Posted on September 25th, 2017 by | 8 Replies

If you’ve spent any time at all in the MMO community, you’re probably familiar with the Bartle taxonomy of players types, designed by influential developer Richard Bartle. Created in the days of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), it divides players into four broad categories and is viewed by many as the gold standard for understanding player motivation in online gaming.

A diagram of Bartle's player types

However, at least as it applies to MMORPGs, I think the Bartle types are a flawed model, ultimately too simplistic to accurately define the complex motivations of human beings. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Bartle himself, but of the way his model is used (and abused) by many players and journalists within the community, as well as the flaws of trying to fit players into narrow boxes in the first place.

The Basics

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Bartle taxonomy, let’s do a quick run-down of what it is.

Bartle’s theory divides MUD players into four categories: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers.

Achievers are about winning, earning high scores, and generally proving their mastery over the game. They want to earn points, gear, and anything else that can give them prestige.

Explorers are about, well, exploring. This means both physically exploring the game world, as well as tinkering with game systems to learn their ins and outs.

Socializers are most interested in interacting with other players and making friends. The game systems come secondary to the bonds they form with fellow players.

Killers seek to impose their will on other players. They enjoy PvP combat, griefing, trolling, and domination by any means at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read Bartle’s original paper on the matter.

There is also the so-called “Bartle test,” which you can take to determine your Bartle type. It’s worth noting this test wasn’t actually developed by Bartle himself, but it’s still often talked about at the same time as his original theorem and is often used by players to determine their personal player type.

Let’s talk about that test.

A Case Study

Exploring in Guild Wars 2

I don’t want to make this all about me, but I think I’m a great example of the flaws in this model, at least as applied to MMOs.

I’ve taken the Bartle test a few times over the years. It usually pegs me as an explorer, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate label for me.

I can enjoy exploring MMOs, but it’s definitely not my focus. It’s usually something that I do when I’m bored and don’t have anything better to do in-game. My favourite style of content in MMOs is linear story, which is just about the exact opposite of what the archetypal explorer is supposed to be into.

When it comes to the more abstract style of exploring — understanding game systems — it used to appeal to me more, but these days it’s not something I get a lot of joy from. I like to know what I’m doing, but I’m not the sort of person who has to tinker with every little thing.

In preparation for this article, I took the test again, and this time it pegged me as a socializer, with a 73% match to explorer’s 60%. That’s even more baffling.

I’m one of the most anti-social MMO players around. I haven’t belonged to a guild in years, and I generally prefer to play alone. I’m happy to make small talk with a PUG or perhaps participate in general chat, but I never seek out interaction with other players for its own sake. If I’m grouped with other people, it’s only ever as a means to an end.

So the test is way off where I’m concerned. Maybe it’s just a flaw in the test, but really, what archetype should I belong to? I like structured play and clear goals, which is an achiever trait, but I’ve never had any desire to be the best or show off my mastery, so that doesn’t really fit, either. And I actively avoid conflict with other players, so I’m definitely not a killer, either.

The fact is I don’t fit into any of Bartle’s types. And I very much doubt I’m alone in this.

A Flawed Concept

A villain character in DC Universe Online

It’s worth remembering that the Bartle types were created to define players of MUDs only. Yes, MUDs can be viewed as the ancestors of MMOs, but there’s still quite a lot of difference between a text-based simulation and a modern graphical MMORPG. And Bartle himself has said that the model may be incomplete for non-MUD games and perhaps should not be applied to them (it’s also worth noting he’s since expanded the original model to eight players types).

So even the model’s creator seems to feel it’s a bit outdated, at least as it relates to modern MMOs, and yet we still have many players and commentators treating it as gospel. I’m not really sure why, save that personality typing seems to appeal to a lot of people in general, even when it’s based on shaky science, or no science at all. People still put their faith in astrological signs, after all.

Really, though, the only people who should be thinking about player types are developers. There’s no value in laymen like you and me trying to define the archetypes of MMO players. We don’t have the expertise to do so properly, and even if we did, what would we do with the information? Why is being able to say “I like this because I’m an explorer” viewed as more valuable than “I like this because it’s fun”?

And even for developers, I think it would be dangerous to put too much weight on abstract player types, even if they could find an accurate model for such. People are complex creatures, and you can’t just boil us down to shallow archetypes.

A lot of principles of good game design are universal, after all. Do you think the ancients who invented Chess were worried about how it would appeal to different archetypes of people? No, they just made a game with good mechanics, and it’s remained a popular pass time for centuries. Perhaps Bartle type classification is adding too much science to what should be a more artistic pursuit?

People are individuals. We shouldn’t be trying to over-simplify them into such narrow categories.

8 thoughts on “Time to Move on from the Bartle Types?

  1. Isey

    Agree with that being old and needing updated, but developers would only classify based on consumer needs. Evangelicals, Detractors, Tourists, Whales, etc. =)

  2. Rohan Verghese

    In preparation for this article, I took the test again, and this time it pegged me as a socializer, with a 73% match to explorer’s 60%. That’s even more baffling.

    Really? What percentage of the game’s population takes the time and effort to write a public blog?

    Choosing to participate in the “conversation” around MMOs is itself a social act.

    1. Tyler Bro Post author

      I do it for money.

      No, really. Even my personal blog mainly exists as an example of my work to show to potential clients.

      1. The Bro

        Well, that’s probably part of it (and glad to have you writing for us), but I think Rohan’s comment is still fair. There are other things you could do for work, no?

        But “socializers” also enjoy forming relationships (rather than just gabbing). I assume that’s something you enjoy in your games since you like linear stories? I certainly don’t disagree with the premise though that these roles are too narrowly defined.

        1. Tyler Bro Post author

          To be honest I see blogging as more in line with an achiever archetype. It’s a lot of seeking attention and validation from the community at large, or at least that’s how I tend to view it.

          I’m a bit strange in that I enjoy having relationships, but not forming them. Which is part of why I don’t socialize much in games anymore. The transient nature of many MMO players (myself included) means you’re pretty much always frozen in the period of getting to know people, with little opportunity to enjoy lasting friendships. It just doesn’t seem worth the effort to me anymore.

  3. Sean

    If you want a player motivation model based on actual player data, can I recommend that developed by Quantic Foundry?
    In terms of Bartle’s model: it’s a conceptual model, not a model based on evidence – and never has been. As a first-order approximation, it’s good enough, but even Bartle himself has refined it further. Again, if you want an evidence based player motivation, look at what Quantic Foundry have done.
    And then: Bartle’s model is a *population* model – it makes no claims about what any individual does, and isn’t interested. You might be an explorer today, and a killer tomorrow – but there is someone out there who is the reverse, and thus *the proportions of explorers and killers are unchanged* even though the individuals have changed. As a population model, it already accounts for the complexity of individuals *by not being about individuals*.
    I do agree, however, that there’s no value in players thinking about themselves in the Bartle model: it is, and always has been, a model for developers to think about their player populations. Players like it because it lets them put a name to their playing preference – but if that’s what a player wants, you should direct them to Quantic Foundry 🙂


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