Updated: Aug 10, 2018
As you can imagine from an industry worth over 100 billion dollars, there’s a lot of effort spent analyzing the consumer base. Understanding gamers is an absolute boon for developers, as it provides insights on how to monetize and increase the longevity of the game. But, exploring the way gamers think and play games can help the larger community as well. “How so?”, I hear you asking. Well, dear reader, if you’ll join me on a quick jaunt through gaming history, it’ll all become clear.
Back in caveman times (just kidding, it was the early 80s), the first MUDs were developed. These games were text-based RPGs that took many queues from tabletop RPGs, such as Dungeons and Dragons. The unique thing about these games, as opposed to previous text-based adventure games like Zork, was the ability to play alongside others (something that we take for granted in modern gaming). Hence the name MUD (Multi-User Dungeon).
While university students whiled away their hours in these virtual worlds, players and developers began to ask why people played these games. Richard Bartle (the co-creator of MUD1, the original MUD) was apparently so intrigued by this question that he wrote an entire paper on it. The ideas and taxonomy that Bartle presents (known as Bartle’s Taxonomy, because us gamers are a witty bunch) form some of the most foundational pillars of game design.
I’ll spare you the details (though if you’re interested the full paper is available ONLINE), but essentially Bartle asserted that there are four player types. These different types of players all want something different from their game, and they interact with other players and the world in different ways.
These types are:
· Achievers – These players want to master the game. They want the high score, to get all the trophies, and to be the best. They’re the ones doing speed runs, grinding for 100% completion, or hunting for hours and hours until they find all 247 gnome statuettes that the developers dropped into their world for no reason. These gamers thrive on challenges and are always eager rise to a new one.
· Explorers – These players are less concerned with beating the game, and more with experiencing it. They want to delve into every dungeon, discover each character’s secret backstory, and find all the weird glitches or Easter eggs littered about. They want to find the gnomes, too, but more for the sake of rooting through the game world and less for the thrill of succeeding at the challenge.
· Socializers – These players want to play with the other players. They’re interested in the game for the sake of playing with friends. They want to role-play and have others be enraptured with their performance, and they want to be part of a team with whom they can build a rapport. They don’t care much about the gnomes, but they’ll definitely join you on your search if you’re willing to listen to what Becky from accounting had the audacity to say today.
· Killers – These players want to beat other players. It’s not enough for them to meet others in single combat, they want to dominate them. They get their kicks from interrupting someone else’s play. They want to be the obstacle that other players have to (or more likely can’t) go through. These players are also not interested in the gnomes, but the they’ll figure out where they are in order to ambush someone else looking for them.
These players types are not concrete. People will fit into multiple categories and may even go to different games for different reasons. I, for instance, typically fall into the Explorer category, though I play Halo 5 : Gaurdians for a competitive experience, and usually only load up Grand Theft Auto Online if I’m interested in ruining someone else’s nice time. Additionally, this theory was created specifically with MUDS (and MMOs, which are the spiritual successors of those games), and doesn’t necessarily apply to everything. For example, you’d be hard pressed to apply this theory to Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds (PUBG), because it’s there’s nothing to explore, and very few social features. It’s all about being the best, and stopping others from winning, so even though there are parts of the theory that work, there are better theoretical tools to use in its development.
I hear you sighing over there, my friend. Don’t worry, I’m meandering to my point. How can we use this taxonomy as gamers (and one long-winded game reviewer)? I’ll tell you: We can use this theory as a critical lens to view our games through. By applying the smallest amount of analysis, we can use these ideas to view games as a medium with deeper nuance than one might think.
Using myself as an example again, I should love Destiny. It’s got everything I look for in game; space-magic, sarcastic jokes, giant monsters, and Nathan Fillion. It was created by Bungie, the same company that made Halo, and was published by Activision (a company who, in spite of many opinions to the contrary, consistently pushes bestselling games). I should love it, but I don’t. And why is that? It’s because Destiny, despite its space opera façade, doesn’t do much for the Explorer in me. The thing about new experiences is that you can only have them once, and Destiny’s core progression system relies on replaying levels over and over on harder and harder difficulties. After a while, I just can’t get any more joy out of the game (until they release new content which ultimately ends up costing as much as the base game, but that’s a discussion for another time). Basically, this theory helps us figure out why we love the games we do, and explains why some games that should push our pleasure buttons like a pigeon in a Skinner box, just don’t.
Thinking on this, we can learn to explore games that may not showcase our usual aesthetic but encourage our play style more than something of our usual fare. There are plenty of games to each that may at first glance seem dissimilar but are actually more alike than their cover art may suggest. One could be forgiven for thinking that Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light have nothing in common, but they both feature a rogue-like challenge with permanent death and procedurally generated gameplay. Achievers would (and do) actively salivate over these sorts of challenges, despite the difference in presentation.
Finally, keeping Bartle in mind can help us appreciate the games that may not work for us. If I may be so bold as to use myself as an example one final time, I play a lot of first-person shooters, but these types of games are generally not made with a player like me in mind. And while I may detest the lack-luster campaign in some of these games (looking at you Call of Duty), it’s actually the multiplayer that really delivers to their core audience. These modes aren’t to be disregarded, especially in games that focus on them as the primary source of entertainment. Multiplayer boils down the game into its core gameplay experience, and a developer who understands and can implement this gameplay into an engaging experience is truly a master at his craft. Therefore, a game that delivers in that area can still be amazing, even if it’s not “my thing”.
There you have it. Bartle’s Taxonomy, while being a great tool for designers, can also help us as consumers. By having a better understanding of what makes us tick, we can create a much more enjoyable and fulfilling gaming experience for ourselves. It also helps us grow our appreciation for games as media and as an art form, as we realize that there are populations of gamers who want something fundamentally different from their games than we do.
Cover image created by Ben Malachowski