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An Interview with Richard Bartle about Games & Gamification
by Andrzej Marczewski on 04/29/13 04:31:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I present an interview that Richard Bartle was kind enough to do with me. You may know the name, without him games like World of Warcraft would never have existed. He also gave us the Player Type Theory. Here I ask him a few questions about his thoughts on Gamification. This was originally posted at the end of December 2012 on my blog

How would you define gamification?

Richard BartleIn the old days, gamification meant changing something that wasn’t a game into a game. For example, you might have some kind of simulation that you would “gamify” by adding gameplay to it.

The modern use is almost the complete opposite. Now, it means taking techniques from games and applying them to non-games. The result is a non-game that includes some game elements – but crucially NOT gameplay. If it did include gameplay, it would be a game; then we’d be talking “serious games” or “games for a purpose”.

We in gamification use an awful lot of games related theories and ideas doin very out of context ways – your player type theory is especially assaulted in this way. Is there a legitimate use for these as metaphors in gamificaiton or should they be left alone?

There is a legitimate use, yes, of course. If they seem to work, hey, go for it! The smart thing to do would be to try to understand WHY they work, though, because then you have a theory; from a theory, you can derive a better set of criteria for your particular purpose.

Back in prehistoric times, people used to get cold in winter. Animals didn’t get cold. The sensible thing was to use animal skins to keep warm. It worked. However, once people understood what it was about animal skins that kept them warm – the closely-packed fibres – they began to take those fibres and weave them together to make wool. Wool makes much better clothing because it’s not as stiff, plus you don’t need to kill the animals to get it.

Using player type theory for gamification is like using animal skins. Sure, it seems to work, but if you knew what about it was important for gamification, you could perhaps distil that idea and make wool instead.

All I would ask is that if someone does come up with a theory, it IS actually a theory and not merely a categorisation. It’s fine to say “we asked 100,000 people blah blah blah and ran this military-strength statistics package over the answers and can now say that there are these types of users”, but ALL it tells you is that there are these types of users. It doesn’t tell you how they interact; it may, but probably won’t, tell you why these types are important to gamification. For that, you need a theory of either user types or of gamification. When you get that, you’ll have a discipline you can DO something with.

Coming to your player type theory for a moment, not particularly on a gamification note, would you say there was a particular player type or combination of types that you would predict a cheater would have. By cheating I mean someone who is using a non standard or non deliberate bug / feature of the game, to gain advantage over others.

OK, so the thing is, each player type has its own definition of what counts as “cheating”. Some of these things are not regarded as cheating at all by players of other types, so they just do it.

Achievers, for example, follow an unwritten rule that the game is a meritocracy: better players do better at the game. They feel that if someone has status, that should be because they earned it within the context of the game. They are horrified if people can buy achievement some other way – “play to win”. To them, it’s like buying a PhD or a world record. For socialisers, however, who just want to hang out with their friends, buying improvements to their character so they can run with the big boys is perfectly fine. Why wouldn’t it be?

Likewise, achievers don’t like it when there is gated content that contains special rewards: they feel it’s a back door for rich kids to get good gear that makes them appear to be better players than they really are.

Explorers, however, have no problem with paying to access new content – they love figuring it out. They want to understand the game; if new content means more to explore, they’ll happily pay for it. Their own gripe is web sites that “give away” solutions. To an explorer, looking up a solution is cheating – yet all the other player types do it routinely without a second thought.

I did a short presentation on this subject earlier this year, if you’re interested – slides here (trust me, click the link! Ed.)

Have you seen examples of gamification that you think have been done well? What made them work for you.

I’m a game designer. I want all gamification to take that last extra step and become a game. From that point of view, no example of gamification is done well!

However, looking at it objectively, I’d have to say that the ones that impress me most are the simple ones that have been going since forever. Gold stars for children’s work, employee-of-the-month; loyalty points to some degree, although it’s now basically just bribery. There are some very clever examples of more creative gamification in action, but have a short shelf life: they impress for a short while, but you have to change them if you wish to keep using them.

Do you feel there is future for gamification as a stand alone enterprise, or will it just become one of those things that people are doing as a matter of course, a bit like social media has now become.

There is a future, yes, but it’s a bespoke one. The way I see it, it’s a bit like the early days with advertising.

You would see billboards saying “buy our beans” or “buy our wagons” or “buy our crockery”. After a while, there were so many of these around that if you wanted to get people’s attention you had to be more creative. You wrote different things on your billboards, you advertised in other media; brands emerged. Nowadays, the whole advertising industry is founded on creativity, because only by exposing people to new advertisements will advertisements be effective. It’ll be like that in gamification: people will grok leaderboards and points and badges once everyone is doing it, so the winners will be those who innovate for individual projects.

Obviously there’s a bandwagon at the moment, with people diving in who don’t know what they’re doing, and they’ll hang around only until the next bandwagon comes along. It’s a bubble and it will burst. Those who remain in the field, however, will have a greater understanding of what they can do with gamification. So long as it doesn’t have a bad name, it should be able to regroup and flourish.

I once made a plea for games designers and the games industry as a whole to get involved in gamification, I know that it would not be for everyone, but if we are getting it wrong in their eyes, it seems reasonable that they could be able to help. Do you see a role for games designers in gamification?

Yes, it seems an obvious idea. Only now are people working in serious games actually approaching game designers, after years of thinking “how hard can it be?” and finding out the answer to their cost. Gamification
needs to go through the same realisation.

I have three caveats, though:

  1. If a game designer tells you that what you plan is not going to work, don’t blame them when you tell them to do it anyway and it doesn’t work.
  2. Most game designers aren’t all that good at game design, they’re just better than you.
  3. The better the game designer, the less likely they are to like vanilla gamification. They want people to play their games because they’re fun, not because you played some cheap psychological trick on the players. They will almost certainly prefer to create a game than a gamified non-game and will probably beg you to let them do so.

In my opinion, game designers may be better employed as consultants rather than actual gamifiers. As an analogy, if you started a new field of creativity called “graphic design” and started trying to draw pictures yourself, you will suck at it. You could ask an artist to do it and get pictures that didn’t suck, but you’d need to keep a tight rein on what they did or you’d end up with a work of art not quite fit for purpose. The artist may come up with ideas you would never have had on your own, but they may need editing before you use them. What you really want is a graphic designer – an artist with an engineer’s attitude. Dropping the analogy, what you want is a gamifier – a game designer with an engineer’s attitude.

If you could give one piece of advice to anyone entering gamificaiton, what would it be?

Be cynical. Gamification is itself being gamified: if you’re cynical, you stand a better chance of seeing the gems through the hype.

Again, massive thanks to Richard Bartle.

If you want to fid out more about him, MUD or Player Type Theory, head over to

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