The Changing Face of Winning in Video Games

As a child, how often did your parents remind you that how you play a game is more important than winning? I’m betting pretty often. And while that sentiment is true, let’s face it—we wanted to win. It’s human nature. But in the video game world, just beating the game isn’t always the goal. Instead, many gamers chase after that most elusive of prizes: The High Score.

The first video game to track a player’s high score was Sea Wolf, a shooting game manufactured by Midway Games in 1976. A player attempted to reach a pre-determined high score within an allotted time period. Gamers who reached this high score won bonus playing time. Unfortunately, Sea Wolf players could not save top scores, but this changed in 1978 with Nishikado Tomohiro’s ground-breaking game Space Invaders.

Unlike Sea Wolf, gamers played Space Invaders for as long as they could stay alive, and high scores kept rising. The game’s astounding popularity, which caused a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan, stemmed from players returning to beat the current high score. In 1979, the Exidy game Star Fire took things one step further and allowed players to enter their initials next to their score. Although unplugging the machine each night cleared this data, it provided players with extra incentive to do their best.

Typically, games today tend to focus on character progression, accruing extra weapons and armor, and unlocking new levels, as opposed to achieving high numerical scores. Online gaming through programs like Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network allow players to compete not just with friends and other patrons of a local arcade, but also with players across the world. And these scores don’t disappear whenever the console is unplugged.

Instead of straight numerical scores, in-game awards or bonus playing time, as we saw in early arcade games, a player now receives intangible awards such as Xbox Achievements and PlayStation Trophies for completing a set of pre-defined actions. Such tasks might include finishing a game under a specific time limit or on a certain difficulty level or killing a fixed number of opponents in multi-player mode. These awards are displayed on a person’s profile, so other gamers can compare scores and awards. Achievements and Trophies are then added to a player’s overall score, known as Gamerscore for the Xbox and Trophy Score for the PlayStation. Websites such as allow players to see high scores from around the world.

It’s these intangible rewards that keep gamers coming back to the same game. You may have beaten the latest Halo, but did you unlock every single Achievement? Did you complete the game on Legendary difficulty, or did you stop at Normal? Did you score 1,000,000 points in a Firefight game, or did you stop at 200,000? Whatever you’ve done, there’s always more to do, and every single accomplishment is displayed on your profile for all to see. Earning the high score for the day on your local Space Invaders is pretty awesome, but that’s nothing compared to being ranked first in the world on the Xbox Live Leaderboard. As long as developers continue to offer unique challenges in their games, players will return again and again to see how much more they can accomplish.