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Personality And Play Styles: A Unified Model

September 1, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this comprehensive analysis, multiple psychological systems of gameplay are surveyed, to try and arrive at a unified model in which player behavior can be understood and, crucially for game developers, catered to.]

Numerous models of gamer psychology have been proposed and debated over the past couple of decades. One of the earliest and simplest has proven to be one of the most referenced and most enduring: the Bartle Types. I believe this is because the Bartle Types are a functional model of human personality in a game playing context. In other words, the Bartle typology works because it's a subset of a more general personality model that works.

In fact, several of the best-known play style and game design models share many conceptual elements. So I'm also proposing here that the Bartle typology, the play style models of Caillois, Lazzaro, and Bateman, and the game design models of Edwards and Hunicke/LeBlanc/Zubek are all variations on a single Unified Model of play styles.

(Please note that any and all references I make in this article to the works of Richard Bartle, David Keirsey, Christopher Bateman and others that aren't clearly sourced as quotations are my own interpretations. As such, they should not be considered official descriptions of these authors' ideas.)

The Four Bartle Types

The official description of the original four Bartle Types (which have been expanded to eight types in Richard Bartle's book Designing Virtual Worlds) is preserved in the paper "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs" by Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) co-creator Richard Bartle.

This model, which was based on observing and analyzing the behaviors people playing together in a multi-user game, holds that there are four different kinds of play style interests, each of which is given a descriptive name: Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers.

  • Killers: interfere with the functioning of the game world or the play experience of other players
  • Achievers: accumulate status tokens by beating the rules-based challenges of the game world
  • Explorers: discover the systems governing the operation of the game world
  • Socializers: form relationships with other players by telling stories within the game world

These four styles emerged from the combination of two primary gameplay interests, which I've called Content and Control, each of which has two mutually exclusive forms. Content is defined to mean either acting simply and directly on objects in the game world, or interacting more deeply with world-systems. Control refers to how players want to experience the game world -- either through the dynamic behaviors of other players, or with the relatively static world of the game itself.

Killers and Achievers both turned out to be mostly interested in acting on things or people, treating things and people as external objects. At the same time, Explorers and Socializers both seemed to prefer a deeper level of interacting with things or other people, focusing on internal qualities.

Similarly, Killers and Socializers both seemed eager to have the opportunity to control how they are able to play dynamically with others in the game world, while Achievers and Explorers seemed most interested in controlling their relationships with the developer-defined objects in and properties of the game world itself.

The bases of the Bartle Types are thus two pairs of complementary player goals: Acting or Interacting (content), and Players or World (control). Bartle represented these interests as two lines at right angles to each other to create a grid with four quadrants, each quadrant corresponding to one of the four observed play style preferences. By determining his preference for Acting vs. Interacting and for Players vs. World, then looking up the play style in the quadrant corresponding to that combination, any gamer could easily identify his naturally preferred play style. A gamer who prefers acting over interacting and is focused more on the world of the game than other players, for example, would most likely demonstrate Achiever behaviors when playing a game.

Here's a diagram showing how the four Bartle Types emerge from the conjunction of the two major gamer concerns with content and control. (Note: This table is rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the version presented in "Players Who Suit MUDs" for reasons that will become apparent later in this article.)

The Bartle Types

The Four Keirsey Temperaments

In the 1970s, psychologist David Keirsey identified four general patterns from the sixteen types of the Myers-Briggs personality model. In his book (co-written with Marilyn Bates) Please Understand Me, Keirsey described these four "temperaments," giving them descriptive names much as Richard Bartle named his player types:

  • Artisan (Sensing + Perceiving): realistic, tactical, manipulative (of things or people), pragmatic, impulsive, action-focused, sensation-seeking
  • Guardian (Sensing + Judging): practical, logistical, hierarchical, organized, detail-oriented, possessive, process-focused, security-seeking
  • Rational (iNtuition + Thinking): innovative, strategic, logical, scientific/technological, future-oriented, result-focused, knowledge-seeking
  • Idealist (iNtuition + Feeling): imaginative, diplomatic, emotional, relationship-oriented, dramatic, person-focused, identity-seeking

In the second edition of Keirsey's book, Please Understand Me II, Keirsey grouped his four temperaments as four quadrants across two axes to show how they were related according to an internal structure, very much as Richard Bartle had. However, by the time he proposed his grouping model in the second edition of his book, I had already worked out a somewhat different arrangement.

Rather than the two dimensions that Keirsey used in his model, I believe the two most fundamentally distinctive dimensions of human behavior are Internals (a preference for seeing possibilities and the abstract) vs. Externals (seeing the concrete and realistic), and Change (which can be thought of as freedom or opportunity) vs. Structure (which can be understood as rules or organization). Each of the four temperaments is thus a combination of External/Internal and Change/Structure:


External Change

wants the power to be free to act at will on people and things


External Structure

wants the security of possessions obtained by following the rules


Internal Structure

wants the satisfaction of understanding how things work


Internal Change

wants people to cooperate toward happiness (self-actualization)

Here's how these four styles are represented (using my two axes, not Keirsey's) with the same kind of four-quadrant format that Richard Bartle used for the four Bartle Types:

The Keirsey Temperaments (Stewart Format)

Keirsey and Bartle

The first of the two major assertions I make in this article is that the four temperaments described by David Keirsey -- Artisan, Guardian, Rational, and Idealist -- are supersets of the original four player types -- Killer, Achiever, Explorer, and Socializer, respectively -- as described by Richard Bartle.





Acting (on) Players = External Change



Acting (on) World = External Structure



Interacting (with) World = Internal Structure



Interacting (with) Players = Internal Change


Where Bartle sees a preference for interacting with or acting on players in a game context, temperament theory sees a more general preference for internal or external change. And where Bartle focuses in a gameplay context on a preference for dynamic players or the static world, my version of Keirsey's four-quadrant model has people generally preferring change or structure. I believe that because the basic two-valued motivations are analogous between the Bartle Types and the Keirsey temperaments, the types and temperaments that are generated by these motivations are also analogous.

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Carlo Delallana
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Wonderfully comprehensive post. I can't wait to dive into it a few more times and go through the references as well. It would be wonderful if this could be turned into some kind of elaborate infographic that I can print and put up at work.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks, Carlo. I should be able to take many of the pieces here and summarize them graphically -- good suggestion!

Chris Zehr
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I'm curious, have you seen Nick Yee's research on the subject? Here's a link to a paper he wrote that categorizes player motivation a little differently.

Bart Stewart
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Thanks for the reference, Chris.

I'm definitely familiar with Nick Yee's contributions in this area, both for the excellent work he's done collecting information about gamer preferences as well as his strong objections to single-category personality models generally and to the Bartle Types specifically. I have a longer version of this article in which I address the most common objections to the typological bases of the Bartle Types and the Unified Model theory, including Nick Yee's. At some point I hope to have that on my blog, as it offers some responses to the questions that tend to come up on this subject.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to respond here to any questions. Thanks for reading!

Chris Zehr
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Looking forward to reading it whenever it gets posted! I appreciate the work you put into writing this.

Eugen Sokolov
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Could you please share a link to a longer version of this article. Need it for my research project.

David Serrano
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An amazing piece of work.

I have a question for Bart, if he's reading. Why is it none of the player models have explored or addressed the fact that sadism and masochism have become key motivating factors to play for certain groups of players? It seems like this is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room nobody wants to openly address. In single player games, there's absolutely a line in the sand where challenging players transitions into abusing players. Players who find this type of extreme, highly abusive game-play enjoyable are not motivated to play for fun or challenge. In multiplayer, there's a line in the sand where the desire for competition transitions into the desire to dominate and abuse the competition. In both cases, there are many designers who do little to conceal what their games are actually offering or encouraging. COD World at War is a good example. The game includes an entire category of challenges titled "Humiliation." They all encourage players to engage in sadistic behavior directed at other players and it rewards them if they are successful. It's no coincidence that humiliation and some of the other challenge titles in this category are terms widely used in BDS&M. I just don't think any player model will be complete until these players are classified and categorized.

Rachel Helps
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I think cruelty to other players would come under the killer category or socializer category, depending on whether the pleasure was derived from simply having the power to manipulate others, or in the other player's discomfort/torture.

David Serrano
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@Rachel Helps

Yes, I think that's the assumption but I think there are huge problems with classifying them as killers or achievers, which is why I asked the question.

If you look at the hardcore audience, the majority of the players are either killers, achievers or both. However, I believe the players I mentioned are a small, extreme, and yet to be identified segment of the market. They are not part of the core or hardcore audiences. But... they seem to be even more aggressive than hardcore players in terms of feedback and user reviews. I think this has basically fooled AAA publishers and developers into believing they are "the voice" of the hardcore audience, which by default becomes the voice of the core audience. This has given a small and extreme group of players far more influence and power over the AAA market than they should have. To the point where, I believe, they are the single biggest obstacle against growth in the core market.

Unfortunately, I don't have access to the marketing research and data to prove it. So for now, it remains a scary theory lol.

Bart Stewart
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David, your practical question deserves a better answer than I can type on a mobile phone in a moving vehicle. :)

Briefly, there are two major clusters of models of personality: functional and dysfunctional. The functional approach looks at motivations from a "regular daily life" perspective and focuses on helping regular people understand themselves and others. The Myers-Briggs and Keirsey models (and thus the Unified Model of playstyles) take this perspective.

The other approach emphasizes dysfunctional behaviors, usually to serve a clinical/diagnostic purpose. An example of this would be found in Dr. John Oldham's book _The New Personality Self-Portrait_, in which the different styles are all variations on pathological mental aberrations.

Both approaches have value, but they're both best applied in the right setting. The Unified Model fits the majority of gamers who like a fair challenge and who play well with others. It's not well-adapted, though, for trying to explain and predict pathological behaviors in gaming. For that, we may need a new and more clinical model of playstyles.

David Serrano
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Bart, thanks for the reply. And for god's sake, no texting while driving!

I guess the question from a clinical "regular daily life" perspective is, how can designers determine a player's true motivation for playing? Because my personal experience with people who have sociopathic or sadomasochistic tendencies has been they're often not aware they have them. Or they are, but they refuse to acknowledge it. Either way, they typically don't understand why they behave in aberrant ways, they typically refuse to acknowledge when their behavior strays off the reservation and they typically refuse to accept responsibility when it negatively effects others. This is why video games are incredibly appealling to them, games are anonymous outlets for their tendencies. Those with masochistic tendencies are drawn to single player and multiplayer because both will supply the abuse they desire. But those with sadistic or sociopathic tendencies won't go near single player because it doesn't provide what they're really after, opportunities to abuse, dominate, humiliate or cheat live players. They'll claim they are motivated to play for fun, challenge or competition, but it's simply not the case. The question is, where is the line in the sand that can serve as a red flag for designers? And how do they draw it? Metrics?

My primary concern is that by lumping these players into the killer and achiever categories, we allow their preferences and feedback to influence future games. It's a valid concern because I think there are far more of these types of players than the industry suspects and labeling them as killers and achievers creates the false illusion they are hardcore players. Very dangerous considering the influence hardcore players have with publishers and developers.

Rachel Helps
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What a cool post! I'd thought about how Myers-Briggs and Bartle are related, but never thought it though, so seeing someone else do this is a satisfying read.

Rebecca Phoa
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Interesting article as I have knowledge of the KTS that you use in your Unified Model. A question though, will you be expanding the research on it? I looked on the chart on page 3 of this article and by all accounts I am an idealist/socializer according to your quadrant analysis, but I can't help but wonder how you came to the conclusions that you did in determining what games would be likely played. Seeing how my own playing habits contradict the chart in full, I can't help but wonder.

Bart Stewart
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Rebecca, since this is a key interest of mine, I'm always surveying the field. If I find additional confirming instances, great; if I come across what appear to be counterexamples, then I have to either adapt the model to fit the new data or be prepared to develop (or embrace) a new model that better fits the facts.

In the case of games that Socializer/Idealists like to play, these do usually have either a strong story or opportunities to interact with other people (beyond just headshotting their characters). But it's important to bear in mind that behavioral theories apply to people in the aggregate -- there do seem to be four general clusters of basic motivations, but actual individual people can vary considerably beyond the "typical" person of each type.

This is still useful for game developers who make games for (one hopes!) many people to enjoy, not just one or two individuals. Making games and emphasizing features that are targeted to the aggregate Socializer/Idealist/Narrativist motivation can be very satisfying for the many gamers who cluster around the median of the characteristics for that style. But there will also be some who generally express a particular style but whose interests go well beyond the norms of that style.

You may be one of those rare individuals who's able to tap into multiple styles at will. If so, that's very helpful for getting along in this complicated world, but it does mean you'll find that most personality models of any kind just don't seem to "get" you. This may be one of those cases.

At any rate, the chart showing associations of genres with styles could probably be improved by showing the key features of each genre and how those features are keyed to specific styles. An example would be the Horror genre featuring scary moments, including temporary losses of control. Because these features are about provoking strong sensations, they best fit the Artisan/Killer (Manipulator) style. (And loss of control does fit -- that's genuinely disturbing to folks with this style.)

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Michael Dreyer
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Very interesting, and for the most part very agreeable, though I'm a little confused as to why Horror games are considered to be valued more by Killers and Achievers when most Horror games I play are more about discovery and narrative, which to me would seem to be favored more by the Idealist and Explorer.

Aren't good Horror games about unraveling the story? About exploring the dark, immersive world the designer has created for their audience to get lost in? Very little horror games I know are focused on empowering the player (which is what Killers desire, no?) and in fact strive for just the opposite. Not to mention the lack of achievement or leveling systems that most horror franchises seem to advocate.

Put simply, I always thought of Horror to embody player dis-empowerment and strong narrative; not level progression or body-counts.

Am I wrong?

Bart Stewart
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I think Jacob puts it very well. I would only add that horror games can go in a couple of directions, though both I think are centered around the sensation-seeking motivation (the Artisan/Killer/Experientialist style).

One direction is the Doom/AvP approach -- there are scary monsters, but you can (usually) fight back. This is what I had in mind in thinking of this genre as appealing primarily to the Killer (i.e., Manipulator) style with some appeal to Achievers as well.

However, you're right that there's another take on this genre which is more about experiencing a horrific story. This form, with Amnesia being a good recent example, is really angled more toward the Socializer/Idealist style that cares about the personal experience of things.

So although it condenses a lot of information, the best way of describing the Horror genre in terms of playstyles is probably Artisan/Manipulator and one of either Guardian/Achiever or Socializer/Idealist depending on whether the game lets you fight back or not.

Andy Satterthwaite
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Oh God, I have been so perfectly analysed it's worrying.

James Hofmann
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Excellent article. I think player personalities are an easier-solved problem than the "intrinsics" of the game design(as modelled by GNS and MDA) because we have the existing psychology literature to draw upon, but even so, it's striking how often people arrived at the same four core types.

In my most recent work I've tried to evolve MDA in two ways, neither of which seem immediately related to personality modelling, but which play well with those models(I've mostly stuck with the original Bartle four but might expand to the Unified model presented here). Not really ready for a final report, but here's my work-in-progress summary:

First, I formulated a very tight definition of dynamics: "intersecting feedback loops" - one intersection = one dynamic, and the game is the sum of all loops. The properties that were assigned to aesthetics in the original MDA model(emotional response) now essentially rest on compositions of dynamics, and aren't given a particular name. This "MD" model seems to hold when I investigate it with existing games, and more strikingly, even with non-interactive works, but it produced a muddy, gigantic-scope, inaccessible design when I tried to implement very broad "dynamic verbs," and later I stumbled upon a refinement:

I added "elements," "atoms," or "game pieces." A new form below mechanics exists, one which explains any game mechanic that does not form a feedback loop(e.g. visual things like character animations). This is an idea that I've seen floating around several designers recently - focusing on developing strong, even "mythical" game pieces. When this is done, accessibility and immersion are almost immediately solved, because the mechanics are suggested by look and feel. As with the change to the definition of dynamic, it makes the model tighter and easier to test; if I implement something, it has to support a game piece or a game dynamic. The mechanics are relegated to secondary "glue" - they still act to build a dynamic, but their first purpose is in implementing the elemental forms that describe the game world(even if it's an abstract world like Go or Tetris).

In testing this evolved model(EMD?), it looks very promising. I've started to layer personality types on it to suggest ways to broaden the design, and gotten some surprising results. I can attack each personality at the visceral level(give them a new piece to play with or expand a piece's meaning) or at high-concept(develop a dynamic that fits their personality), and this leads to unusual mechanics that still feel natural.

Bart Stewart
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James, I hope you'll be able to present this model soon -- it sounds promising. I know that Raph Koster has been advocating R & D in the area of "atomicity" of game design for a while now. It'll be pretty exciting if someone can build a production system out of these theories!

Dave Mark
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The first time I read Bartle's work, I immediately laid it over the Meyers/Briggs and/or Keirsey temperaments. My wife and I have been studying MB for years (our license plates are ENTP and INFJ respectively). It goes without saying that such strongly defined archetypes that naturally occur in people would also fall out in the way they approach games and play in general.

When I watched how my ex-wife (an SJ) played Ultima Online when it first came out, I realized that the differences were very real. The fact that this was so foreign to me (an NT) was not lost on me. It was no different than the asymmetries of how we approached other areas of our lives. (And very related to why she is an EX-wife.)

Bart Stewart
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It might go without saying, Dave, but I can't seem to go without saying it... at length. ;)

And it's to try to help game designers and other interested parties avoid a similar kind of disconnect as yours (though obviously less serious) that I decided to write up these findings and ideas. I really do believe there's some value here.

Deborah Teramis Christian
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Interesting model, Bart, and very well explained.

One thing I think is unaccounted for, and which may have more impact on the dynamics than this model suggests, is the role of introversion/extraversion in the MB personality types. For instance, the IN types (more introverted than ENs) are *not so likely to gravitate to social modes of play, as the model suggests, and in fact may actively avoid them.

I say that not only because I'm thinking about MB types, but also because of the admittedly small sample of my personal experience as an INFJ and that of several INFJ and INFP gamer friends. Most of us run screaming away from "social" things in games. In my own case, after playing multiplayer games for over 20 years, I have yet to join a group, or socialize to any significant extent in-game. I engage in achiever activities and to a lesser extent, explorer: the diametrical opposite of what this model would predict for my behavior given my type. I know it is largely because I don't want to deal with groups of people socializing in-game -yes I know how that sounds to those who live for their guilds or whatever, but I'm there because the *world* interests me, and that is my primary focus.

In this model you've summarized Idealist as "relationship oriented". I won't argue with that, but there is a huge difference between what relationships look like for introverts and extraverts, at least in terms of the number of other people actively engaged with.

I think factors of this sort leave gaping holes in this model in the sense of behaviors the model does not account for. That said, I think you're generally on the right track here. I look forward to reading more about this in the future, and thanks for the thoughtful work you put into this. I've developed models of interaction dynamics myself and appreciate the work that went into this.

Bart Stewart
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Thank you for the thoughtful and considerate comments, Deborah.

The Idealist/Socializer is one I struggle with. As a nearly stereotypical INTP, I think I "get" the NF style well enough to talk about it in a general way. But as my INFJ (and not overtly people-oriented) wife reminds me, I sometimes am howlingly oblivious to feelings. This gives me something of a blind spot with respect to this style, and it's something I have to try very hard to address when I talk about it -- usually by listening closely to self-reporting by my Idealist friends and being careful to portray them as they see themselves, not as I see them.

With respect to the "social" aspect of the introverted Idealist/Socializer style, this is an area I clearly need to develop more. One thing I can say briefly is that "Socializer" flowed from Richard Bartle's focus on multiplayer games. For extroverted NFs, the opportunity to interact personally with other real people may indeed be the main draw.

But the real core of this style is seeing the world in terms of feelings, of the personal meaning of all things. And this applies to both introverted and extroverted Idealist/Socializers. The extroverts satisfy it by interacting personally with other people, while the introverts usually express it by caring about "relationships" in the larger sense, often for characters in books, movies, and TV shows, and in special cases with the authors and actors as people.

This is the reason for the emphasis on storytelling, roleplaying (and thus RPGs), and Narrativism generally among people for whom this style is natural. It's not to interact themselves with other people, but to understand the world in a people-centric way even if the visible behavior (as permitted/encouraged by the rules of the game) is running or fighting or exploring as other styles do.

It's definitely an area that would benefit from more study and better understanding.

Deborah Teramis Christian
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"Understand the world in a people-centric way," and as accounting for the emphasis on storytelling etc: OK, that makes more sense to me.

Thanks for the enlightening response.

I think it would be interesting to empirically test this model, collating self-identified playstyles with the MB results for study participants. Do you have a mailing list or some such where you are updating people about your work with this model? Or is it just a "keep an eye on your blog" kinda thing?

Bart Stewart
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For now it's just an "updates as I find them" thing. I'd love to do my own testing; I have long felt I could devise a more accurate inventory tool. Right now, though, my resources just don't allow that.

It's definitely on the to-do list, though. Meanwhile I continue to watch for research on this subject.

Bart Stewart
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Christian, by "superior" are you referencing something I've said here? Or some other description of the Killer style?

The Unified Model holds that, where Rational/Explorers and Guardian/Achievers prefer structure (for abstract models and the world, respectively), Idealist/Socializers and Artisan/Killers are united in feeling uncomfortable with restrictions on their behavior. (As a side note, I'm pretty sure that this is why it usually seems to be either an Idealist or Artisan who delights in asserting that they don't fit any personality model, including this one, and thus it's clearly broken. I'm still slowly collecting data on this theory, though.)

Accordingly, I wouldn't say that the Artisan/Killer style -- let's call them the Manipulators -- are about feeling superior to others. I think it's more about being in control, about having power over things and/or people in order to assert their freedom.

This framing of the basic motivation of the style explains the behaviors they express, both in and out of a gaming context. They are highly skilled at manipulating their environments (wallhacks, speedruns) and other people (as in the Social Games example in my article). On the other hand, their manipulative abilities coupled to their need to assert their freedom from rules can lead them to risk-taking behaviors. We applaud (or at least tolerate) these behaviors when they are socially sanctioned: combat pilot or naval aviator or other service with armed forces. Or they may race cars, or jump out of perfectly good airplanes. But without a respect for social norms (again, both in and out of gaming contexts), the Manipulator may turn to less laudable risky behaviors ranging from griefing (and the classic Killer behavior) to serial affairs and addictive gambling.

Those last begin to edge into pathologies that this model isn't equipped to handle. It does, though, speak to the positives that this style can contribute to games, but which very few games are designed to enable: great skill with the making of beautiful and functional things, and with organizing people toward a goal.

Tony Celentano
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Great article, player psychology always fascinates me. I read a very similar article to this one, except yours uses the Bartle Types and this one uses the Myers-Briggs

Sam Devlin
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Really great article.

The only thing I am having trouble wrapping my head around is the relation of two Caillois' game types to the Unified Model. Perhaps I could get some help in understanding. After my first reading of Caillois, I related alea more with the 'Explorer' type and mimcry more with the 'Socializer' type.

Pulling a few key terms from your description of the Unified Socializer type we find phrases such as "person oriented," "builds connections with others," "personal growth" and "influence." Against this common theme, the principles of alea (randomness, chance, surrender to destiny) seem like outliers.

Caillois describes mimicry at a sporting event in the following way, "A physical contagion leads them (spectators) to assume the position of the men or animals in order to help them, just as the bowler is known to unconsciously incline his body in the direction that he would like the bowling ball to take at the end of its course." Surely this act is one of building a connection with others (however fleeting) with the hope of influence or growth. It seems that the influence would not only go from spectator-performer but would be directed inward as well - prompting internal change and development within the spectator. Mimicry also seems to relate more directly (if not completely) to Narrativism than alea.

Alea also seems to be more the area of the explorer. While not necessarily interested in acts of chance and randomness, what the Unified Explorer Type seems to share with alea is the acceptance of the inherent equality of a standard system for play, an internal structure. Caillois even refers to the implication that alea is opposite and complimentary to agon, naturally placing it opposite of the Killer Type on the model - with the explorers.

This was my initial reaction when I thought about relating Caillois to the Bartle Types. Perhaps a further reading could reveal more.

Rohit Maggon
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A really great article explaining the different types of gamers. Can you offer your opinion on fighting games such as Street Fighter or Tekken. Which archetypes according to you would such games cater to?