. Unlike E-Motion, these achievements were public knowledge and helped challenge players’ skills.


One memorable example of this system occurs in the Playstation 2 Spider-Man 2 video game. This game came out in 2004, only a year before we Microsoft introduced achievements as we know it. That makes it a great example of what single-game achievements looked like before the dawn of platform achievements.

In Spider-Man 2, you can earn achievements like Alien Buster for beating Mysterio or Master Explorer for finding all the exploration tokens. All in all, this game’s achievements struck a nice balance between rewarding players for campaign victories and encouraging them to play long after the campaign is over.

Console Achievements and Trophies

In 2005, Microsoft introduced the Achievement system. What set this apart from previous efforts is that this was a platform (also known as multi-game) achievement system.

Players’ achievements were now tied to their Xbox Live username. And that meant other players could check out your gaming achievements regardless of whether they played the same game. Furthermore, your account would keep track of all your achievements in one place.

As a nice bit of irony, the achievements each had their own point value. The system came full circle: high scores led to achievements, and now the achievements had become one big high score challenge.

In 2008, Sony introduced their Trophy system on the Playstation 3. Between Microsoft and Sony, platform achievements became a modern staple of console gaming.

Valve Steps In

You know PC players: they weren’t going to let console players have all the fun. And starting in 2007, Valve introduced a platform achievement system on Steam.

Then and now, Steam is the most popular way to purchase PC games. By adding achievements to Steam, Valve effectively made sure that a platform achievement system became part of mainstream PC gaming.

Some PC games still feature their own single-game achievement systems, though. The best example of this is World of Warcraft, which first came out back in 2004. Achievements are quite popular in MMORPGs like WoW because longterm players often needed extra challenges to keep them coming back.

Nowadays, you may find achievements in some pretty unexpected places, including Kongregate and Amazon Kindle. But the real future of gaming achievements is outside of gaming altogether.

The “Gamification” Revolution

Let’s be honest: work and school usually aren’t very fun. We know it, you know it, and your bosses and teachers know it. That’s why gamification has become so popular.

“Gamification” is a broad term for adding game-like elements into non-game settings. For example, an office of sales professionals might add a big board featuring this week’s top salespeople. By adding their own “high score” element, such offices hope to bring in the excitement and competition that video games have.

In classrooms, services like Kahoot help transform standard lectures into trivia competitions that people play with their phones. This gamification turns otherwise boring “sit and get” lectures into a public competition among learners.

What, though, does this have to do with achievements? Companies and colleges alike are now exploring the world of digital badges. These badges (also known as microcredentials) give workers and students special achievements they can add to digital applications.

While these programs are relatively new, it shows just how influential video games can be. Pretty soon, you may land your dream job because you unlocked the right academic and vocational achievements!

Did you always get the high score at the arcade? What’s the most difficult gaming achievement you’ve ever unlocked? Tell us in the comments below!

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