It's 9 p.m. and I've lost my fifth straight game of Madden NFL Arcade to the same person, each time by 30-0. My opponent has a gamerscore of more than 165,000. But it's not because she's good at football.
"I hate sports games," Kristen says with a weary laugh, reminding me for about the fifth time this Thursday night "I had to ask someone what a sack was. They said it's when you tackle the quarterback. I said, 'Which one is the quarterback?'"
Only in name are Kristen and I playing Madden NFL Arcade. Instead we are "boosting," - throwing games to each other, more or less, to rack up multiplayer achievements. I've already gotten 50 points the easy way. Now it's her turn.
It is a substantial part of how Kristen, whose last name I'm withholding out of concern for her privacy, has become, according to one leading compilation, the No. 4 ranking woman, worldwide, in Gamerscore. Her tag is CRU x360a - go ahead, look it up. Kristen - CRU or Crubie to some online - is a 24-year-old stay-at-home mum in northwest Indiana. You call her extremely motivated. You can call her obsessed. You can also call her an achievement whore, like she hasn't heard that from every piss-ant with a 5,000 gamerscore in the underground zone.
Bottom line, she's is really effective at piling up her gamerscore. But she's not sure when, or if, she will stop.
A Race to the Top
"It was a friendly race at the time," Kristen says of the beginning, three years ago, when she got serious about her Gamerscore. "It was to 20,000. My buddy was at 15,000 and I was at 13, I was 2,000 behind him. I said, 'OK, this might take years.'
Kristen had bought an Xbox 360 in early 2007 and, like most, it wasn't because it offered achievements. She was a multiplayer gamer on a few titles she enjoyed - shooters mostly. Then she joined a Gamerscore league. And then she got into this side bet.
"Once I found sites that had guides on which were the easy games, I beat (20,000) in like a month and a half," she says. "It got me hooked and it was like a drug. A bad drug. A bad habit."
Soon enough Kristen managed to fall in with some elite players in the achievement grinding world. One, named Smrnov, who is the global No. 10 on MyGamerCard, praises Kristen's team-spirited achievement hunting. "CRU was unselfish in the help she offered our team, and has always been reliable for getting the game time in, which is a very hard trait to find for spanning so many different games, versus a single one," he says.
Stallion83, the global No. 2, played with Kristen in those early days, and was most recently her boosting partner on Damnation - a terribly received game. ("We managed to have fun talking about The Leprechaun movies," he says. "Party chat has made some of these games less painful.")
"She was just a nice person," Stallion83 recalls,"like one of the dudes. Most girls cause drama and try to get attention. I didn't see that with CRU." Both he and Smrnov heap praise on Kristen's FPS skill. "A great FPS player," says Smrnov. "In addition, she's very good about figuring out the best strategy for completing a game quickly and doing all associated research. She has both gaming skills and gamerscore skills."
But that doesn't keep Kristen from going after the kids' stuff, too. Last week, Spongebob: Truth or Square put her over 165,000. It's a cute detail but it barely scratches the surface of Kristen's performance over the past three years. Nor does the four-game Gamefly subscription, in constant rotation. That's to be expected. And the shelf full of games, many of them years old and still waiting to be played, well, what would you consider impressive? A hundred and sixty?
She bought Jumper: Griffin's Story - one of the worst reviewed games ever in Xbox 360 history. The day Modern Warfare 2 was released, she spent all her time on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. American Idol? She put the microphone in front of a speaker and played songs into it to ace the performances that much faster. It didn't work for Sing It: High School Musical or Hannah Montana, so, she had to belt those out herself.
"They're easy enough songs; It's not bad, there's no one looking at me while I'm playing it," Kristen says, "but my friends (on Xbox Live) see it, and all the guys can't believe I'm playing that game."
Remember that deal a few months back, when a someone tried to round up a 1,000 players to log in to NBA Live 07 and get the 100 gamerscore achievement for 1,000 players being online at the same time? Kristen was a part of that, with two versions of the game, one she had to go out and find for $US3 at a game store, and the other playing on her Japanese 360.
Yes, she has an NTSC: J console. Kristen got that to play BioShock's Korean version, which has a separate achievement list. She's gotten 1,000 gamerscore in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. She's gotten 1,000 gamerscore in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand in Japanese. "I haven't even opened the Saint's Row 2 Japanese version, or the Saint's Row 1 for that matter," Kristen says. She's eyeballing a PAL console, but even an Arcade will be close to $US300 with shipping and, "Do I really need to play BioShock again?"
Some of the region-locked Japanese games she plays are bought by pooling money with Stallion83, Smrnov and others in the ultra-gamerscore crowd, and the group then trades the discs around by mail. One game, Clannad, was picked for its low-hanging fruit. It's a "visual novel," sometimes called a dating sim, but as the choices are all text-based the gameplay should be pretty easy, right?
"It's a text game, and you have to choose A or B, you only have these text options," Kristen said. "But I'm sitting there on Google Translate trying to translate these strategy guides and match up (Japanese) characters to make my choices. And I'm thinking 'Why the hell did I buy a Japanese Xbox and this game, this is just retarded.' It's so embarrassing trying to match characters to a language I don't even know. I've spent $US400 on a game I can't even read."
It makes me wonder. These are called games. And technically, she's playing them. But is this even fun? Is this ever fun?
"I definitely play more games I don't enjoy than games I do," she says. "Like, maybe 65 percent of the games I play I don't enjoy."
Kristen's husband doesn't even know why she sticks with it, if something like CSI: Hard Evidence is so unfulfilling for her to play.
"Sometimes I'll be playing, and he'll ask, 'Did I have to buy that or did someone else buy it?'" Kristen says. "And I'm like, 'Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie to you?' And he walks away, saying 'I can't believe you're playing that.' To me that's more embarrassing than playing Disney: Sing It."
A Mother's Work
Kristen is careful to remind me that she does have a life outside of gaming. "I'm an avid paintball player; I have my own gun, although that's also another expensive hobby," she says. "But yeah, I'd much rather go out to a bar, go bowling, play darts or pool than sit at home and boost games all night. I'm still young."
She's also the mother of a six-year-old girl. You can do the math there, it means Kristen became a mum at age 18. Before then, she was a rather typical kid, if a little tomboyish, and absolutely delighted by video games. Kristen says she's played them since she was five. When she lived with her parents, new games and new consoles were common, especially around the holidays. When she had her daughter and moved out of the home, her original Xbox and her beloved NES - which she still has even though it won't work - stayed behind. The Xbox 360 she bought a little more than three years ago marked her re-entry to games since having her daughter.
Sometimes mother and daughter play - Spongebob was one such example. But Kristen had to load up one of the five other gamertags she keeps on the console for family and friends to play. Boosting games might sound out of bounds to some gamers, but it's entirely within the ultra-gamerscore ethos. What isn't, however, is having anyone get an achievement for you. Even your six-year-old girl.
"She climbed up and said, 'Let me play,' so I said, 'Just a second,' and put her up with another (gamertag) and let her play," Kristen says. "Sometimes she'll say 'Look, mum, I got an achievement too!' She gets excited."
This isn't something Kristen wants to encourage. "I don't want her to get addicted like I am though," Kristen says. "She doesn't really see me play too much, actually."
Her husband, Jeff, doesn't game much at all himself. He owns a towing business that provides a comfortable lifestyle and accommodates both his interests and Kristen's gaming. He's rather mellow about all the time she spends with games, if not the money, and keeps both in perspective. Some guys have wives who spend a ton of money on clothes, or dislike spending as much time around the house as she does.
"I have some hobbies myself that are fairly pricey and I can't really blame her for that," Jeff says. "However, occasionally a string of new games will come out within a two day span and magically a few hundred dollars will be missing from the bank account. With as much time as she has allotted for video games and the kid I can account for her whereabouts at any given moment so I'm certain that she isn't cheating on me."
Even pressed for a ballpark estimate, Kristen doesn't know how much her obsession with Gamerscore has cost in the preceding three years. "My pro system is $US250, my Japanese console cost $US400, the hard drive I put on it was $US50 - I don't want to see the number, and I'm sure Jeff doesn't want to see it," she says. "But I think it would be cool to know."
There's another number about which she seems even less enthusiastic, though. And that's the next big milestone for her gamerscore.
Calling It a Career
Two hundred thousand. According to MyGamerCard, only one other woman has a total that high (with a second very close to reaching it.) And yet when Kristen brings it up, it's with a tone of voice that ponders what she will do then. It's almost like she doesn't want to get there, for what it will force her to consider.
The simplest answer is by far easier said than done: Just quit. "I keep saying when I get 200,000 gamerscore, I'm going to retire," Kristen says. "There are people who do that. I say it now, but I don't think you can ever actually quit. It's like a drug. It is addicting."
And she uses that word often enough that I figure I should bring up the subject. Carefully. I would never say video game addiction isn't real, knowing that real people do indeed battle it. I also believe it's a topic given to alarmism. And I'm not a psychiatrist, so it's not my place to go diagnosing other people's behaviour. But I ask Kristen anyway. Maybe, has she ever considered talking to someone about her gaming?
"I wouldn't say I need to talk to someone," Kristen says after considering the question for a long moment. "I'm not hurting someone by doing this. My family life is not being hurt. Granted, it's like an addiction, but I'm not hurting anyone. Well, I'm getting little sleep sometimes, but that's on me.
"Besides, I saw where someone had gone to be treated at a rehab centre for video games, and it was something like $US30,000 a year, and I thought, 'Do you know how many Xboxes and games I could buy with this?'" she says, without a trace of irony. "I don't think so."
When Kristen is most at ease with her gamerscore is when it describes how she's good at something. How she's figured out a way to beat the system; or how she's actually put in the time to get the "General" achievement in Call of Duty 3 - getting 40,000 points in ranked matches - to collect a rare 100+ gamerscore achievement.
"It's very much a personal pride thing, being ranked in the top five in the world in something, whether it's gaming or the fact I'm a female gamer," Kristen says. "I'm never going to be in the Olympics, so I'll be a great gamer. It's something I know I'm good at."
But I hope when she breaks 200,000 she can put the controller down. She spent the first three years of her adulthood being a mum. I suggest to Kristen that, maybe, she's spent the last three in front of a console, trying to get some of that lost time back.
Kristen ponders this, and seems to agree. "Maybe," she says.
Maybe then she can call it even.