Saturday, October 13, 2007

To play's the thing

This is one of those rambling, "I'm figuring things out while I'm typing" posts. No guarantee of clarity. But there are good links, so there's that.

If you play games, and haven't heard-of or read anything by Richard Bartle, you need to. He is one of the creators of MUD, which you also need to know about. Richard created the "Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology" that ranks gamers on four scales; achiever, explorer, socializer, killer. It's kinda like Myers-Briggs, but for gamers. I am an ESAK. From the test:

ESAK players often see the game world as a great stage, full of things to see and people to meet. They love teaming up with people to get to the hard-to-see places, and they relish unique experiences.

Breakdown: Achiever 40.00%, Explorer 80.00%, Killer 20.00%, Socializer 60.00%

This reminds me a bit of my Myers-Briggs type, ENTP (Extrovert, iNtuition, Thinking, Perception). When I took the full MB test years ago, I was right in the middle on the first three (ie, not particularly extroverted, somewhat intuitive, and inclined, a bit, to prefer thinking to feeling). But on the "Perception vs. Judging" scale, I was hugely P over J.  

So. There's been some discussion at Terra Nova about "A fifth Bartle type." Timothy Burke, the post's author, speculates:

Where the attraction to design is a part of the experience of play, and where the player's activities within the game are at least partially aimed at a kind of pure understanding of how the game or world functions (rather than an understanding which is aimed at maximizing achievement). It's always seemed to me that this approach to play was distinctive enough that it could easily be called a fifth Bartle-type to go alongside achiever, killer, explorer and socializer. Call it subcreator, or if you want to get fancy, demiurge.

It's an interesting idea; that playing the game to understand (or appreciate or accept or influence) the game itself is, for some, more fun than achieving within the game, exploring the content or beating or socializing with other players. On the one hand, if I want to stay pure-Bartle, I think that Burke's proposed category could come down under "Explorer," where the player is simply exploring the meta-game as opposed to the game. It's a role I enjoy, both as a player and as a critic. In fact, one could say that someone who plays a game in order to understand its mechanics, player motivation, changes over time, etc. is not really playing the game, but "playing at gaming" or "playing at play." Or, maybe, sometimes even "working at play."

This intersects in my head with a post at The Escapist (by way of Infocult) called "WebGame 2.0." Kyle Orland writes about how aspects of list keeping--especially numbers of friends, popularity rankings, etc.--lend game-like aspects to some social networking activities. Self-googling, of course, falls into this category of behaviors, too. I made (and make) a very specific effort to be at the top of the listings on the major search engines for "Andy Havens." Why? Because a substantial part of my life is now "lived" on the Web. And Google is the phone book for that life. Currently, I own the first two pages of results for my name, and the majority of the results for pages 3-5. At that point, you're getting into comments on blogs that have better SEO than my own blog.* On the third page, though, you get a link to my Googlegänger, who (unfortunately for me, I think) is a marketing guy, too... but who's got some Web pursuits that I find a bit... well, it's just not my style. If he (she?) were a trombone player from Australia, somebody happening onto his/her Web efforts would (probably) realize that I'm not both an Ohio, USA marketing guy and a musician from Sidney. When the Googlegänger's activities are pretty close to mine, though... well, I'll keep working on my personal SEO.

But (and here's the point related to the above), is the fact that I'm keeping score and indication that I'm playing a game? I don't think so. Although many games have scores, not all scores are related to games. My weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. are all "scores" of a type, yet I don't monitor them as an act of play, but as something related to the decidedly non-play act of trying to stay alive. Similarly, many of the things we do to measure success (in a worldly sense) are scores--salary, neighborhood, quality of stuff, size of office, number of minions--yet are quite serious, non-play-y and not games.

There are all kinds of discussions about the nature of play and what is a game, etc. I don't want to get into that, because others (including Richard) are much better at it and have done great work already. What intrigues me at this point, though, are the two ends of a continuum that seem to bracket a "play" experience:

1. Taking something that is intended for play (a game, in this case) and doing something with it that is non-play. Now, you can argue (I won't) that the Fifth Bartle Type proposed by Timothy might be engaged in play. Sure, that might be the case. The act of building new resources for a game, for example, might very well feel like "play" to the modder. But it isn't (usually) going to be within the scope of what the designers had in mind. You can make small totem poles out of baseball bats, but at that point you are not "playing baseball" in any sense of the word. You can write and perform songs about your favorite baseball team... but again, you ain't playing the game.

2. Taking something that isn't a game, and playing it. We use the phrase, "He doesn't really care about you; he's just playing games," to mean that the subject isn't engaged on the surface level, but doing something else, using the activity in a different context. That we use the term "player" to describe a philandering male really brings home the idea that "playing" and "games" are often synonymous with a lack of sincerity or seriousness of intent. Someone who is not a player would, constrastingly, "work" at a relationship, neh?

I think Thomas Malaby said it best here:

Games... are domains of contrived contingency, capable of generating emergent practices and interpretations, and are intimately connected with everyday life to a degree heretofore poorly understood... Rather than seeing gaming as a subset of play, and therefore as an activity that is inherently separable, safe, and pleasurable, I offer here a rethinking of games as social artifacts in their own right that are always in the process of becoming.

Or (in Andy-simple terms), games ain't always games, and play ain't always fun.

The final point being a question: is there a model that describes a tendency to either "game that which is not-game," or "do 'not-play things' with that which is game?" Or does it depend on the game/situation? I have no interest in many of the social "games" that people play. Feh. And I do like to delve into the hidden, meta-nut-meat (what the hell?) of games beyond the surface. What does that say about me? What would those "types" look like?

  • G vs. M = Gamer vs. Metagamer (in game spaces)
  • S vs. P = Straightforward vs. Playa (in RL)
I'd be an MS. What that means, I have no idea. Yet. Let me play around with it for awhile...




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