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Five Ways Games Appeal to Players

April 19, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

I once happened upon my brothers attempting to fly an SUV off a cliff. This was years ago, when Grand Theft Auto III was still new, but it was already easy enough to search online for the cheat code to make cars fly. After about an hour of trying to glide across a river and into a football stadium, they finally cleared the edge of the wall, landed the car inside, and broke into proud laughter upon discovering the Easter egg inside: an image of fans spelling out the name of Liberty City's football team: "COCKS".

I often think back on this when I read various theories on why we find games "fun." Some of the most popular theories of engagement come down to offering an optimal level of challenge, establishing a pleasant "flow" state. Surely there was something like that going on here, but there was also so much more, from the thrill of intentionally messing with the laws of physics to the naughty humor in the final payoff.

Theories that account for a range of different types of players, meanwhile, have been useful in considering that games affect us on more levels than simply how challenging they are.

In the process of trying to simplify and codify how people think, however, these theories have trouble accounting for how a game can affect a person in different ways and in different contexts, or how to address appeals of games that don't fit quite as neatly into a carefully-structured model.

In this article, then, I offer five general categories of appeal (hence, "appeals") describing a host of different -- but not necessarily mutually exclusive -- ways that we engage with games.

This framework of appeals has been developed through research conducted between 2008 and 2011, including discourse analysis of online sources (e.g., collecting examples from public forum discussions and blog comments; see "'You are dead. Continue?'") and participant-observation ethnographic research (e.g., playing games with people in arcades; see "Arcadian Rhythms").

The appeals I'll offer aren't necessarily all "good" appeals -- this framework includes ways that games engage players that some designers have criticized as little more than manipulation -- but they may offer some broad ways to describe what makes games tick, and how to blend different kinds of appeals to encourage or even discourage different kinds of engagement.

Types of Players vs. Types of Appeals

I describe this theory quite purposely in terms of the characteristics of games and play instead of the characteristics of players themselves. Models of player personality and demographics are very attractive in their elegant simplicity, whether you're talking about the common-knowledge distinction between "casual" and "hardcore" or more scientific approaches drawing on social psychology. (See Bart Stewart's relatively recent Gamasutra feature for one such robust approach.)

Nevertheless, it may be more productive to describe engagement with games according to a variety of approaches to play itself, for at least three major reasons.

First, theories of "player types" often don't easily match up with empirical and anecdotal evidence of how people actually play games. We can display different "personalities" between different games, or even within a single game that offers a variety of different mechanics.

Take, for instance, the anecdote that began this article, in which my brothers continually flew a car off a cliff. What type of players are my brothers in this example -- say, in terms of Bartle's types?

Are they explorers, fiddling with the game systems and investigating its world? A large part of the reason they were attempting to get into that stadium was indeed that they wanted to know whether the game logic would allow them, and they wanted to discover whatever might be inside.

Are they achievers, looking to beat a rules-based challenge? It was a challenge of their own making, but they still had a distinct end condition, and even a sort of in-game reward in the Easter egg.

Are they socializers, playing side by side, telling a story together through their play? Certainly, playing cooperatively and sharing a laugh had something to do with the appeal.

Are they killers, going out of their way to subvert the rules of the game? They couldn't have played this way at all if it weren't for the fact that they entered a cheat code.

Does it change our answer if we find out that they also played the game separately from one another on other occasions, each following the rules and paying attention to the plot? Or does it change our answer if we find out that they approach other games completely differently -- say, eschewing any "cheating" or exploration in competitive sports games?

To be fair, Bartle originally suggested this typology not to describe all game players, but to describe MUD players. He even makes the point that three kinds of players aren't treating the MUD as a "game" at all, but as "pastime," "sport," and "entertainment," and acknowledges that "most players leaned at least a little to all four [types], but tended to have some particular overall preference."

The fact that game critics and designers have applied this typology more broadly may reflect an admirably progressive willingness to broaden our understanding of what a "game" can be, but it also extends this particular model well beyond the claims of the original 30-person study that brought it about.

My goal with this thought exercise, then, is to illustrate the problem with focusing on a small group of players or a single genre. Players exhibit different preferences and behaviors with different games or in different social contexts, which makes it problematic to claim that anything so fixed as personality or an inherent "type" is at the root of enjoyment. My brothers played the way they did not just because of who they were, but because of the context of the situation: Each was sharing the game with another player he knew very well, and they were playing a game whose design allowed them to play it in multiple ways.

This brings me to the second major issue with describing how we engage with games based on types of players instead of types of behaviors. By suggesting that we design games around categories of players, we run the risk of reifying our own top-down notions of what the player base is like.

This risk could be as innocuous as simply missing out on audiences that we didn't know existed -- a segment of players that requires more nuance to understand than "hardcore" or "casual," perhaps, or that can't be defined as any of killers, achievers, explorers, or socializers. More problematic, however, designing games with player typologies in mind opens the doorway to reinforce stereotypes of which games different people "should" be playing, and which play styles are more valid than others.

In his original article, Bartle didn't have much good to say about the "killers"; they were basically the Slytherin of player types, a category for those who don't play well with others. Bart Stewart's Unified Model goes some way toward legitimizing their activities as a valid play style that most games simply aren't designed to accommodate, but the fact remains that the original typology was constructed in such a way that essentially demonizes a segment of players. In the meantime, releases like Gears of War have demonstrated that there's a market for games that explicitly encourage "killer" play styles, such as by offering brutal and demoralizing ways to dispatch with opponents.

Even more problematic than missing out on audiences, however, is to unintentionally exclude audiences by assuming that certain games are only for certain "types" of players. This risk is probably less in overt categorizations than in implicit or easily inferred connections, like the common assumption that women are more likely to be "casual" gamers, and less interested in games like fast-paced, first person shooters.

To be fair, some studies have indeed observed different preferences between different demographics, and some have even attempted to explain such differences -- say, in terms of innate, cognitive differences between men and women (e.g., see John Sherry's "Flow and Media Enjoyment" [pdf link]). Again, however, it's important to consider the huge role that context can play in terms of what people will feel comfortable engaging in -- or, to put it another way, what they'll even bother to try.

Consider a study by Diane Carr, for instance, which found that when girls were given the chance to regularly play whatever games they wanted in a comfortable, non-judgmental atmosphere, expectations from both stereotypes and other empirical evidence practically disappeared. Yes, men might have a slight neuropsychological edge at navigating a 3D maze in a first person shooter, but that's probably not what's keeping more women from playing. The fact that a game is popularly considered more "meant for" some audiences than others is worth considering as a factor in who chooses to play, rather than who would be capable of enjoying it.

From the standpoint of simply designing more engaging games, however, the greatest reason I see for thinking in terms of "game appeals" is that it's a lot easier to contemplate how to blend different appeals than different personalities. Through design, we can make room for a number of different ways to enjoy a game, or we can purposefully pare down the number of appeals a game offers so that they don't conflict with one another in unintentional ways. Before I offer some more specific examples of how to think about this, however, I'd like to suggest what I see as some useful categories to think about appeals.

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Bart Stewart
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As one of the co-conspirators in the Player Typologies Gang, I hope it's OK if I comment. :)

I see this "Appeals" model as a good addition to the conversation about how to satisfy gamers. Rather than being a replacement for a motivation-based typology of gamer styles, this looks like a useful complementary view -- another lens for understanding play and thus for giving gamers what they want.

The main distinction between the Appeals model and the Types model seems to be that where a typology tries to identify a set of basic playstyle preferences, and assumes that individual gamers will usually behave to satisfy a particular one of those preferences, the Appeals model is based on the idea that any gamer can and does express any of a number of basic play preferences.

In other words, a Player Types model says that individual gamers tend to enjoy games that satisfy one particular motivation among several, while the Appeals model identifies a set of primary play motivations but assumes that player interests are not fixed.

Is that a fair summary? If not, what would be a better summary?

If it is pretty close, any thoughts on the implications for game design? How should the Appeals model be applied?

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Simply put, its to say that this is a taxonomy that finally helps us recognize (and analyze) in a cleverly easy way that players are in fact, not one-dimensional. Our audience are human beings, after all.

Bart Stewart
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Humans can't have preferences?

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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No, that humans can and mostly have, more than one preference. What's more, their preferences can change over their lifetimes.

A person may be artistic and competitive at the same time. People can contradict themselves unintentionally. I know programmers who are also musicians. etc. etc.

Jason Tocci
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Co-conspirators! I'm jealous. If researchers actually organized into shadowy cabals, I might've actually stayed in academia longer. :)

But yeah, I think you offer a pretty fair summary of this appeals approach vs. a player typologies approach. I have my concerns about describing players as belonging to "types" of any sort (as outlined in the article itself), but the two models are really similar in describing a multifaceted set of ways that people play games. I am hoping to encourage flexibility and expandability in the hopes that it leads to game design concepts that might not have occurred to us otherwise.

In terms of how to apply it, the best I can offer is what I imagine rather than what I've seen work (as I'm only taking my first small steps into game design myself lately). I don't imagine most designers would use this (or probably any theoretical model) as a starting point; I imagine they start with a neat idea for a game. Notable exceptions include game jam pieces around a theme, or a particularly theory-minded designer like Jenova Chen. For most designers, though, I see these sorts of theoretical concerns as something you'd consider part way through the process, after you've gotten a handle on some core mechanics and you have an intuitive sense of what you want it to feel like. When it's time to start asking yourself which features to include and which to cut, I think this model would be helpful in prioritizing that list in terms of your main goals and potential conflicts. For instance, does your iOS game need a chat function to encourage a socialization appeal, or is it sufficient that it allows matchmaking between friends? Will allowing in-game chat encourage players to cheat in a way that will diminish a sense of accomplishment in the community as a whole – and if so, which of those appeals is more valuable to preserve?

Maybe that's a pretty touchy-feely way of describing it, but I do come from a qualitative research background. Hope that helps clarify, at least.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Exactly, I can easily see using this system to ask myself: "which of these should I be looking into to help me decide what to put in my game, such that what I add will reinforce the prevailing theme I've set for the game?"

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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You can also add "Fame" in the Socialization part. Lots of competitive players love bragging rights.

It complements Accomplishment appeals well.

For example, making it easy for players to share replays of their play to other people with, say, a thumbs up and thumbs down voting system, appeals to players by allowing them to be recognized by their peers as great perfectionists, artists, or even "famed hunter of laughable bugs".

Hopefully not transgressors or dominators, because I would not want to encourage a community that popularizes jerks, hence the need for a thumbs down option. On the other hand, admittedly, I would laugh at a video of a skilled troll plying their trade, up to a point.

Jason Tocci
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I'd say that definitely fits under accomplishment ("extrinsic and intrinsic rewards"). And I could actually imagine communities that are constructed to "popularize jerks," and I know there are players who would flock to it. I would really hate to be that company's community manager, though.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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It is Socialization also though, in that it encourages interpersonal activity.

For example, making it easy, or at least, encouraging your fanbase, to add commentary on replays is a way of generosity (the commentary teaches beginners about the nuances of high-level play) and is also a form of spectatorship, which in effect, fosters conversation: watching a game inevitably makes you internalize and form opinions about it, which you eventually share to other people in conversation.

Also, if a person's video truly has something worth watching, but had been ignored with 0 views for some reason, it would not be as satisfying for him as compared to finding that his video has 1,000+ replies or something. A person who craves fame needs that social recognition to feel happy.

Nicholas Muise
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I think it would be interesting to implement the "Appeals" model directly into a brainstorming session. Label each of the Appeals, then come up with as many different features, mechanics, story hooks etc, placing them as best as you can in each of their proper Appeals. Once you are happy (or mentally exhausted) with the list, see if you can begin matching them up in different ways. I am sure you could come up with some interesting ideas and concepts. You could even match them up at random then discuss the results, seeing how you could possibly make the combinations work together.

You could even take Bart's Personality and Play Styles model, picking a specific personality/play style then attempt to cherry pick items from your Appeals lists to match/support that personality and play style.

Thanks for this Jason, I enjoyed it.

Jason Tocci
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Thank you! And if you ever do run such a brainstorming session, please do feel free to email me and let me know how it goes.

Marc Audouy
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All these simplified models are interesting but it seem to me they always lack something. There was recently a super interesting presentation by Jason VandenBerghe at GDC on applying the most current model of developmental psychology to games ( or
ns-of-play-with-jason-vandenberghe/ for a summary). The model is actually composed of 30 facets so it gets a bit more complicated, but that's the first time something actually looks close to exhaustive.

Jason Tocci
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Thanks for the tip on the GDC presentation, Marc. That said, I am trying to do something substantively different from what Jason VandenBerghe is proposing: I'm recommending a system that is expandable rather than exhaustive, and is more about how games get played than about individual psychological dispositions. I'll let the article speak for itself on why I think that latter point is especially important, though.

Matt Waldron
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First and foremost I would like to to compliment you on superbly-written feature; from content to style this was a truly enjoyable read. I think you did an excellent job defining the Appeals, which I found to be comprehensive and appropriately differentiated—you clearly put a lot of thought into coming up with this framework and it shows. This type of topic can very easily deteriorate into a directionless mind-dump that is more for the author’s benefit than for the readers’ and presents little value, if any, for readers to take away for tangible application; I think you did an excellent job avoiding that common trapping.

If I had one critique of this article it would be that it is somewhat lacking in the way of a conclusion; but in fairness this fact was disclosed quite openly in the feature, which appealed to the reader to take that next step in figuring out what to do with the Appeals beyond simply knowing of their existence. The ‘conclusion’ presented in the feature is really more of a summary with a few fairly obvious and generic tidbits tossed in than a true conclusion derived from a defined thesis, so I’d like to offer here my view in terms of how one would find tangible expression and use for these Appeals in designing a game.

First off, I think you rightly have acknowledged that the Appeals are not necessarily a good ‘starting place’ when designing a game; indeed, it is better to start with an idea for a game one feels strongly about first, and then to consider how that idea can best be augmented by the Appeals. When I imagine coming up with a game idea based on the Appeals I keep ending up at the equivalent of coming up with a game idea that will make money, which I think is a bad place to start out. I much prefer a game to begin as an artistic vision, and once the framework of that artistic vision has been established the designer can begin to consider certain tweaks that will perhaps make the game appeal to a wider audience (or make it more enjoyable for its natural audience). I believe the mantra here should be that augmentations should be made to a game in consideration of the Appeals in the interest of broadening the game’s audience or adding value for those to whom the game already appeals by satiating other interests across the Appeals; but never should changes be made in consideration of the Appeals that undermine the core artistic vision and natural Appeal-set that manifests from that vision.

Perhaps an example clarifying the aforementioned mantra is in order—let us consider the game Tetris (I’ll reference the original NES version here for convenience) in this context. Tetris is a puzzle game that stems from the very basic ‘game’ structure that goes well beyond the ambit of video games: you have a set of rules and a defined goal, beyond that it is up to you to figure out the best strategy. Once the concept of the game is forged, a consideration of the Appeals becomes warranted. Tetris is probably 90% Accomplishment and 10% Recreation (some will play without really improving just to relax and achieve an altered emotional state). Imagination is not applicable, Socialization is quite far-fetched, and Subversion definitionally undermines the purpose of the game.

Once the core framework of the game is in place, certain decisions can be made in consideration of the Appeals to either make the game more appealing to its natural audience or to extend the appeal of the game to those non-core segments (i.e. the Recreational crowd). In doing so, the designers should take care that any augmentations made in considerations of the Appeals do not undermine the value to the naturally-occurring audience.

For example, a welcome augmentation to the game is the addition of varying color-schemes and music. Tetris would still be played by those interested principally in the Accomplishment aspects of the game if there were but one color scheme and no music, as neither of those elements impinge on the core concept of the game as a ‘game’ in the traditional sense of the word. However, adding these elements does nothing to detract from that core appeal, and, moreover, it adds additional appeal both to the Recreational side of principally Accomplishment-driven gamers and to the core interest of the principally Recreation-driven demographic, the latter of which is likely to yield an increase in game-consumer population. Thus the addition of music and varying color-schemes is only beneficial, both with respect to the designer and the audience.

By contrast, an attempt to appeal to the Subversion demographic would almost certainly result in a corresponding negative impact on the Accomplishment demographic. If an element were introduced to the game that allowed players to ‘cheat’ by, say, creating some configuration that would glitch the game into bestowing a million points and warping the player to level 33, the entire sector of Accomplishment gamers would lose the competitive benchmark whereby they could confidently compare their achievements to those of others with assurances that the playing field was level. The damage done by introducing such an element would far outweigh the benefit of attempting to appeal to a demographic for which the game at its core is really not intended. As such, I think it is always important to keep in mind that the goal is not to attempt to touch on every Appeal within every game, or even to maximize overall Appeal-level, but to add appeal within the confines of the natural purpose of the game in such a manner that is beneficial to all, but in particular is beneficial to the game’s naturally-occurring audience.

Jason Tocci
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Thanks for your compliments, Matt, and thanks for writing a better conclusion than I ever did. You understand perfectly what I was trying to suggest here. I halted writing when I did in part because I didn't want to be too presumptuous about the business of actual in-the-trenches game design (being new to it myself, coming from a research background), and in part because the piece was pretty long as it was. Your Tetris example makes an excellent postscript, though.

Thomas Nocera
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I suggest this article ventures too deeply into what would better reside in the mysterious realms of "game magic" or, the locked-away list ingrediants necessary to brew a batch of "proprietary secret sauce" - a proven formulation for the cataylst to create the much sought "engagement factor." Thinking too much about what makes fun, fun is one sure way to kill it.

Jason Tocci
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I can certainly respect that a lot of artists work that way. By the same token, you have to admit that plenty of media have benefited from study of their own craft. Film, for instance, is probably better off for having had professionals writing about cinematography.