As part of the background reading for my thesis, I recently read Richard Bartle’s ‘Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: People Who Suit MUDs.’ It’s something of a classic in game design, and I’d heard his terminology before (often on Kill Ten Rats, a blog I highly recommend), so it was great to finally read the original piece.
My initial impression was that although Bartle’s player types are still useful categories today, a lot of his examples and criteria are very out of date. The article was written in 1996 and based on MUDs, text-based virtual worlds much closer to programming or writing than current online games. Player-killing isn’t the issue it was then. As I read on, though, I found that Bartle’s four categories still have clear analogues in MMORPGs, lending great weight to his typography in my mind.
Bartle suggests that there are four types of players (or playstyles) in any MUD:
- Achievers: they’re in it for the challenges, even if they have to set their own goals to overcome. Achievers want the most points, the highest level, the most impressive bragging rights (achievements, in the XBox sense, were made for these players). They’re the ‘diamonds’ of the title – they’re always seeking out treasures and prizes.
- Explorers: they want to tinker with the world and discover its secrets. Explorers also love their bragging rights, but they don’t care about conventional rankings; obscure knowledge, tricks and clever work-arounds are more their style. In older MUDs, they were the ones who could manipulate the code and found obscure commands. They’re ‘spades’ – digging things up.
- Socialisers: these people are there for the people. The world is just a setting for conversation and meeting people, and socialisers find other players to be the most dynamic and interesting part of a game. Relationships and social reputation are what they value. Socialisers are ‘hearts’ – they feel empathy for other players.
- Killers: so named because in games which allow it, these people chiefly enjoy hunting and killing other players. They’re in it for the fun of, in Bartle’s words, “imposing their will on others.” In rare cases he admits that Killers can have positive intentions (they step in to help players, whether their help is wanted or not), but in general they cause distress one way or another. Killers are ‘clubs’ – “they hit people with them”.
Achievers are easy to find in MMORPGs. They’re max level, they raid, they talk about the challenges of the game and how they beat them. They collect achievements and titles and show them off. The game content in a strict sense is aimed at them, whereas it might be incidental to other players.
I always thought I was an Explorer, because I love taking my time over areas, enjoying the details and finding little Easter Egg type features (Guild Wars is fantastic for those who like environment design!). Bartle’s definition of Explorer is a little different, though. In a MUD, they learn commands, develop programming tricks, and understand better than anyone else how the world works in a technical sense. In current MMORPGs, Explorers seem more like the the people who find glitches and exploits in their games, highlighting loopholes in the code and, in the process, their own cleverness. Game modding communities are probably populated with Explorers. Then again, Bartle does mention that Explorers may have specialty subjects, so to some extent I’d consider myself a lore Explorer.
Socialisers are easy to spot. They’re the ones chatting in the public channel and making friends with random players they happen to party with. They’d rather sit around in town and talk about the game (or anything else) than play it, at least some of the time. According to this quiz, I’m a Socialiser type, and I think that’s right – after all, I’m The Roleplayer around a table-top, and I do like to chat with randoms if I’m not playing with ‘real life’ friends. A lot of casual MMO players fall into this category – those who enjoy the game, but aren’t worried about getting top gear or the highest rankings.
Killers are at first glance the most difficult category to find equivalents for. Most MMORPGs don’t allow casual player-killing, or at least they clearly designate areas where it’s a risk so that players can choose not to be exposed to it. Recent games have plenty of difficult PvE challenges and/or structured PvP, but that’s not what Killers enjoy – they do it for the look on your face, for the knowledge that they just got one up over somebody out there. However, as Bartle says, Killers can get this thrill even in MUDs without combat by finding other ways to harass players. Today’s Killers aren’t the PvP pros (who can be very sportsman-like, and in fact may see themselves as e-sport players). They’re the griefers, the trolls, the people who hack accounts or harass other players in chat for their on amusement. Socialisers are still their easiest prey, I think, but Achievers are far less tolerant of them then Bartle suggests, as they may have items or achievements stolen from them rather than just suffer a combat loss.
So where do you fall? Is your playstyle different in MMOGs to single-player games? My Explorer tendencies definitely define my play of Skyrim, for instance (I don’t have the drive of an Achiever), but I’m not interesting in the software, only the world. As an online Socialiser, I suppose my story and role-play tendencies in single-player games shouldn’t surprise me; I’m all about the people, even when they’re computer-generated and scripted. I’ll leave you with this graph of Bartle’s, so you can place yourself on the axes: