Player Types, Styles, and Contexts

August 3rd, 2009

Over at Above 49, one of my favorite gaming blogs, game developer Nels Anderson discusses how social and environmental context are sometimes a better predictor of human behavior than underlying personality variables. This, of course, has pretty relevant implications for how we discuss game design and how we study game play. Before I start mangling this post to serve my own ends, I suggest reading it in full, as it’s pretty insightful.

It’s very tempting to categorize players into “types.” Probably the most heavily researched typology is the one described by the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, which breaks players down into Achievers, Explorers, Killers, and Socializers. Some have contended that a well-designed game is one that offers content to satisfy each of the different Bartle types. This presumes, however, that play styles represent a diversity of characteristics among the players themselves, which kind of minimizes the influence that the game itself plays in guiding or supporting certain behaviors. If I may just quote Nels directly:

Rather than designing toward supporting each Bartle type, it might be the case that we need to provide the context and reward for a specific type of behaviour and then find ways to attract different types of players. Some of the most beloved games (e.g. Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Mario) aren’t successful because they support a great diversity of behaviours, but rather because their context and the behaviours they encourage are harmonious.

As one who doesn’t design games, but studies them (and their players), this taps into an issue that’s been on my mind quite a bit in the last several months. More generally speaking, what do we gain by distinguishing between types of players instead of play styles? It may be useful to consider that different players bring different biases, interests, and levels of experience to each game, but it’s also important to recognize that the same person might play in different ways for different games. This was precisely what I found, in fact, in my ethnographic study of arcades (soon to be online; I’ll keep you posted), where some players explained that they play arcade games for different reasons and in different ways from how they play games at home.

Such complexities are hinted at, I think, in another kind of player typology, Mitch Krpata’s “New Taxonomy of Gamers.” Some of Mitch’s distinctions resemble Bartle’s, like in the duality between “Skill Players” (who play as Perfectionists or Completists, like Bartle’s Achievers) versus “Tourists” (who want to see and explore, like Bartle’s Explorers). As a proposed alternative to the “hardcore” versus “casual” distinction commonly used among critics, however, it also more explicitly recognizes market forces, such as in the distinction between “Wholesale Players” (who want games to be long to justify monetary investment) versus “Premium Players” (who want games to be short but excellent to fit into a busy schedule). Different games are designed in ways that satisfy different kinds of players.

As Mitch acknowledges, however, players can exhibit behaviors associated with other player types, such as when he notes that some games “have so much to offer my Tourist nature that I play them as a Perfectionist without even realizing it.” For this reason, I’m sometimes tempted to refer to Mitch’s “Taxonomy of Gamers” as more of a “Typology of Gaming Styles.” I find myself unsatisfied, however, with both this system and the Bartle types in their ability to describe what gets lumped under “Tourists” and “Explorers,” a type of play that likely has as much variance and nuance as the different reasons we play games for skill. Moreover, understanding such concepts as a “taxonomy” implies (even if unintentionally) mutual exclusivity between categories, when the best games may be those that don’t just support multiple styles of play, but actively blend them into working together.

It’s for this reason that I’ve long tried to describe gaming styles as a number of potentially overlapping styles or “appeals” rather than as something inherently tied to personality. Personally, I tend to play more like a Tourist than a Perfectionist or Completist, but some games encourage completist or perfectionist impulses so effectively—often by tying them into my Tourist-oriented goals—that I’m happy to play that way. In Fallout 3, I was sometimes willing to hunt down every bonus item in part for its own sake, and in part because this was also a means to explore the world and see new content. In Mass Effect, I was determined to get every Xbox Achievement in part because I wanted to play the game into the ground as a Completist would, and in part because I liked seeing the story from different angles, seeing the characters in different ways.

I think Nels’s idea—focusing on what a game encourages us to do based on social and environmental context—offers a really useful way of considering how to design overlapping appeals into games. I’d like to revisit this over (at least) a couple more posts in the near future, giving some specific examples of how this has informed the way I’ve approached (and pined for changes in) some games myself. In the meantime, I encourage you to read up on the Above 49 archive, as it is features some additional insightful musings.

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