Player Roles: Observers and Participants

Standard disclaimer, take everything I say with a grain of salt, etc etc… views can change and every theory evolves.  I am by no means whatsoever an expert on game design.  Form your own opinions.

Fighting yourself

A little less than a year ago, I wrote a post talking about what I viewed as a dichotomy between obsession and contextualization in ideal media consumption.  I ended up asking:

To summarize, my problem was an observation that some my best experiences with media happened when I obsessed over the content, whether that content be games, book, movies, or anything like that.  I was also observing that trends like escapism and long-term obsession were harmful to my overall health and overall media consumption.

This was really weird, and I didn’t like it.

Traditionally, when we talk about player motivation, we bring up classification systems like, for instance, the Bartle types of players.  These theories, for the most part, work well.  The problem isn’t that they’re wrong, but that they are riddled with problems when we rely on them for generalized design:

  • They’re limited in scope - Bartle types only describe player goals, not how they interact with those goals. They deal with player motivations on a somewhat surface level, but they don’t look at the root causes of those motivations, which causes us to run into bizarre edge cases that don’t fit neatly into categories.
  • They’re not as predictive or as useful as we would like – It’s difficult to design a game with Bartle types in mind. There’s not a lot of depth to implementation of Bartle types into games, and there’s not a lot of room for us to build theories on top of Bartle types.  We’d like a theory that allows us to expand in the future.
  • They’re trying to do different things than designers want - Bartle types (and similar classification systems) are designed to place players into categories – to explain in general terms what a player’s motivation is.  That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t really help us describe how players play games or what it looks like when players play games.  Essentially, these classification systems are just more information on demographics.  Bartle might be completely correct, but we’re looking for different information than he’s providing.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think Bartle is wrong – just that I don’t think his theory alone is sufficient when talking about player motivations.  I’m looking for a descriptive theory; one that describes what the process of playing a game looks like for the average player, and one that I can use to shape how my game treats the player and what it shows the player at any given moment.  If at all possible, I would want my theory to avoid interfering with Bartle types and to avoid replacing them, but rather attack a different part of player motivation so that both theories could survive in harmony.

Ideally, I’d like to use something similar to a narrative arc, but applied to players.  And because it’s been bothering me a lot over the past year, I want it to address some of the concerns I had in the previous article about the relationship of contextualization and obsession/escapism in games.

Let me steal a name for this:

There’s a data-gathering technique in anthropology called Participant observation – it’s not really all that similar to this, at all.  But there are things that feel the same at first glance, so it’s perhaps not so bad that the names and terms I’m using are similar.  Basically, Participant observation works off the theory that we’re best suited to gather data on a culture if we’re in that culture; but not so far in that culture that we lose our objectivity.  So the people using this method try to maintain a balance between their roles inside a group and their role outside of a group.

In a generalized sense, I would like think of players as a type of Participant observer – a researcher that immerses him/herself in your game to gather information.  It’s a crude, inaccurate and incomplete analogy that will break down steadily as you read through this article, but there are some useful parallels to draw from it.

To be more specific and more accurate, I propose that we’re incorrect  to talk about a player’s experience from a singular perspective, and that it would be more accurate to break the player into multiple sub-characters, who will switch control with each other as needed throughout the entire experience.  The idea is to think of a “player” as someone who consists of two entirely separate yet simultaneously acting individuals who advise each other and trade off control of the individual.

I refer to participants and observers as literally being separate people, working together to form a singular “player unit” – almost as if the player had multiple personalities that manifested themselves as they played a game or watched a movie.  The reality is, of course, probably more complicated, but this distinction allows us as designers to remove a large number of contradictions in our understanding of how players interact with games, because we no longer need to view player’s engagement as a singular static process.

Each “part” of the player fulfills one of two separate roles: the observer and the participant.

I’ll go into these roles in more detail below, but to quickly summarize, observers act as gatekeepers to gauge a game’s quality, the creators intent and execution, and the effect of the game on the player.  To do this the observer takes a realistic, objective approach to the media.

Participants take an approach that a game, its mechanics, and worldview, are real, or at least reflect reality in a completely perfect sense.  This is a more difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, but would be closely related to what we would more commonly refer to as a suspension of disbelief, or immersion, or a sense of empathy for what is happening in a game.

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