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Title: Achievement Relocked

Author: Geoffrey Engelstein

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2020

ISBN13: 978-0-262-04353-3

Length: 152

Price: $30.00

Reviewer note: I received a promotional copy of this book.

Games, especially board games, have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past five years. In Achievement Relocked, NYU instructor and game designer Geoffrey Engelstein focuses on lessons that developers can draw from the field of behavioral psychology.

Modeling Behavior

Behavioral psychology, which is the study of how cognitive processes affect action, is a staple of contemporary business and economic thinking. The field jumped in popularity with the prospect theory work done by Kahneman and Tversky in the late 1970s, but initial insights date at least as far back as the 1950s.

One of the core tenets of prospect theory is that individuals are willing to give up some utility to prevent loss. As an example, many people (myself included) would prefer to receive $5,000 with no risk than a 50% chance at $10,000. Both expected values are the same (1 * 5,000 = .5 * 10,000), but the risk-free offer of $5,000 would make a return of zero seem like a loss of $5,000. The expected payoff of the 50% wager would need to be significantly higher than the guaranteed amount to induce a participant to take the risk.

The key insight into this loss aversion, borne out by many experiments, is that losses cause more pain than wins bring pleasure. In related results, participants consistently overvalued items they owned (the endowment effect) or accepted a loss of expected value to reduce or eliminate risk.

Applying Loss Aversion to Games

The central question of Achievement Relocked is how game creators might incorporate loss aversion into our work to add tension or, if the threat is realized, a sense of loss. Go too far in one direction and the threat isn't real; go too far in the other and players will become frustrated and stop playing. You don't want to turn your players off, but it is possible to protect their feelings too much. For example, the United States Chess Federation (USCF), uses a variation of the Elo rating system to grade player performance. In addition to some other quirks, such as reducing the rate at which high-rated players gain or lose rating points, the USCF assigns players “rating floors.”

Engelstein notes that rating floors protect player egos, but they also introduce significant distortions into the system. If a player beats a competitor whose true rating should be below their rating floor, the winner gains more points than they should. This policy results in rating inflation, a problem that gets worse as time goes on.


Achievement Relocked is part of the Playful Thinking Series from MIT Press, which includes many outstanding books. It would have been easy to crank out a quick 150 pages on the basics of prospect theory and reminisce about how games such as Wizardryand Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition caused intense player pain by allowing wights and other monsters to drain experience levels with every successful attack. Instead, Engelstein draws on his experience as a game designer, player, and instructor to explain why loss aversion is a valid tool in games, describe how it has been used with varying results in the past, and provide a path forward for designers who want to incorporate the threat of loss into their own work.

I recommend Achievement Unlocked for anyone designing board or video games, but also to anyone who wants to tell a compelling story. Engelstein’s thoughtful approach to incorporating loss aversion into gaming narratives translates easily to stories told in any format.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for He received his undergraduate degree in political science from Syracuse University and his MBA from the University of Illinois. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.


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