There are a number of different ways to think and talk about the notion of the ‘game player’ in the virtual worlds of MMO games like World of Warcraft, Everquest and even Second Life. Likewise the categorisation of identity connected to what ‘gamers’ actually do in these worlds that circulates within the academic literature also varies significantly. I’m going to discuss more recent works that deal with the concept of the gamer as an identity formation a little later, but first it is useful to take a look back at one of the really important earlier attempts to formally describe the things that players do in virtual worlds and how this these activities lead to notions of identity and sub-cultural grouping.
Bartle’s (1996) account of MUD players ( MUDs or Multi User Dungeons or Domains are the online text only precedent to MMOs) divided his observations of players behaviours into four categories or types: Achievers, Explorers, Socialisers and Killers. Bartle begins by asking an important question that I don’t think has been fully addressed by Games Studies in general; are MUDS (but any digital game will fit here) games like chess or tennis, are they pastimes like reading or viewing, are they more like organised sports or simply just ‘entertainment’. The answer Bartle concludes with is “yes”, to Acheivers games are like other games, to Explorers they are pastimes, to the ‘killer’ variety of players games are sports like hunting or fishing, and to the socialisers games are entertainments like nightclubs or concerts.
Players of MUD, in Bartle’s model, can be positioned in a horizontal and vertical matrix, where the y axis moves from ‘acting’ to ‘interacting, while the x axis runs from “players” to “world”, which produces a series of four quadrants that map the player categories; the further the player is positioned from the centre the more foccussed their association with one of the four categories, closer to the center players demonstrate a more varied mixture of motivations and enjoyment of play. Bartle uses this model to suggest how game designers can maintain a balance in their games and cater to all four types, not to suggest that these are concrete identities but highlight, as Taylor (2006; 70) argues “the notion that people play differently and that the subjective experience of play varies”. There is no definitive way of ‘playing’, especially with games like MMOs, but this applies as much to Tertis and Solitaire. There are of course successful strategies for winning, and set game mechanincs, but to have fun players will approach these games from vastly different personal, social, and competitive perspective.