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Personality And Play Styles: A Unified Model
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Personality And Play Styles: A Unified Model

September 1, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Caillois and Lazzaro Meet Keirsey and Bartle

The first portion of the Unified Model chart links Keirsey's general theory of human temperament to descriptions of the four primary styles of play given by Richard Bartle, Roger Caillois, and Nicole Lazzaro.

Note: Although Roger Caillois indicated that he did not consider the four styles he described to be a complete taxonomy, I respectfully suggest that he was closer to creating a good one than he knew. Along with his concepts of paidia and ludus, these six foci complete the "gaps" between the four core styles observed by others (as noted in the Unified Model). I therefore consider his observed styles to be part of that model, but the reader is welcome to disagree.

Caillois uses the term ilinx to describe the fun of "vertigo," the adrenaline rush from pushing physical boundaries, which aligns to the sensation-seeking motivation that both Bartle and Keirsey describe for the Killer and Artisan styles, respectively.

Lazzaro's "serious" or "visceral" fun (one of the four core emotional styles she identifies in her cluster analysis of emotional responses to gameplay situations) is also described as sensation-seeking -- in particular, as seeking the feelings of excitement and relaxation that are the gut-level rewards for active play. Again, this aligns very closely with the pleasure the Artisan/Killer feels in the skillful manipulation of tools or people (External Change).

Both the agôn of Caillois and the "hard fun" of Lazzaro are conceptually very close to the security-seeking motivations of Bartle's Achiever and Keirsey's Guardian. Agôn and hard fun are both about trying to obtain tangible, extrinsic rewards within the rules of a competitive game. This is the well-documented pattern of the Achiever/Guardian, who lives life believing that it is necessary and right for the world to be well ordered and that the amount one wins should be directly proportional to the amount of effort one puts into following the rules.

Caillois explicitly links mimesis to "simulation," or the active construction of secondary realities. This is the hallmark of the creative Rational/Explorer. To a Rational, the fun of discovering or building new worlds is in mapping their unique characteristics through exploration, thereby enabling the comprehension of the internal structure of that new world. The Rational/Explorer interest in mimesis is thus associated with Lazzaro's "easy fun," which describes the distinct gamer preference for immersion in the world of the play experience.

Caillois describes the fourth mode of play, alea, as based on randomness and chance, imposing fairness on every player by making every outcome depend on the roll of a die or the turn of a card. This feels right to the Idealist/Socializer player, for whom the rules of the game may be nearly irrelevant and in which chance is acceptable or even necessary to evenly distribute outcomes. Rules are merely artifacts that enable interaction with other people (human or NPC). This aligns neatly with Lazzaro's formulation of "people fun," wherein the game world is treated not as a tool to be used, a challenge to be overcome, or a system to be understood, but as a social setting within which people can enjoy meaningful relationships with each other.

GNS+ and MDA+

In addition to these play style models there are two important models of game design that appear conceptually related to the Keirsey temperaments: the Gamist/Narrativist/Simulationist (GNS) model of game design originally conceived (though later deprecated) by Ron Edwards and the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics (MDA) framework described by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek [pdf].

The three-style GNS model aligns closely with three of the Keirsey/Bartle styles. The Gamist design style, which focuses on the mechanics or rules of play of a game, clearly matches the rules-oriented, competitive, hard fun-seeking Guardian/Achiever style. Similarly, Rational/Explorers are most likely to be drawn to the Simulationist design style that delights in the building of and immersion in complex and logically consistent worlds. And the human-centric, "people fun" storytelling impulses of Idealist/Socializers will usually be expressed as a focus on Narrativism as the primary means of making a game fun.

This leaves undescribed the preference for raw sensation. A fourth design style, which I've given the ungainly name of Experientialist, would emphasize play features that generate intense experiences -- the definition of the sensation-seeking Artisan/Killer. If this Experientialist style is recognized as a valid game design interest along with Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist, then we have what might be called a GNS+ model that aligns completely with the Keirsey/Bartle and related models of play.

Adding this style to the GNS model is not an unsupported stretch on my part just to force GNS into the Keirsey/Bartle model. The Experientialist preference closely resembles the "Butt-Kicker" player type in the play style model suggested by Robin Laws. Enjoying play for its intense experiences is also directly analogous to the enjoyment of "vertigo" described by Caillois as a function of the desire for ilinx.

Something like this also applies to the MDA game design model. As with the GNS+ model described above, the MDA model seems to lack only a bottom-level design focus on the direct appreciation of action, which considers the gut-level sensations a game designer wants to elicit from players. I've suggested "Kinetics" as a name for this fourth style in what could be called the MDA+ model, where Kinetics once again aligns with Caillois's ilinx preference for finding pleasure in action-oriented play. (It's interesting that the original GNS and MDA models both lack concepts describing play as a means of generating intense sensations.)

As with the original GNS model, the three layers of the MDA model align with play styles and personality types as described in the Unified Model chart. Mechanics, as the rules governing player actions, are the topic of choice for Guardian/Achievers who naturally take a Gamist approach to design. That's where you find the answers for the ever-practical, "Yeah, but what do you actually do in the game?" question. Dynamics are of most interest to the Simulationist Rational/Explorer, who can't help but focus on the functional behaviors of the game world that give it a unique life as a secondary reality. And the Idealist/Socializer, always operating according to an ideal vision for people, is most able to quickly grasp whether a particular game satisfies the Aesthetic requirements -- does the game feel right?

With the theory explained, we're now ready to look at practical uses for the Unified Model.

The Unified Model Explains Existing Games

An effective model should be able to explain how particular games satisfy particular play style interests. A good place to start is with popular first person shooter (FPS) games such as the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises. These games feature high levels of graphical realism, a need for fast-paced tactical action in high-stress scenarios, real-world manual dexterity requirements, "whoa!" moments, clearly marked linear paths, vertigo-inducing set pieces, collectible achievements/trophies, and (in multiplayer mode) intense competition, role-based cooperation, and status markers on public leaderboards. All of these features are associated with externalities, and most are about directly physical experiences as opposed to abstract internal qualities such as thinking or feeling.

In a first person shooter, the high-speed, adrenaline-pumping tactical action for its own sake is aimed squarely at the externals-oriented Artisan/Killer play style preference. The externals-oriented Guardian/Achiever preference is addressed with clearly spelled-out operational rules, and with in-game intel items and achievements to collect as gameplay that gives purpose to the action. To the extent that a game emphasizes both of these elements to a high level of quality, that game will be embraced by Artisan/Killers and Guardian/Achievers. This combination lines up with the Casual mode of play in Chris Bateman's DGD1 model. This might sound odd -- the gameplay in pure FPS games is usually very intense -- but it fits the concept of "casual" play as Bateman describes it, where there's little emotional investment in the game world, players can drop-in/drop-out easily, the subject matter is concrete and easily relatable to well-understood phenomena, and the appeal is to a mass market.

Occupying the exact opposite position on the chart of play styles from real-time action/competition games would be adventure games such as Myst and The Longest Journey and creative games such as Minecraft or turn-based strategy games such as Civilization. These games, whose internal-oriented features emphasize both the story and puzzle play style preferences associated with feeling and thinking, are mirror images of external-oriented first-person shooter games that emphasize action and competitive accumulation. It's reasonable to expect that most gamers who strongly prefer FPS games would be bored by adventure games, while most self-described adventure gamers find the typical FPS unsatisfying. This is precisely what the Unified Model would predict based on play style analysis, with Hardcore (story/puzzle) and Casual (action/loot) preferences on opposite sides of the Keirsey/Bartle/Bateman diagram.

If the Unified Model has validity, then it should also be able to explain the appeal of a "surprise" hit game like Minecraft. Still in beta at this writing, Minecraft has already earned the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars for its developer by emphasizing two play styles: creative exploration and exciting survival. While mapping cave systems or building structures (both highly discovery-focused activities), the player's character may suddenly be attacked by hostile creatures. This generates the intense fight-or-flight reaction prized by Killers, who also enjoy the tangible (if virtual) sensations of destroying blocks, jumping from heights, and possibly falling (or being pushed!) into deadly lava.

The conjunction of the Rational/Explorer and Artisan/Killer play preferences corresponds to the Strategic/Tactical "Manager" play style of Chris Bateman's DGD1 model. Bateman describes the Manager style as being preferred by "a complexity-seeking player" who "can rack up serious hours on the games they really love," and whose style is "associated with mastery and systems." That neatly sums up Minecraft's intense appeal to a specific subset of gamers who viscerally love opportunities to remake the game world to their own designs.

(It's interesting to note that Minecraft's primary designer has added achievements to the game, with an "adventure update" soon to be released. These new features should make Minecraft more appealing to Guardian/Achievers, who currently complain that Minecraft's highly non-directed gameplay is -- from their perspective -- boring and hard to get into. Whether Minecraft can retain its Explorer-Killer focus after adding features that attract a host of highly vocal Achievers is a question worth exploring.)

Here's a quick listing of where various game genres fit into the Unified Model:



CORE Play StyleS


Halo, Call of Duty, Half-Life, Crysis

Killer, Achiever


Darklands, Fallout 1/2, Baldur's Gate

Achiever, Explorer


Deus Ex, BioShock, Mass Effect

Achiever, Explorer, Killer

Open-world CRPG

The Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3, Two Worlds

Achiever, Explorer


World of Warcraft, EVE Online, Guild Wars

Achiever, Explorer, Socializer


Unreal Tournament, Team Fortress, any FPS multiplayer mode

Killer, Achiever


King's Quest, Myst, The Longest Journey

Socializer, Explorer


Tomb Raider, Uncharted, Angry Birds

Killer, Achiever


Resident Evil, Dead Space, Amnesia

Killer, Achiever

Turn-based Strategy

Civilization, Master of Orion, Galactic Civilizations


Physics Puzzler

Half-Life 2, Portal, World of Goo

Killer, Explorer

Real-time Strategy

Age of Empires, StarCraft, Supreme Commander

Achiever, Killer

Flight Simulator

Falcon 4.0, Microsoft Flight Simulator X

Killer, Explorer

Space Shooter

Wing Commander, Freelancer

Achiever, Killer


Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Audiosurf

Killer, Socializer


SimCity, Balance of Power, Railroad Tycoon



FarmVille, Mafia Wars

Socializer, Achiever

Online Gambling

Blackjack, Texas Hold-Em Poker

Killer, Achiever

One other possibility afforded by the Unified Model is to identify an individual's natural play style through the games they report playing. This can work to the degree that individuals are invested in the "gamer" culture. The more they actively make playing new games a part of their lifestyle, the more accurately the play-focused Unified Model will predict their general personality style.

On the other hand, predictive accuracy can be extremely poor when trying to assess the personality style of someone who plays only a few light and generally popular games such as Solitaire. In this case, no model will be of much help since there's just not enough information to work from. The emphasis of the Bartle Types on social players of multi-user games can also make those styles difficult to apply to someone who prefers single-player games.

Another possibility is that the individual's choice of games to play may not fit neatly into one of the four major groupings. In this case, consider that they may play as one of the four types described by Christopher Bateman's DGD1 model, where each type is a combination of two of the primary styles from the basic Keirsey/Bartle model.

In all these cases, the more games someone plays -- they more they are immersed in the gamer culture -- the more accurate the Unified Model can be in identifying their preferred personality style from the games they play. And the opposite is true as well: the fewer games someone plays, the less effective the Unified Model can be in identifying their natural personality style. This is not a deficiency in the Unified Model; it's simply a lack of categorical information for the model to work with.

The Unified Model Helps Design New Games

The Unified Model by itself doesn't talk about particular gameplay features. But it is possible to link gameplay features to specific play style preferences -- different activities distinctively satisfy different needs. This allows designers to judge the fitness of various feature possibilities for a particular design goal.

Here's a short list of representative gameplay features organized by play style:

UNIFIED Play Style



action, vertigo, tool-use, vehicle use, horror, gambling, speedruns, exploits


competition, collections, manufacturing, high scores, levels, clear objectives, guild membership, min-maxing


puzzles, creative building, world-lore, systems analysis, theorizing, surprise


chatting, roleplaying, storytelling, cooperation, decorating, pets, social events

Let's say you've been tasked with designing a game that's "exciting" and has "lots of rewards." From the chart above, you can see that "exciting" corresponds to the Artisan/Killer style, and "rewards" clearly describes the Guardian/Achiever preference. What you want, then, are gameplay elements that hit on both of those cylinders if possible, but on at least one or the other of them for sure.

So a satisfying concept for this game might be some form of arcade-style racing. This provides a highly physical environment where the player can directly manipulate a vehicle in a few very specific ways (but to a high degree of virtuosity) in order to be rewarded frequently. Making this the game's core mechanic emphasizes both intense manipulative action and the satisfaction of simple, clear goals with collectible rewards, all of which speak directly to the two play style goals.

Highly physical and object-rich action games that satisfy Artisan/Killer and Guardian/Achiever desires are fairly common, though. So a stronger test of the Unified Model's constructive power might be to consider combinations of play styles that aren't often seen.

What about a game world that merges the Internal Change goal of Idealist/Socializers with the External Change desire of Artisan/Killers? (This would correspond to the "Wanderer" play style from Chris Bateman's DGD1 model.) Such a game, without the Simulationist or Gamist structures preferred by Rational/Explorers and Guardian/Achievers, would likely appear to be a chaotic circus, a highly social environment where crazy things happen without warning. (Actually, this sounds very much like Second Life, doesn't it? Could something like this work as a single-player game? What about as a Facebook game?)

Another unusual kind of game to create would merge the generally opposing preferences of Guardian/Achievers and Idealist/Socializers. (The corresponding merged type would be the "Participant" play style from the DGD1 model.) To build fully on its unique qualities, such a game would need to be designed to emphasize gameplay features focusing on the rule-based generation of social relationships and behaviors. This is gameplay that Achievers could appreciate for the interpersonal stability and "social leveling-up," and which Socializers might enjoy as a powerful tool for creating stories about people. (Again, though, perhaps such a game already exists -- isn't this is exactly the play style combination provided almost uniquely by The Sims? Is there any way to make a Participant-style game that doesn't seem to be a clone of The Sims?)

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