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December 8, 2010

Filed under: gaming»perspective


One of Belle's favorite hobbies is to take a personality test (such as the Meyers-Briggs) once every couple of months. She makes me take the same test, and then she reads our results aloud. The description for her type never explicitly says "finds personality test results comforting," but it probably should. I'm skeptical of the whole thing, frankly, but then someone with my personality type would be.

I found myself thinking about profiles after having a conversation with a friend about the appeal of Diablo (or lack thereof). I understand the theory behind the Diablo formula--combining the random reward schedule of an MMO with a sense of punctuated but constant improvement--but games based on this structure (Torchlight, Borderlands) leave me almost entirely unmoved.

For better or worse, game design increasingly leverages psychological trickery to keep players interested. I think Jonathan Blow convincingly argues that this kind of manipulation is ethically suspect, and that it displays a lack of respect for the player as a human being But perhaps it's also an explanation for why Diablo doesn't click for me, but other people obsess over it: we've got different personality profiles.

I think the idea of a Meyers-Briggs profile for game design is kind of a funny idea. So as a thought exercise, here's a quick list I threw together of personality types, focused mainly on psychological exploits common in game design. I figure most people--and most games--have a mix of these, just in larger or smaller proportions. Some of them may even overlap a little.

  • Completionist: Enjoys the feeling of finishing all items in a list of goals. Probably has sub-categories, depending on the type of task required (story-related, achievement-based, simple collection).
    Prototypical games: Pokemon, Crackdown, Donkey Kong Country
  • Storyteller: Enjoys the creation of emergent stories, particularly in sandbox-type games. These can range from actual narratives, to the construction of Rube Goldberg-like scenarios within the rules and physics of the game world, or simply games that offer "great moments" during regular play.
    Prototypical games: The Sims, Minecraft, Deus Ex
  • Audience: Enjoys playing through a linear story. Would, if all else were equal, be just as happy watching a really good movie.
    Prototypical games: JRPGs, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, adventure games
  • Explorer: Enjoys finding new locations and entities inside the game world. Prefers expanse and novelty to either realism or deep-but-restricted scenarios.
    Prototypical games: Metroid, Castlevania, Fallout
  • Grinder: Enjoys the process of slowly improving an avatar, either by levelling up or obtaining new equipment, or both. Becomes invested in the game as a long-term product of effort, creating an artifact that's a source of pride.
    Prototypical games: World of Warcraft, Diablo, Borderlands
  • Mechanic: Enjoys figuring out, then mastering, the underlying gameplay system, even if that limits the overall scope of the game. Prefers rulesets that are predictable, and "levelling the player" over increasing an avatar's stats.
    Prototypical games: Street Fighter, Team Fortress 2, Legend of Zelda
  • Munchkin: Like a mechanic, but with an emphasis on learning how to break/exploit the system. Ranges from people who read David Sirlin's "Playing to Win" and loved every word, to people who just like turning on cheat codes in GTA and seeing how far they can get in the tank.
    Prototypical games: sandbox games, broken games, broken sandbox games, Marvel Vs. Capcom
  • Competitor: Enjoys being ranked against other players, either AI or human. Likes the interplay of competition and cooperation, and prefers "winning" to simply "finishing."
    Prototypical games: Halo, Geometry Wars, Defcon
  • Partier: Enjoys playing with other players, particularly in single-couch co-op. More interested in an enjoyable play session than "winning" the game.
    Prototypical games: Rock Band, Mario Party, Wii Sports
  • Thinker: Enjoys making comprehensive strategic decisions, often at a slower pace. Not necessarily a wargamer, but often is.
    Prototypical games: Advance Wars, Defense Grid, Age of Empires
  • Buttonmasher: Enjoys reflex-based games that offer a lot of rapid stimulation. Not necessarily a shooter fan, but often is.
    Prototypical games: Ikaruga, Super Mario, Demon's Souls

There's probably a good way to simplify these, or sort them into a series of binaries or groups, if you wanted to make it more like a legitimate personality quiz. Still, looking over this list, I do feel like it's better at describing my own tastes than a simple list of genres. I think I rank high for Audience, Mechanic, and Buttonmasher, and low for Storyteller, Completionist, and Grinder--makes sense for someone who loves story-driven FPS and action-RPGs, but generally dislikes open-world games and dungeon crawlers.

Such a list certainly helps to describe how I approach any given title: concentrating more on getting through the narrative and learning the quirks of the system, less on grabbing all the achievements or experimenting with the environment. I almost wish reviewers ranked themselves on a system like this--it'd make it a lot easier to sort out whether my priorities sync with theirs.

In general, I agree with Blow: the move toward psychological manipulation as a part of game design is at best something to be approached with great caution. At worst, it's actually dangerous--leading to the kinds of con-artistry and unhealthy addiction in Farmville and (to a lesser extent) WoW. I don't think we can eliminate these techniques entirely, because they're part of what makes gaming unique and potentially powerful. But it would probably be a good idea to understand them better, and package them in a way that people can easily learn to be aware of them, similar to the ways that we teach kids about advertising appeals now. After all, as other sectors adopt "gamification," industry-standard psychological manipulation is only going to get more widespread.

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