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The International Hobo Returns

Seven years ago, I set up a company so that I could stay with my girlfriend in Knoxville while she finished her degree. For a whole year, International Hobo Ltd was just me and a laptop. When we got married and moved to the UK, the company grew a little, and its been growing a little more ever since. Now, as I leave the UK to return to Knoxville - this time with my wife at my side - it is once again me and a laptop, only this time I won't be working alone, but with the support of the UK office I leave behind. I am, once again, the International Hobo (although Ernest can also make good claim to the title!) but I am never alone, wherever I may travel.

I'll look forward to seeing some of you at GDC, and others in times to come - the rest of you, I hope to see back here in a few weeks time when Only a Game returns.

Have fun!

A Deck of Realities

Tarot A Hindu physicist in Delhi believes in a transcendent divine force, but adopts a materialist stance for his latest research paper. A Christian legislator in Rio de Janeiro has theist beliefs when praying, but a Marxist stance in the political arena. A Humanist in New York has Neo-Darwinist beliefs, but derives an ethical system from pantheism. We are used to considering people’s belief systems as belonging to a single tradition, but on examination we uncover a rich tapestry of co-existing metaphysical viewpoints.

We have no control over how we come into this world, and wherever we are born, in whichever culture and to whichever family, we acquire certain beliefs which combine to define the reality in which we live. It may be the case that there is an external reality that is the same for all of us, but we each experience this world through our own senses and beliefs. It is as if we are each dealt a hand of cards which define our personal reality – we can change the individual cards in this hand, and we can hold cards that we do not use, but what we cannot do is cast our hand aside and refuse to play.

I have already shown how Wittgenstein’s notion of a language game reveals that our private vocabulary, our idiolects, can change our personal (emic) realities (contrasted to the external, etic reality). Let us consider this in the context of a framing worldview, specifically in relation to the word ‘God’. To an individual who cannot find a way to make this word meaningful, there can be no God, nor evidence for God – one cannot find support for a word that has no personal meaning. Conversely, to an individual for whom the word God is meaningful, the notion of evidence for God may equally be meaningless as everything that can be experienced may be considered evidence of God. Neither situation constitutes a genuine ontological statement about God – we cannot test metaphysical claims, but this is categorically not the same as claiming that metaphysics are meaningless or inherently false – they are simply outside the domain of testable knowledge.

Neither is the meaning of the word ‘god’ to be taken for granted. We could be referring to God in the theistic sense of a personal God, or we could be referring to a more transcendent notion of God such as the Hindu idea of Brahman – an infinite, unchanging reality beyond the reality of our existence. Or we could be talking about gods in the sense of, say, the Greek pantheon, who are in some sense lesser beings than that which we refer to as Allah or Jehovah. For clarity, I shall call a transcendent deity the Divine (and transcendent non-deities the Absolute), a personal deity God with a capital G, and lesser deities gods with a lower case g. And as an added complication, some systems (especially Hindu beliefs) incorporate all three levels in parallel. 

Let us now look at a few of the cards from the first suit in our deck of realities.


The Numinous Experience 

The word ‘numinous’, coined by Rudolf Otto, describes an experience of the wholly Other – something external to the individual, and generally the tremendous and mysterious power of this Other is emphasised in numinous experiences. Ninian Smart, who analysed religious and secular worldviews in purely phenomenological terms, considers the numinous experience to be one of the central religious experiences, and relates it to devotional worship (which he calls bakhti – a Hindu term) and hence to theistic systems and their relatives.

Theism refers to belief in a personal God, that is, a God who is concerned with our actions and (perhaps) takes an active role in the world, albeit unseen and perhaps beyond mortal comprehension. Theistic beliefs declare their own systems of ethics as having originated from this personal God. We are perhaps more familiar with the Theism card in our deck than any other, because the Abrahamic faiths (the People of the Book, as the Muslims say) are traditionally interpreted through this view. But this is by no means a given, as we will see. 

Dualism in the Hindu style does not focus on the personal aspect of the divine, but rather on the different nature of the Divine from the Soul – the distinction of atman from Brahman. From the Divine springs dharma, a concept central to Eastern religions (indeed, the Dharmic faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism – are often contrasted with the Abrahamic faiths), and dharma provides a system of ethics; it’s very name means ‘proper conduct’ or ‘right way of living’. Unlike the law-based approach of the People of the Book, the focus of dharma is on self-realisation, to which other practices are secondary.

Deism describes a Christian approach which is closer to Hindu dualism than conventional theism; the focus here is on God as the Divine, and the personal God of theism is either rejected, or absent. Popular among Christian intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, deism plays down the importance of revealed religion, and instead sees belief in the Divine as inherently observable in the world. In essence, God creates the universe and sets it running, but then plays no further part in its operation. Ethics still follow from Christian writings, although the justifications and meaning of scripture are vastly different from theistic approaches. One could be forgiven for mistaking deism as a forerunner to modern secular atheistic views, but the numinous experience remains firmly rooted here. 

Transtheism shows another variation, taking the Divine of deism or Hindu dualism, but having a personal God emanate from this. Johannes Eckhart’s interpretation of Christianity with a deitas (the Divine) and a deus (God) shows this form, and we can find a similar system in Islam with ibn ’Arabi. Here, ethics are inherited as in theism or deism, but the metaphysical framework is more complex.

Transpolytheism connects the same idea to lesser gods, and is a common idea in Hindu belief systems – the gods are seen as manifestations of a greater Divine force. Indeed, it is generally a mistake to consider Hindu beliefs to be polytheistic (in the sense this word is usually employed). There is always the transcendent Divine behind or beyond the gods. Indeed, some Hindu mystics would not recognise the lesser gods as anything but metaphors expressing some deeper divine message. As before, dharma provides a system of ethics, and this follows from the Divine. 

The numinous experience is associated with theism and related views, but the belief systems which centre upon this idea of a mysterious and powerful Other also lead to more mystical views – all the Abrahamic faiths have their mystical traditions. Here, we move into the second suit of our deck. 


The Panenhenic Experience

Robert Zaehner coined this term to describe an ‘all in one’ experience of dramatic unity with nature or with the cosmos. Ninian Smart (to whom I am indebted for much of this piece) seems uncertain how to use the term confidently within his own system, so I am choosing to apply the term to describe mystical experiences of union with the Other (as distinct from the contemplative experience of inner unity, or union with the inner non-other) rather than in the sense of nature spirituality which is probably closer to Zaehner’s original intent. 

Monism can describe many different beliefs. In Sufi Islam, reality emanates from the Divine (from Allah), and every instant the universe returns to the Divine and is refreshed. In this instance, a mystical element has emerged from a numinous beginning, and an ethical system can be inherited from that root.

Non-dualism is another form of monism, for example, the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, which sees the ordinary perspective of the world of multiple things as an illusion. Everything is one – the Divine, God, gods and mortals are all expressions of the same thing. Here, dharma is inherent to all things (since all things are one), and so ethics are a kind of Absolute that partners with the Divine.

Pantheism describes a similar kind of situation – everything is of an all encompassing, immanent Divine, or alternatively God and the universe (or nature) are equivalent. Hinduism is the oldest pantheistic system (although Hindu beliefs are too diverse to be considered under one single framework), although all of the Abrahamic faiths develop this in some form; Spinoza for Judaism, for instance, or Sufi approaches to Islam. Ethics may be inherited from earlier doctrines where applicable, or may evolve directly from the pantheist perspective – our interconnectedness makes any harm done to others undesirable as it is in effect harm done to ourselves. 

Naturalistic Pantheism is an atheistic variation, seeing the universe as non-conscious and non-sentient, but still a meaningful focus for spiritual fulfilment. Here, the universe is divine and the Earth is sacred, and this provides some basis from which ethics may be derived.

Taoism is too complicated a subject to cover briefly, but expresses similar themes and has been connected to the panenhenic experience. Nature is governed by the way (or Tao) – it is perfectly harmonious (where man has not interfered with it), non-action is preferred, but is not the same as inaction – rather, an idea similar to dharma is at work. The Tao is Absolute and eternal, and resisting it is self-defeating: as Lao Tsu noted one cannot use force to conquer the universe, for this will just cause resistance. One should ‘just do what needs to be done.’ 

By this point, we are a long way from the numinous experience of theism, and into a new and different (yet complimentary) perspective. Our third suit takes the mystical experience of the panenhenic, and turns it inwards.


The Contemplative Experience 

Smart views religious experience as existing chiefly in two polar modes – the numinous experience of the Other, and the contemplative experience or inner unity, where the distinction between subject and object vanishes. Other experiences, such as the panenhenic, are admitted, but Smart’s model is chiefly focussed on these two poles. Furthermore, Smart sees how traditions that begin in the numinous (e.g. Abrahamic faiths, and older faiths such as Zoroastrianism) develop a contemplative element (e.g. in Sufi and Christian mysticism), while religions that begin in the contemplative eventually develop a devotional element.

Non-theism is a concept that relates to the contemplative experience viewed in isolation. It is not necessarily belief in the non-existence of gods (as with atheism), but rather that gods or God are not the relevant matter. In particular, gods are seen as irrelevant to non-theistic beliefs. Rather, dhyāna, which is a type or aspect of meditation, is central to the practices of non-theistic systems. In short: the focus is inward rather than outward to the transcendent. Non-theistic systems tend to still posit an Absolute of some kind, they just do not see this Absolute as sentient in any manner, and ethics are derived from this Absolute (as we have already seen in the example of dharma). 

Hindu dhyāna is a means of gaining self-knowledge, and thus furthering dharma. The ultimate goal is to separate maya (illusion) from reality. An inner unity is sought that will allow the practitioner to achieve the ultimate state of moksha or liberation. Ethics generally relate to the concept of dharma, as in the numinous cases we have examined before. Few Hindu systems are non-theistic, but the term is applied to such a diverse range of beliefs it cannot be excluded.

Theravada (Buddhist) Jhāna is a meditative practice with a similar role: inner contemplation is seen as being conducive to detatchment with the ultimate goal of liberation, or nirvana – the extinguishing of self (but categorically not the annihilation of self). From this quest for liberation, an ethical system emerges, but Theravada is strictly non-theistic. 

Mahayana (Buddhist) dhyāna shows another variation on the same theme, but forms a lesser role, being only part of the practice of the Great Vehicle (mahayana), which is the other major branch of Buddhism along with Theravada.  However, in Mahayana, the theme of bakhti (devotional worship) re-emerges, albeit without gods, per se. The contemplative and numinous experiences have rejoined each other once again, but here beginning in the contemplative and ending in the numinous.

Ch’an/Zen Buddhism completes the picture, as in these variations on the meditative theme, the panenhenic experience becomes joined to the contemplative experience. The experience of inner unity and the experience of union with the Other become so closely related that there is no distinction between the two. Indeed, the notion of subject and object are entirely obliterated.

From these non-theistic positions where the notion of God or gods is secondary or misleading, we move into our final suit.


Here, the religious experiences of the numinous, panenhenic or contemplative state of inner unity are rejected or absent. These worldviews are not considered religions by their practitioners, although they often contain metaphysical and ethical elements which can make them seem religious to an observer (in the case of the most vehement adherents, intolerance is just as likely to occur as from an entrenched religious position). But these cards may exist in the same hand as the cards from other suits, and the human capacity to take disparate beliefs and unify them into a coherent system remains breathtaking.

Materialism is not a worldview people identify for themselves so much as a designation philosophers have applied to those worldviews which consider the material universe to be paramount – that is, existence is seen as being wholly or chiefly matter. I personally find this view slightly strange: given the extent to which the Copernican and Darwinian views toppled the notion of man’s position at the centre of the universe, why presume that all that exists can be detected by man’s senses and instruments? But this is a minor point, and in any case does not affect the value of materialism in underpinning the modern skeptical view and, more critically, providing engineering practices with a firm foundation. Ethics are absent, unless focus on the testable can be seen as a kind of partial ethical view.

Marxism is a particular form of materialism in which a specific system of metaphysics and ethics are derived from a central narrative which expresses history in terms of class warfare. Parallels can be made with how many religions draw their metaphysics and ethics from specific narratives. Smart suggests that the failure of Marxism in Soviet Russia came from ethical flaws within Marxism – the class warfare metaphor conflicted with basic human rights when used as a the justification for totalitarianism, and with traditional societal values when opposing religion. But as I have noted previously, there are signs of a new softening attitude to religion among modern Marxists. 

Nationalism is a similar approach in some respects, but here the prime factor is the importance of the nation state to which one claims identity. This card can exist in the hand alongside those of other suits, although certain tensions result – consider the collision of Christianity and nationalism in the United States: to an outside observer, it sometimes seems that the nation is worshipped more fervently than God. Ethics derived from nationalism concern solely the role of the individual with respect to the state.

Sportism is a neologism I am coining to describe the non-religious experience of the devotee of a particular sporting team. It is similar to nationalism in terms of the issues of identity, but no ethical element emerges. One wishes one’s team to be victorious, but this does not provide the basis for a system of ethics. As secular rituals have gradually supplanted religious rituals in Western society, sport can become an incomplete substitute for religion. 

Nihilism denotes a rejection of ethics. Life has no truth, and no action can be known to be preferable to any other. I consider this position to be rather pointless, and equivalent to giving up on any hope of resolving issues in religious metaphysics or secular ethics. Since I consider both of these problems to be readily solvable, nihilism seems to me a lazy escape for the depressive or rebellious. I prefer Michael Novak’s view that the experience of nothingness can be the beginning of ethical enquiry, instead of transforming this experience into an ideology, and rejecting ethics entirely.

Neo-Darwinism began as a scientific theory (the modern evolutionary synthesis) but has recently developed into something of a nonreligion, taking the gene-centric view as the highest authority for understanding reality, and considering other approaches (e.g. religion) as inherently inferior. A parallel can be made with the way Marxism emerges from its central narrative, except here the ‘narrative’ is couched in abstract scientific terms such as genes and fitness. Although this belief does not lead to an ethical system, a common misunderstanding of its doctrine is to believe that the “selfish gene” metaphor somehow justifies or excuses self-centred behaviour, or to believe that procreation is the highest goal – confusions that result from applying an interpretive scientific model to an ethical context. It is interesting to compare Neo-Darwinism’s encroachment on metaphysical or ethical subjects with the Creation Scientists’ imposition of metaphysics onto science: both can be seen as category errors. 

Multiversism is a neologism I am coining to describe the belief system that results from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics. We have already seen that there are other quantum interpretations that function as nonreligions, but the widespread popularity of multiversism marks it out for special attention. The basic idea is that all possible quantum states ‘exist’ in other universes – a metaphysical belief which renders quantum theory easier for certain scientists to digest, but which cannot lead to an ethical system. However, it may lead to a variation on the panenhenic experience – a few multiversists report an experience of instantaneous awareness of all other quantum universes that seems to constitute an oxymoronic instance of a secular ‘religious’ experience. 

Modal Realism is a term coined by the philosopher David Lewis to express his belief that the possible worlds of modal logic were as real as our own universe. At first, this seems to be a modified version of multiversism, but in the Many Worlds quantum interpretation the laws of physics (and presumptions of metaphysics) are generally assumed to be the same in each universe. In Modal Realism, all possible worlds are considered viable – the variation of these possible worlds is thus unlimited. At this point, we cannot exclude gods on materialist grounds: all possible worlds exist, hence it is not a question of whether God exists – this is most certainly the case in some possible worlds – it is only a question of whether or not our reality contains such an entity.


With this, our brief journey through a handful of cards from the deck of realities is complete, and we have come full circle.


Shuffling the Deck

We do not choose the cards that are dealt to us, although we can to some extent alter the hand with which we play the game of reality. Each of us, in our own way, has the power to discard those cards we do not wish to play with, or to pick up cards that will help us play the game. Attempts to evaluate individual cards as True or False are entirely misleading, for such statements cannot be validated meaningfully – all the cards are there to be played with, it is only how we play with them that matters. We must find those cards that suit how we wish to play the game, and accept that other hands are not only possible, but inevitable. This may be difficult, but the rewards are more than commensurate to the challenge.

Out the Door

The time consuming and emotionally draining process of leaving Manchester has meant I have not been able to properly tie up the blog until now. There are just a few things I wish to post while I have a spare moment.

Firstly, I thought it prudent before moving into ethics to review some distinctions in the many systems of framing metaphysics throughout the world. Some of these overarching worldviews are conventionally religious, some are secular, but all are characteristically metaphysical in that whatever truth they may hold for the individual holding such beliefs, they are not testable propositions. I hope you enjoy this wide-ranging view of belief systems and how they lead to ethical systems in certain cases.

Secondly, I wish to muse briefly on the irony of being returned once again to the role of the international hobo, after which my game design and narrative scripting company is named.

Only a Game will return in late March, as soon as I have found my footing over in the Colonies.

GDC Quick Picks

In the few scant seconds I have managed to salvage, let me quickly share my picks for this year's GDC:

  • Know Your Players: An In-Depth Look at Player Behaviour & Consumer Demographics (Monday 5th March, 9:00 am-6:00 pm, Room 3004, West)
    Nicole Lazzaro, Jeff Pobst, Jason Scott, Hans Lee, Chaim Gingold, Mark Terrano, Constance Steinkuehler, Chris Bateman, Nick Yee, Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, Yasmin Kafai, Robin Boyar, Craig Davison, Jefferson Dong, Michael Gartenberg, Heidi Perry, Tony Van, Chris Early, Robert Nashak, Katherine Isbister

    I'm deeply honoured to have been invited to join a distinguished pack of researchers and experts for this all day tutorial. This event looks like being the highlight of the convention for me this year, and anyone with an interest in game research should find something of value in this diverse and engaging tutorial.  Although I have been listed as a faculty member at GDC for several years now, this is my first time that my contribution has been large enough to warrant a free pass, and this is a cause of especial celebration for me.

  • Challenging Everyone: Dynamic Difficulty Deconstructed (Wednesday 7th March, 12:00 noon-1:00 pm, Room 2009, West Hall)
    Aaron Cole, Ken Harward

    Dynamic difficulty systems are one of the many grails I've sought in the past, so I am always interested in hearing about other people's methods. Ritual's approach sounds fascinating, as the player decides upon their experience at the start of the game, and the systems then attempt to adjust towards this goal.

  • Blindtesting (Wednesday7th March, 2:30 pm-3:30 pm, Room 3016, West Hall)
    Steve Jackson

    Ultimate indie tabletop game design hero Steve Jackson shares his wealth of experience in blindtesting games, and links this to the digital games industry. The process of putting games into the hands of players who have no idea what to expect is vital to the final stages of the development process of any game, and I am greatly looking forward to hearing Steve's perspective on the topic.
  • Game Writers' Group Gathering (Thursday 8th March, 9:00-10:00 am, Room 52)
    Chris Bateman

    Finally, after years of shouting over the passing crowds, the Game Writers' Group Gathering gets its own room! For anyone with any interest in narrative in games, this should be well worth dropping into, even if in practice it turns into something of a Game Writers SIG reunion.  If you write for games, or are interested in doing so, feel free to drop by!
  • Keynote: A Creative Vision (Thursday 8th March, 10:30-11:30 am, Esplanade, South)
    Shigeru Miyamoto

    I'm normally reluctant to plug keynotes, as they get so packed, but this one may be irresistable.
  • Comparing First Generation Drama Engines (Thursday 8th March, 1:00-2:00 pm, Poster Session Area)
    Patrick Dugan

    Come hear possibly GDC's youngest ever speaker talk about
    drama engines in this poster session.
  • Game Writers' Round Table: Tricks, Techniques and Concerns (Wednesday 7th March, 2:30-3:30 pm,  & Thursday 8th March, 2:30-3:30 pm, Room 123, North Hall)
    Rich Danksy

    Two opportunities to discuss game writing in a more structured environment than the group gathering - I shall be at the one on Thursday as the first one clashes with Steve Jackson's talk, but both will be well worth attending for anyone working in the field.
  • Reflections of Zelda (Thursday 8th March 5:30-6:30 pm, Room 135, North Hall)
    Eiji Aonuma

    This is at least the second time Aonuma-san (who has headed the Zelda franchise since Majora's Mask) has given a talk at GDC, and I expect this session will be just as popular as the last. Expect the hall to fill up, and be prepared to listen to GDC's excellent translation team work magic in real time. The focus of these sessions tends to be stylistic rather than mechanical, but it is nontheless engaging.
  • Meeting Players Halfway: Using Adaptive Systems to Prevent Player Frustration (Friday 9th March, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 2007, West Hall )
    Linda Tang

    One of Irrational's programmers discussing using expert systems to provide dynamic training in games - this isn't about adaptive difficulty, but about reactive training. This is flagged as a programming session, but it looks like it could be of interest to game designers too.
  • Rethinking Challenges in Games and Stories (Friday 9th March, 4:00-5:00 pm, Room 2009, West Hall)
    Ernest Adams

    Continuing the GDC tradition of putting Ernest's session right at the end, I expect a packed room for this characteristically philosophical examination of the role of challenge in games and interactive stories

If you have any additional picks, please feel free to share them in the comments. That's all I have time for now - hope to see some of you at GDC!

Final Days

There's much I would like to post about this week, but time is short, and the process of moving colliding with my workload exhausts my remaining hours. I'll try and get up a few more posts before Friday; afterwards, blogging will be suspended until the far side of GDC. A few short comments...

  • We finished Twilight Princess yesterday. If I had time, I would dig into a critique of the design of this game, but I think on the whole this is an impossibility right now. Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, and have the greatest of respect for Eiji Aonuma and his team, I cannot shake the sense that while the Zelda games continue to improve, it is harder for established fans to be impressed by the newer titles, as so much that happens is reiteration of the essential structure. Classic though this structure is, it is clearly time for the franchise to experience some reinvention; Miyamoto-san has already said as much.
  • We won't be taking our Wii over to the US; does this mean we have to lose all our Miis? If anyone knows how to get Miis off a Wii, please let me know.
  • Played Car Wars on Sunday for the first time in years; a healthy dose of tabletop battle nostalgia. It is amazing how time consuming the games of this era were, but it in no way dulled my enjoyment of them at the time.
  • An Elric movie was announced in 2003, but there's no listing for this project on the IMDB... I assume this is languishing in production limbo, but if anyone knows otherwise please let me know.
  • As a leaving present, one of my friends spearheaded the making of some beautiful hexagonal boxes for Black Sun and Lost Island. I'll try and get a picture up at some point.

More soon, I hope...

Other Play Styles

Cblalock_play_time_ii_tn We have already seen how applying Temperament Theory to the field of play reveals three distinct play styles – Strategic play, Logistical play and Tactical play. In this final piece, we will look at the fourth hypothetical play style relating to this theory, and also other kinds of play style, such as those that relate to specific emotions. 

Diplomatic Play

The landscape of personality that is mapped in Temperament Theory has a fourth region corresponding to the Idealist temperament, and we would thus expect to find a fourth play style: Diplomatic play. However, currently our research is not sufficiently developed to have any confidence as to what constitutes this play style, and more research is needed. It may be that Diplomatic play can be identified, but that it does not relate well to videogames, or it may be that there is no form of play which relates to the Diplomatic skill set (but this seems highly unlikely). 

We can hypothesise as to what Diplomatic play might involve by looking at the skills that have been related to the Idealist temperament. Thus, we expect Diplomatic play to be involved in a process of unifying or harmonising through an abstractive process, and also to be rooted in communication and empathy. This relationship with communication (either the private communication of writing and art, or the public communication that takes place directly between people) suggests that Diplomatic play might be found more easily by examining multiplayer games, but it may also be difficult to separate from Extroverted play (see below).

It is also possible, given the Idealist temperament’s relationship to narrative and metaphor, that certain forms of story play might be opportunities for Diplomatic play to be expressed. But since our current videogames are not especially good at supporting story play, this may be difficult to ascertain. An examination of tabletop role-play might be the best place to search for such a play style. We would expect a player expressing this play style in such a game to be enjoying resolving disputes and conflicts; given the general bias in most tabletop RPG play towards combat, an empirical study should easily show if there was a contrary form of play taking place in such games. 

Extroverted Play

When we extend Temperament Theory to cover the full landscape of personality covered by Myers-Briggs typology, we must consider another side to play: Extroverted play. This was identified in the DGD1 study and related to the Type 4: Participant play style, and has also been examined (independently) by Katherine Isbister, whose 2005 GDC presentation on the subject is included on her website, here. (Note, however, that without Katherine’s additional commentary, this material is sadly incomplete – fortunately, a paper on the subject is forthcoming). 

According to Linda Berens extension to Temperament Theory, there are four distinct Interaction Styles that when combined with the four Temperaments yield the same inventory of sixteen general “types” as the Myers-Briggs typological system (although since individuals express many different ‘types’ it is perhaps better to think of these as roles they are capable of adopting). Two of these Interaction Styles, which Berens calls Get Things Going and In Charge, relate to extroversion (the remaining two – Chart the Course and Behind the Scenes – relate to introversion).

There are, therefore, two hypothetical Extroverted play styles that accompany the four Temperament-derived play styles we have already seen: 

  • Participant play (which I have named after the fourth type in DGD1) relates to the Get Things Going Interaction Style. Its concern is involvement – making something happen, or keeping things moving. To some extent, when this kind of play is in effect, it doesn’t matter what is happening as long as something is happening. It is much easier for this side of play to express itself in a group playing in the same room (where emotional contagion can take effect) than online, although it is all but certain that this style of play can be found in either situation.
  • Leadership play relates to the In Charge Interaction Style. Its concern is, unsurprisingly, executing the role of a leader – that is, directing a group of players. The satisfaction relating to this play is in having a group execute skilfully under the leader-player’s command (which may be equally satisfying to the rest of the group – especially if they strongly express Logistical or Participant play). It probably does not greatly relate to team-oriented single player games (which tend towards Strategic play) so much as it does to the multiplayer space, and we would anticipate online games with voice communication to attract players who enjoy this kind of play. Nick Yee’s research shows that Leadership is indeed one of five key motivating factors for players to join virtual worlds. 

It is possible that the two introverted Interaction Styles also have a corresponding play style. More research would be needed to investigate this.

Emotional Play Styles 

Finally, we come to those play styles which relate to the key emotions of play, as researched by Nicole Lazzaro in her Four Keys model. It is possible that the play styles already identified have specific relationships to the key emotions of play – for instance, the DGD1 suggests that the emotion fiero is more intimately connected to Strategic and Logistical play than to other forms, and that the emotion of curiosity might be more intimately connected to Diplomatic or Tactical play. However, the DGD1 research is by no means robust enough to postulate anything more than hypothetical connections. As ever, further research is required. 

One of Lazzaro’s Four Keys – People Fun – relates to Extroverted play, described above. The emotions associated with this key, namely amusement, schadenfreude (delight in other’s misfortune) and naches (the mentor’s delight in their student’s successes) should all be considered to contribute to Extroverted play in general. We will see below how the other emotions of play can be considered possible play styles in their own right:

  • Conqueror play: (which I have named after the first Type in DGD1) relates to Lazzaro’s Hard Fun, that is, to the emotion of fiero – triumph over adversity. I have related this feeling specifically to Caillois’ pattern of agon, that is, to games of competition. Conqueror play values fiero above all else, and is almost inevitably angry (one could justifiably call it angry play). The games which provide the greatest payoffs in fiero (which include most first person shooters) almost invariably frustrate the player i.e. anger the player, thus pushing their buttons and making them play on until they can achieve victory, and hence the eventual payoff in fiero, which is heightened by prior hardships. 
  • Wanderer play: (which I have named after the third Type in DGD1) relates to Lazzaro’s Easy Fun, that is, to the emotions of curiosity and wonder. The experience of players preferring this approach to play is one of exploration, although not necessarily spatial exploration (the Wanderer play style does not appear to correlate with navigation skills!) Enjoyment is gained from purely experiential elements, and therefore this play style appears to relate to Caillois’ pattern of mimicry. Game worlds must contain rich detail or strange oddities to excite the interest of a player favouring this play style.
  • Serious play: the last of Lazzaro’s Four Keys – Serious Fun – relates to the emotions of excitement and relief. It may be that there is another play style focussed upon these emotions, and hence I include it here. However, I suspect that while these feelings contribute to the enjoyment of many different players, they do not represent an identifiable play style in and of themselves. For instance, Conqueror play almost always features elements of excitement and relief, but is notably focussed on the fiero. These      emotions do relate noticeably to Caillois’ alea and ilinx patterns, however. The unanswered question is whether there are players who seek out games which focus on these emotions, in the same way that players preferring other play styles seek out games that will fulfil their play needs. And as ever, further research would be needed to resolve this question.

Future Research

The nine play styles we have looked at represent an early attempt at an inventory of the different ways people approach the play of games, with a particular focus on videogames. There are many unanswered questions at this point, and of particular interest is whether or not the emotional play styles correlate in any measurable way with the Temperament-based play styles – and indeed, whether the combination of factors associated with the Temperament-based styles really constitute measurable patterns. In order to investigate this, it would be necessary to devise instrumentation that could identify elements of the play style definitions without building the assumptions of the underlying model into this instrument. 

There can be little doubt, however, that the play of games is a diverse activity, and that attempts to understand it in terms of a sole underlying factor (a purely reductionist approach) will deliver an incomplete picture. Different people approach play with radically different play needs, and the way they meet those needs can be highly varied, but beyond this it is hard to reach any firm conclusions. More research is needed, but we would need research partners to realistically pursue this approach to its logical conclusion. In the meantime, the models we have – one derived from the DGD1 study, and the other derived from Nicole Lazzaro’s Four Keys study – give us a flawed but intriguing picture of the diverse ways people play games.

Copyright notes: It appears that Linda Berens has trademarked the names of the four Interaction Styles. I consider this to be disastrously unhelpful, but I include this comment to acknowledge that these terms (Chart the Course, Behind the Scenes, Get Things Going and In Charge) are protected under copyright law. No infringement is intended, and if asked I will rework this piece such that Berens work is no longer being properly referenced, but such that it is at least legal. I urge scientists not to trademark terms relating to their research – it is contrary to the spirit of the scientific endeavour to place limits on how one’s work can be referenced.

The opening image is Play Time II by Clara Blalock, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked. 

Successful Publishers

Next Generation has this piece up with actual sales data for the US market last year (usually you have to pay for this stuff). I'm extremely glad to recieve this data for free, but I have to take task with one of their conclusions:

Any would-be game publishers looking at these stats would come away with one of two strategies. Either, to create an absolutely amazing game on few platforms (Gears; Zelda; Oblivion; New Super Mario; Guitar Hero) or to sign up an animated movie and release it on every platform conceivable.

Well I can't disagree with the second point - if you wanted to create a new profitable publisher, you would be sensible (in commercial terms) to focus on licensed product, because nothing works better in the mass market than a ready-marketed franchise, and since the license is what's selling your game a platform exclusive gets you nothing.

But I can't agree with the former. How exactly can a new publisher hope to produce "an absolutely amazing game", exactly? And of the games cited, only Guitar Hero is the product of anything but giant investment plus established studio/franchise  (and I am doubtful anyone could have predicted the success of Guitar Hero, despite its obvious strengths).

A new publisher cannot plan for an absolutely amazing game. An existing publisher cannot easily plan for an absolutely amazing game, for that matter, otherwise we'd be inundated with them. Absolutely amazing games generally happen when absolutely amazing developers get absolutely amazing sums of money, absolutely amazing quantities of marketing support - and either make a sequel to an already successful game, showcase new technology on a virgin platform, or get lucky.

Does anyone think otherwise?

Pleasing the Masses

Crowd If what sets a social virtual world apart from the many single player videogames is the presence of other players, why are the vast majority of commercial virtual worlds built upon established single-player game structures? To explore this, we must look at what attracts players to the social worlds.

In 2002, Nick Yee published research examining motivating factors behind people’s desire to play in Massively Multiplayer Online games. The paper, "Facets: 5 Motivation Factors for Why People Play MMORPG's" is available online here, and is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject. (Yee’s work took Richard Bartle’s informal model as its starting point). The motivating factors identified in this study were:

  • Relationship: players expressing this factor were interested in forming friendships and having discussions with other players. (This factor also correlated most strongly with the amount of time spent in social virtual worlds).
  • Immersion: players expressing this factor enjoyed losing themselves in an imaginary world, and desired role-playing experiences, favouring the company of others sharing the same motivation.
  • Grief: players expressing this factor objectified other players as tools for their own personal gain and entertainment. Player killing is the obvious outward side of this, but scams, deceptions and begging also express the same theme.
  • Achievement: the desire for progress in the game space, and increased power.
  • Leadership: the desire to play with others and specifically to take on a leadership role.

What do we notice about these five (independent) factors? Of the five, three of them (Relationship, Grief and Leadership) inherently require a social world, and a fourth (Immersion) is partially dependent on other players. Only one – Achievement – is possible in a lone world.  

This brings us back to the opening question: if the players of social worlds are predominantly visiting for reasons unconnected to solo game play, why build the infrastructure of virtual worlds on the same principles as single player games?

I believe there are several sound answers to this question, but the first and most obvious is that the videogames industry does not know how to leverage inventiveness and originality very well. If it did, we’d have a thriving indie market. What it does do exceptionally well is create clones of proven commercial formulas, usually with small improvements. Why is World of Warcraft built upon the model of a basic single-player computer role-playing game? Because Blizzard knew that this model would work. And they didn’t know which other models might work. It was a sound commercial decision, albeit a disappointment for anyone interested in play innovation. 

A second and equally significant answer is that in order to support a social community, a game must have players. The easiest way to attract players is to provide a form of play that certain players (any players) really want. Building an MMORPG on classic cRPG structures inevitably attracts some early adopters, who in turn bring other players into the game. Marketing may be a consistent force in the growth of online communities, but word of mouth is more significant. I do not have research that confirms that a large number of MMOG players arrive in that particular world because of a specific friend, but I am fairly confident this is the case.

Equally significant is what happens if this conventional play element is absent. During the golden age of MUDs (Multi-User Domains or Dungeons – the original text-based MMOGs) in the 1980s and 1990s, a variety of different types of communities emerged. One trend that is not often mentioned is what happened to those MUDs that did not feature either a game-like structure (usually classic cRPG structure) or a role-playing bias (suitable for attracting players who enjoy the Immersion factor, mentioned above). Such MUDs often became functionally equivalent to chat rooms – once the virtual worlds had communities, those communities invariably skewed towards social forms, and as a result would often be populated primarily with people who had logged on solely to chat. (Remember that tools like Messenger did not become popular until after 2000).

However, modern MMOGs no longer have this problem. There are plenty of chat solutions outside of a virtual world, and so there is no need to co-opt a MMOG as a purely discursive space. As a result, any virtual world that provides no game framework of any kind is in trouble: it cannot support a community because it cannot hold the subset of players interested in pursuing game activities which appear to be the seed population from which the majority of the members of the social worlds grow. The majority of the players may be there for social reasons, but they are anchored into the game world by personal connections that connect them directly or indirectly with players who are locked into the goals and rewards of the game space (those motivated by Achievement in Yee’s model). 

It is worth noting that one does not have to use the cRPG structure as the basis of a virtual world. Second Life is a notable exception, and seems to have survived simply by virtue of the persistence of its operators, but there are other examples such as the noted niche MMOG A Tale in the Desert, which is structured in a manner which includes no combat. But this game attracts only a few thousand players, not the millions of players drawn to World or Warcraft. There is, therefore, a great opportunity for small independent companies to run their own niche market games (provided they correctly anticipate the needs of their community, and anchor that community somehow). But the big money right now will remain in the hands of established game patterns – established single player game patterns – until some lucky innovator stumbles upon a viable alternative framework.

And it is possible that there are no virtual world frameworks with greater commercial potential than those we currently have. But even if this transpires to be the case, it won’t stop a thousand bold entrepreneurs pushing the frontiers of online play into new and amazing places. 

Research Notes

Yee’s research is correlated with the “Big 5” personality model, which is transformable into Myers-Briggs, and hence Temperament theory. In this light, the following hypothetical observations can be made: 

  • Immersion relates to Abstract (hence to Strategic and Diplomatic play)
  • Grief relates to Thinking (hence to Strategic play) – I suspect this would actually correlate with Pragmatic, hence Strategic and Tactical play.
  • Achievement also relates to Thinking (hence to Strategic play)
  • Leadership relates to Extroversion (hence to Extroverted play)
  • Relationship did not correlate with a Big 5 factor – this, interestingly enough, contradicts my suggestion that Introversion/Extraversion could be used to predict the split between the appeal of lone and social worlds. It seems even Introverted players are drawn to virtual worlds as a source of friendships.

Also worth noting is that among male players, age was negatively correlated with Grief and Achievement – that is, younger (male) players were more motivated by these factors than older (male) players. This finding does not strike me as especially surprising, but I note it for completeness.

Tactical Play

Impact Tactical play relates to improvisation, and competence with all manner of tools. To other people, those preferring this style of play can appear to be both reckless and lucky. Second only to Logistical play in terms of its apparent distribution, it is a key commercial force in the modern games industry, and it may be an influencing factor in the success of the many games which focus their play upon the most popular tools in modern games – cars and guns. 

Conversion from Other Models

Tactical play is presumed to correlate with Artisan in Temperament Theory, which corresponds with SP (Sensing and Perceiving preferences) in Myers-Briggs typology.

Additionally, the Type 3 Wanderer in DGD1 correlates with Tactical play (as, to a lesser extent, does the Type 2 Manager, although the profile of this play style is far closer to Strategic play). 


Different play styles are associated with different talents, which are expressed in those players who favour this approach to play. 

Whereas Logistical play is focussed on goals, and Strategic play on systems, the focus of Tactical play is improvisation. Every game grants the player a number of possible actions they can take, and the player gifted in Tactical play will naturally conceive of immediate and effective ways of combining these actions to have an effect. For any situation, they will naturally have ideas as to what they can do, and proceed rapidly to trying these ideas out. Sometimes, they will even chance upon novel and unexpected solutions to problems, which can be an especial source of satisfaction for such a player.

The effect produced may advance the game by meeting a goal, but it is the capacity to have an impact that is important to players favouring Tactical play, not the goal, per se. Indeed, such a player may have just as much fun making something happen that has nothing to do with advancing in the game – with a sufficiently interesting game world, such players can entertain themselves for some time just by exploring what they can make happen as a consequence of their own actions. (The playground worlds of the GTA games in particular lend themselves to this approach). 

Another key talent associated with Tactical play is a natural proficiency with machines and tools. Players who prefer Tactical play seem to possess an immediate degree of competence with any tool or vehicle the game provides them – provided they are in control of it. A device which does everything without player input is not an interesting source of Tactical play; a device which allows the player to demonstrate their natural skill is what is desired. The most obvious example is with driving games of all kinds – these base their play around the player’s capacity to control a vehicle, and generally have immediate appeal to players who enjoy this play style. (Note that players preferring Logistical play may also enjoy a driving game, but in such instances competence is learned through repetition, rather than being immediately present).

What seems to be desired for Tactical play are tools (weapons etc.) with a degree of analogue control, such as the analogue control of a car through both its steering and acceleration, or the analogue control of a gun through a free aiming mechanism. Given the games industry’s obsession with the commercial appeal of guns and cars, these are by far the most common examples of analogue control found in modern videogames, although environmental negotiation abilities (jumping, climbing and so forth) occasionally afford opportunities for Tactical play – especially with secondary jumping abilities, such as a double jump or gliding ability. 

Other examples can also be found. When The Legend of Zelda franchise moved into a 3D world with Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998), it centred its play on a diverse collection of tools, most of which are essentially analogue in nature. (The roots of the toolset lie in earlier 2D games in the franchise, but these earlier tools were not analogue in nature).The slingshot, boomerang and bow are effectively variations on the gun theme but each still allows for skillful free aiming, while the hookshot (a type of grapple) has more of the nature of an analogue tool, cuccos (chickens) can be used for gliding, bombs have a variety of uses, and the ocarina of the game’s title provides all manner of additional abilities to the player. Although the Zelda games meet a variety of play needs, they are notable examples of the tool-focus associated with Tactical play.

Players who favour Tactical play sometimes seem to be naturally lucky. This is not to suggest any supernatural element, however – rather, this capacity for serendipity seems borne of simple psychological roots. Players who express this play style often show an exceptional tolerance for adapting to random variation – what might be considered compensating for noise (again, this may relate to a preference for analogue controls). Furthermore, Tactical play can be associated with openness to risk, sometimes expressed as impulsive recklessness. It is this combination of a willingness to take chances, and capacity to adapt quickly and effectively to random events which create the impression that players with strong Tactical skills are naturally lucky – the more chances one is willing to take, the more opportunities one has to fluke success. On analysis, then, this is simply a further expression of the spirit of improvisation that lies at the heart of Tactical play. 


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 chief source of friction associated with Tactical play is constraint. The player favouring this style seeks to improvise and overcome, and anything that gets in the way of this approach is an annoyance. Tactical play thrives on the freedom of the player to act, and to have an impact in the game world, and thus anything which constrains the player’s freedom will frustrate a player preferring this play style. If a game prevents the player from using one of their tools in an arbitrary manner, this is an unacceptable constraint – ‘why can’t I use that here?’ is the natural question. If the Tactical player cannot act freely in a game, they would often prefer not to play at all – ‘I’m not putting up with that!’ is the natural response to excessive constraint.

(This should not be confused with the Strategic player’s problem with limitation, which is concerned with insufficient choice of actions – the Tactical player is annoyed by immediate constraints to action, rather than too narrow a set of choices. For instance, in a typical FPS the player often only has the capacity to move, and a choice of weapons – limited from a Strategic perspective, but more than sufficient for Tactical play. Conversely, if a game’s story imprisons the player and takes away their weapons and tools this can be an engaging puzzle from a Strategic perspective, but it is pure irritation for solely Tactical players). 

Another source of friction associated with Tactical play is boredom. This may seem a strange suggestion – don’t all players have a problem with boredom? But players favouring Logistical play have tremendous tolerance for repetition provided they are progressing towards a goal, and players favouring Strategic play can be willing to spend considerable time trying to solve a tough puzzle or beat a difficult foe. Neither situation will suit a player whose preferences lie firmly in Tactical play; such a player will quickly lose interest if what they are doing becomes routine, or takes too long to achieve. The opportunity to have an impact must always be present, and when it is not boredom is the natural result. Often it will cause such a player to give up entirely and play something else instead, and players favouring this play style start many more games than they ever finish.

A Brief History of Tactical Play 

The early arcade games of the 1970s were too abstract to have wide appeal for player’s favouring Tactical play, although such players probably did enjoy early videogames such as Space Invaders (Taito/Bally Midway, 1978), Pac-man (Namco/Midway, 1980) and so forth, for the novelty if for nothing else. The players who persisted at these games, however, were more likely to prefer Logistical play, as the capacity to have an impact was limited.

The 1980s moved arcade games into a more accessible place, and driving games such as Out Run (Sega, 1986) and Hard Drivin’ (Atari, 1989) could be found along shooting games such as Operation Wolf (Taito, 1987), all of which provided opportunities for solid Tactical play. Additionally, it is likely that fighting games such as Street Fighter (Capcom, 1987) attracted Tactical players. On the home computers and consoles, the most Tactical games were probably the early platform games, such as Manic Miner (Mathew Smith, 1983) or Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985), although inevitably these also supported Logistical play through their structures. 

The move to polygonal 3D in the 1990s was to see an explosion of interest in Tactical play. Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992) and Doom (id Software, 1993) laid down the first person shooter (FPS) template which has always been distinctly Tactical. Although the only tools provided are guns, the properties of the weapons are sufficiently different that Tactical play can emerge in the capacity to choose the right weapon for the right situation, as well as the spatial play elements key to FPS games, which also suit players favouring this play style.

The superior graphics of Quake (id Software, 1996) gave it notoriety in game fandom, but the title sold only a few million copies (Doom is estimated to have sold 4 million copies, and to have been downloaded and played by some 10 million players). The most commercially successful FPS’s of this decade were GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) which combined solid game design with a hugely popular license, and Half-Life (Valve, 1998) which combined the technology of Quake with an inventive story implementation. Both sold 8 million units, the highest sales figures achieved by FPS games to date. 

Driving games were similarly invigorated by the move to 3D, with games such as Virtua Racing (Sega, 1992), Ridge Racer (Namco, 1993) and the seminal kart racer, Mario Kart (Nintendo, 1992) all affording the Tactical play of driving (although most driving games also supported Logistical play, in that courses could be learned by repetition). Other racing games to provide opportunities for Tactical play included skiing games such as Alpine Racer (Namco, 1995) and the more successful genre of snowboarding games such as 1080 (Nintendo, 1998). However, cars remained the commercial centre of racing games, and Gran Turismo (Polyphony Digital, 1997) sold 10.5 million units on the PlayStation, with each of its sequels selling roughly the same numbers to total 44 million units across the franchise.

The next decade was to see cars and guns combined in the same titles, thus concentrating the Tactical focus of certain games. A notable title is Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001), which featured a greater focus on the shooting element than the vehicular element, and which provided excellent opportunities for Tactical play – players enjoyed being able to make an impact with weaponry, explosives and vehicles. Commercially, the game enjoyed reasonable success, selling some 5 million units; sufficient to mark it as a hit, and certainly nothing else on the Microsoft Xbox console enjoyed greater commercial success. 

But it was the advent of the playground world structure in games such as Grand Theft Auto III (DMA design, 2001) and its sequels that served to take Tactical play further. For a start, these games combined both driving and shooting elements (thus combining the most popular sources of Tactical play into one game), but additionally the capacity to wreak free-roaming mischief allowed players the opportunity to have an impact in a more direct way than ever before. (Although the playground world structure has earlier roots, it was only when it was used in 3D and in the context of cars and guns that it achieved the full measure of its success). Such games also included an effectively linear sequence of missions, and thus supported Logistical play as well; by strongly appealing to the two most significant play styles – and doing so with the added appeal of cars and guns – commercial success was all but guaranteed, and the games have sold up to 14 million units in their recent iterations. 

Assuming the distributions of players preferring the Tactical play style correlate with the Artisan Temperament, we would expect some 25% of the population to greatly enjoy this style of play – second only to the Logistical play style in hypothetical popularity (50% of the population, if it correlates directly with the Guardian Temperament). As a result, games that meet the needs of both Logistical and Tactical play could appeal to as much as 75% of the population, and thus supporting both play styles is increasingly essential to mass market success.


Tactical play is a key factor behind the success of driving games, and shooting games – especially the ever-popular first person shooter – although it can be found to some degree in a wide variety of different game genres that focus on a single avatar, and provide the capacity to have an impact. Although not proven, it is hypothetically the case that Tactical play is second in commercial importance only to Logistical play, and comparisons of sales figures for the most popular games supports this claim.

With an irrepressible capacity for improvisation, and a reckless experimentation that can result in them seeming to be naturally lucky, the player favouring Tactical play seeks immediate freedom in their game worlds. Constraints are an especial annoyance, and such players can become bored easily when they lose the ability to have an impact. Naturally proficient with machines and tools with analogue controls, the Tactical player seems to have an immediate competence with almost any game that attracts their interest. 

The opening image is Impact by Juergen Aldag, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

The Last Superbowl

When you watch the Superbowl from the United Kingdom, you are in the minority. Most people are asleep Sunday night by the time the broadcast begins, and so it is a dedicated minority that are drinking beer into the early hours of the morning. This year was perhaps the last time I will experience the Superbowl as a cultish late night drinking marathon. Next year, I'll be watching it as part of the normal US experience... with the added 'benefit' that I will get to see the special Superbowl commercials, which are never shown elsewhere in the world.

My wife and I have known that this move was in the works for a while now, but it has still managed to creep up upon us. It was only in January that we really came to realise that when I fly over to California for GDC this year, I won't be returning to the UK any time soon. I will be an immigrant.

As a result of the move, I expect blogging will be disrupted for the next month or so.