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Bartle’s Killers . A misunderstood group of people.
by Andrzej Marczewski on 06/25/13 09:52:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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.


Last week I had the opportunity to present at the fabulous Gamification World Congress 2013. Among other things, it was the first and probably only times I would see my face on a 10 foot screen on the front of a building!

Another highlight in a day of highlights, was getting the opportunity to spend a few hours with Richard Bartle.  Many of you will have seen me mention him before, the creator of the Bartle Player Types. These types are often spoken about by people involved in gamification and are one of the main inspirations for my User Types.  Originally written to model the behaviour of players in his MUD virtual world (the grandfather of all MMO’s like World of Warcraft), the Bartle Player Types have also been adopted by many in gamification.

In some ways, this seems to perplex Richard, as his Player Types are very specific to MMO’s and in his mind don’t lend themselves that well to other types  of game – let alone gamification.

The big issue is that most people who are talking about his Player Types and how they apply to a gamified system, don’t seem to have actually read the original definitions of the types and what they actually are.  It seems that most of seen the now-iconic diagram and have made up their own definitions. They don’t, for instance, take into account that they are a full model of how players behave and evolve during their stay in a virtual world – i.e. their type changes over time. When these types don’t work for other non MMO systems, people often feel that this is a weakness of the original model – again, proving a lack of understanding as to what the model is meant to define!

Richard Bartle's Player Types

Richard Bartle’s Player Types

For three of the types, this is not a massive problem. ExplorersAchievers and Socialisers are fairly self explanatory. However, there is one type that seems to be very misunderstood – Killers.

I have heard many definitions of the killer type, from players who are determined to be the best, to players searching for respect at the end of a gun, to players driven by survival.

Here is the original description, taken from

“Killers get their kicks from imposing themselves on others”

This continues with

“The more massive the distress caused, the greater the killer’s joy at having caused it”

Richard explained to me that this type of player will do anything to cause the destruction of others. They may collect points (like an achiever), they may explorer (like an explorer) and they may even socialise – but these will just be as a way to gain better weapons, find new ways to kill and to gain knowledge about others on how to kill them the most devastating way.

People have asked me why I don’t include the killer type in my four main User Types. There are a number of reasons for this.  One reason is that I do sort of include them in my four extrinsically motivated user types, Self SeekersConsumersNetworkers and Exploiters. These types are only interested in what they can gain from the system or other users. Similar to the Killer type, they will socialise, collect point, help others, create things etc – but only to get things they want.

However, the main reason is due to the nature of gamification and especially Enterprise Gamification.  Imagine, if you will, a large company with a gamified system. The system has its rules and it has its users and they include a few killer types.  What exactly will they do? You don’t have a real game world. They have nothing to kill. However, they can disrupt the system and cause distress by abusing it – the kind of thing that my Exploiter type may do. They may also exploit other users, in the way my Self Seeker might.  If your system allows this to happen or at least allows it to happen to the extent that others are seriously affected by it, you may need to rethink it!. Another thing to consider is whether  these kinds of extreme behaviours should be covered by your systems rules or the  rules or policies of the company.  Often these would have information about abuse of other employees and the companies systems (like email or social media).

If I have a point it is this. If you are going to quote another person’s work, or try to re-purpose it, you have to understand it first. My User Types are initially based on inspiration from Bartle’s Work, but actually come from the four motivators I talk about in RAMP, relatedness, autonomy, master and purpose. It was Richard himself that showed me how I could make it look and feel similar to his work.

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Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately understanding everything as a whole at this time is the really big problem we've been dealing with for millennia, and have yet to solve - (I'm working on it).

Gamification in relation to games as an activity only makes sense for these elements in isolation.

Unfortunately NOTHING any of this deals with exists in isolation at all, and therefore failing to understand the 'big picture' of how and why everything fits together is the root of the problems we have.

The fact is, is that gamification is not directly based upon the activity we call a game AT ALL - it's based on something more fundamental, that isn't fully recognised, because of how we use the language to describe, erroneously using the word game itself:

Gamification describes the application of the elements described and covered by game THEORY.

And game theory isn't truly about games at all, but the mathematical modelling, study and description of COMPETITION and COMPETITIVE behaviour - which is why it has relevance for everything from biology to psychology and other social sciences, since life, itself, is competitive, and involves competition that can be modelled and studied using mathematics.

Trying to limit the application of game theory (gamification) to JUST games and their elements, is an extremely big problem, therefore, that we really do not want to make, and shouldn't be making in the first place - because game theory and games are not the same thing.

If you want to truly understand gamification, you need to look at it as a matter competition and competitive behaviour - especially the use of competition to enable and/or promote other forms and types of behaviour. Yes this covers games, since they are a naturally competitive activity, but it's FAR more fundamental and broader in scope than just being about games, which is a problem - which is why it should be called 'competition theory', and 'competification' instead.

Which is why understanding EVERYTHING involving 'gamification' in its true context is currently a problem, and not just limited elements like this.

Note: Calling the use of 'game elements' to enable other behaviour as 'gamification' is like calling the use of a hammer 'woodification' if we use it for metal working instead of carpentry: the tools and elements that exist and function independently of any activity an application - (which is why we're able to consider them differently in the first place) - must also be described, used and recognised independently aswell, as is consistent with the rules of the language.

Of course, if we struggle to understand the difference between metal working and carpentry, and perceive them as and by the tools being used, rather than the thing that happens/behaviour/activity they are being used for/to enable, even though the difference is ingrained in the functionality of the language, it should be no surprise we're having problems.

Which is also why the fundamental problem everything is being caused and affected by, is our very perception, recognition and understanding of (the English) language itself.

Andrzej Marczewski
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Personally never speak about game theory - as you say that is mathematical modelling, nothing I am good at. But I also accept, based on the fact that every article I write you speak about a misunderstanding of competition, that you want people to understand that aspect first.

Darren Tomlyn
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Of course - competition is one of the primary elements (in addition to rules/structure) that is part of the application of the behaviour/things that happen the word game represents.

It's like trying to define carpentry without having any relationship between the wood itself and the tools that are used - it helps bind the different elements together to form the whole concept that we use the language to represent.

The problem with 'gamification' is merely a symptom of the problem with our current understanding and recognition of competition, especially in relation to games themselves.

Although I've not done a very good job of providing everything that matters, and the whole 'big picture' - my current blog entry for competition does cover this: