Strategic play relates to mastering complex game systems and problem solving, with a drive towards perfectionism. It is arguably the oldest play style in videogames, and its commercial importance peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Now in decline, there nonetheless exist great numbers of hobbyist players whose play needs are best met by the Strategic play style.
Conversion from Other Models
Strategic play is presumed to correlate
with Rational in Temperament Theory, which corresponds with NT (Intuitive and
Thinking preferences) in Myers-Briggs typology. Additionally, the Type 2
Manager in DGD1 correlates strongly with Strategic play. Note, however, that
the fiero theme of the Type 1 Conqueror is often present in Strategic play.
Note that the concerns expressed in respect of Temperament Theory in the statistical disclaimer apply to this related model.
Different play styles are associated with
different talents, which are expressed in those players who favour this
approach to play.
Complex systems are the focus of most, but not all, Strategic play – with examples including the majority of simulation and turn-based strategy games, as well as many cRPG games. Players who favour this play style show greater than usual tolerance for complexity, and indeed will generally persevere with games while they feel that they do not yet understand, provided they believe their tenacity will eventually be rewarded. This allows them to tolerate far longer learning curves than players favouring other play styles – but note that every player can be frustrated by any game for a variety of reasons, and the Strategic play style only gives players the capacity to learn how to use complex game systems, it does not guarantee that they will persist with any given game.
Coupled with this tolerance of complexity
comes an ability to perceive ways to optimise the complex systems in question. This
gift for optimisation is expressed as a tendency to evaluate every situation in
order to determine how to get the maximum benefit for minimum cost. So
pronounced is this tendency to min-max game situations that it is even
mentioned in Keirsey’s description of the Rational temperament, even though
play is not a focus of his work. There is a relationship between complexity and
min-maxing, since in simple systems there is limited scope for this kind of
optimisation. The love of turn-based strategy games associated with Strategic
play is partly related to the capacity for these games to afford multiple
optimal routes, and thus to allow for both min-maxing and choice.
A third talent associated with the Strategic
play style is problem solving, and the related ability to think ahead.
In many respects, this is simply an extension of tolerance for complexity,
since every problem represents a situation of incomplete information (which
represents a more convoluted arrangement than the equivalent situation where
the solution is known, but must be implemented by skill). Given the
relationship between science and the Rational temperament, the gift for problem
solving associated with Strategic play is unsurprising, and the games that
leverage this talent are often solved by what might be considered a scientific
approach – hypothesising possible solutions, exploring the outcome of those
solutions, and using this data to produce new hypotheses until a solution has
been found. All classic adventure games – text adventures, point and clicks and
modern descendents based on this form - find their most loyal fans among people whose play needs lean towards the Strategic.
The driving force behind Strategic play is
the Rational temperament’s desire for knowledge and mastery, and as a result
Strategic play can seem more focussed on perfectionism than ‘fun’ – although
it must be understood that by making perfection the goal, the player expressing
this play style achieves fiero and personal satisfaction by achieving mastery.
The greater trials they endure en route to this goal, the more it enhances the
ultimate reward in fiero.
When this theme is expressed purely in Strategic terms, the focus of the perfectionism will tend to be a desire for complete game knowledge. An examination of the FAQs available online for complex games, for example the Pokémon games (Game Freak/Creatures Inc, 1996 onwards), shows the output of this drive for complete understanding. When this theme is tempered by Logistical skills, the focus will tend more towards complete acquisition – a drive to collect everything that can be found in the game space. Finally, when this theme is tempered by Tactical skills, the focus will tend more towards mastery of skills; the ability to finesse a situation, and not just to ‘win’.
Keirsey does not often mention play in his Temperament description, so it is noteworthy that he includes the following comment in respect of Strategic skills:
[People who are strong in Strategic skills] play not so much to have fun but to exercise their ingenuity in acquiring game skills. Fun for [them] means figuring out how to get better at some skill, nor merely exercising the skills they already have, and so for [such people] the field of play is invariably a laboratory for increasing their proficiency… When [they] play sports, or even cards and board games, there must be continuous improvement, with no backsliding.
When playing with other people, those preferring the Strategic play style often seem to be highly competitive (which is mentioned in passing in Berens account of the Rational temperament). But for those players expressing this style who are introverted by nature, this competitiveness is the product of their personal drive towards a high degree of proficiency. The other players are simply part of the complex system they are trying to master. Such players often prefer to play alone.
Players favouring specific play styles are also prone to different frustrations. Different elements of play cause varying degrees of friction for players, according to their preferred way to play.
The principle source of friction associated
with Strategic play is limitation, specifically limitation of choice,
and the consequent disempowerment this can lead to. The Rational temperament
which drives this style of play is associated with a need for autonomy, and players
who prefer the Strategic play style have a strong need to feel completely in
control of their play – to have the freedom to make choices about how that play
will proceed. When insufficient choices are provided, this creates a state of
For example, a typical first person shooter game consists primarily of a linear sequence of fights. This structure is generally sufficient for players expressing other play needs, but for Strategic play it is unacceptably limited. The player faces no meaningful (Strategic) choices in this situation, and as such this limitation becomes a source of frustration if the game does not engage the player by other means.
Deus Ex (Ion
Storm, 2000) is a good example of a game that sets out to minimise this
source of friction for players favouring Strategic play, by adding choice at
every level of the design. The player is afforded virtually unlimited choices
for proceeding through the game space. But in the process of providing these
choices, the game develops such a degree of complexity that only players
favouring Strategic play can manage to enjoy it. This is the likely reason for
the eventual commercial failure of this franchise, since Strategic players have
become a minority among videogame players.
(This problem with limitation should not be confused with the Tactical play style’s issue with constraint – constraint in intended to refer to immediate barriers to action or movement, while limitation is intended to reflect a lack of meaningful options for affecting the game situation. A player favouring Strategic play may tolerate being temporarily constrained provided they have a sufficient choice of actions with which to figure out a way to remove the constraint, while a player favouring Tactical play will generally be frustrated by the constraint itself.).
A Brief History of Strategic Play
Because the Rational temperament is associated with programmers and game designers, early videogames were extremely influenced by Strategic play. Early mainframe games in the 1970s , such as Star Trek (Mike Mayfield, 1971), Adventure/Colossal Cave (Will Crowther, 1975) and Dungeon (Don Daglow, 1975) and its spiritual descendent Rogue (Toy, Wichman and Arnold, 1980). Many early games were influenced by the tabletop wargames (and role-playing games) of the 1970s, which were also great examples of Strategic play – providing complex play resulting from many different rules and options.
In the 1980s, new computers allowed
Strategic play to flourish further. Elite (Braben and Bell,1984)
appealed to a number of different play styles, but the apparent lack of
limitations (go anywhere, do anything) had especial Strategic appeal. But the
real focus of Strategic play in videogames from the 1980s were adventure games,
typified by Zork (Infocom, circa 1980) and its many sequels, and at the
latter end of the decade, graphical adventures such as The Pawn
(Magnetic Scrolls, 1986) and Guild of Thieves (Magnetic Scrolls, 1987).
These games seemed to provide few limitations, since the player could enter any
command in plain text, although of course in practice this was a somewhat
illusory state of affairs. Near the end of the decade, simulations drawing from
Strategic play, such as SimCity (Maxis, 1989) started to emerge.
In the 1990s, turn-based strategy games raised Strategic play to a new level with games such as Civilization (Microprose, 1991), Master of Orion (Simtex, 1993) and the X-COM series (Mythos Games et al, 1994 onwards). Additionally, strategic role-playing games such as the Heroes of Might and Magic series (New World Computing et al, 1990 onwards), and point and click adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island (LucasArts, 1990) made this decade the golden age of Strategic play for many people preferring this play style.
Sadly for players preferring Strategic
play, the arrival of the PlayStation in the mid-90s marked a change in the
focus of the videogame market. Until this point, players favouring Strategic
play were (arguably) in the majority, and the bulk of the games being made appealed
to these players in some way. But a new era was arriving in which effortless 3D
graphics opened the door to a wider market. The Strategic player was about to
go from being the key audience for videogames, to being a strong but diminished
This change was to mark the end of the commercial importance of adventure games, and a gradual narrowing of the importance of turn-based strategy games which today support very few viable franchises, and maximum audiences of no more than 2 million units (while other types of games were able to pull in maximum audiences of 8 million units during this time). Today, Strategic play in isolation is a commercial backwater, although many successful games support Strategic play along with other play styles.
Strategic play was the force behind adventure games, strategy games and simulations, as well as an influencing factor in the development of computer RPGs. Once the most important play style in the videogames industry, it has since been eclipsed by the more popular Tactical and Logistical play styles, and now represents something of a niche market.
With talents for dealing with complexity
and problem solving, and an especial weakness for min-maxing, the Strategic
player is something of an expert in figuring out games, avoids play that in
their eyes is limited, and, armed with their strong drive for perfectionism,
they generally master the games they adopt as their own. In many ways, they are
the very model of the gamer hobbyist.
The opening image is Creation is Evolution by Tom McNease, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.