Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A New Taxonomy of Gamers: Skill Players vs. Tourists

This is the third in an 11-part series. To start from the beginning, read part one: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Games." Or read the previous post, "Hardcore? Casual? Hardcasual?"

The problems with the hardcore/casual distinction are evident. The terms may still be useful to us, but for now let's leave them there and explore some other top-level possibilities. In a recent news post, Penny Arcade's Tycho mused on a different dichotomy: "people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy." I'd been thinking of something similar for awhile, but had never written about it because I couldn't think of what to call those groups of people.

The solution hit me while reading Slate's Gaming Club. Seth Schiesel writes:

Thinking about the twist in BioShock—and the huff that some folks have gotten into over it—brought to mind something Hilmar Petursson, chief executive of the Icelandic game company CCP, told me recently. He was referring specifically to online games, but it illuminates an important component of single-player games as well.

"There are basically two schools of thought for operating an online community," he said. "There is the theme-park approach and the sandbox approach. ... Most games are like Disneyland, for instance, which is a carefully constructed experience where you stand in line to be entertained. [My company focuses] on the sandbox approach where people can decide what they want to do in that particular sandbox, and we very much emphasize and support that kind of emergent behavior."

Couple that with the words of Gabe from Penny Arcade, who said:

Tycho talked about the different reasons people play games in his post and I thought it was pretty interesting. It's a conversation we've had before and I think it's something a lot of gamers probably don't think about. I remember it came up while we were both playing Metroid Prime: Corruption. I was talking to him about how I was getting frustrated because some of the boss battles were really giving me a hard time. I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them. Coming to that realisation was actually sort of important for me.

There are two fundamental reasons people play games. They're not mutually exclusive, but they are separate. Some people play to master a game -- to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to "see the sights" -- to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let's call these groups "Skill Players" and "Tourists."

"Skill Players" is a nice, literal designation that I think will make sense immediately. We're talking about people for whom the appeal of a video game is becoming an expert at it. People who hanker for high scores and unlockables. These are the guys who pursue achievement points long after beating the main campaign of a game, because, to them, completing the story isn't the real purpose of the game. Genre may be less important to these gamers than simply having a challenge to overcome.

"Tourists" is more euphemistic, but I think it carries the right connotations. Imagine somebody visiting France for the first time. They want to see the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and the Louvre. They don't speak the language or know the streets, and they don't much care. As long as they can get where they're going, they're not interested in experiencing what a native might call the "real" Paris. And when the trip is done, they probably won't be heading back to France any time soon to find some hidden gem of a crêperie. Instead, the tourist wants to go to China to see the Great Wall. The Tourist gamer is the same way: "beating" a game is more about checking off the big moments than earning a 100% completion rate.

I like the sound of this. We've got a way to classify gamers not by the games they like, but why they like those games. But remember, the reason we're talking about this in the first place is to try to solve the problem of how to talk about games on common ground. We're still not there, not least because many successful games find a way to appeal to Skill Players and to Tourists. It may be useful to look more closely at a single game through this prism.

Next: Case Study: Guitar Hero


Johnson said...

Interesting. Isn't there a better word than the ugly "T" word, though, especially as I realize it's describing me whether or not I like it?

Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnson said...

Also: I can't wait for the next piece, as, for me, that's the sole exception of which I can think.

Mitch Krpata said...

Any suggestions for better or more accurate terms are certainly welcome. Believe me, they get even more problematic later!

Anonymous said...

Hi there; found your page through N’Gai Croal’s mention of you on 1up Yours.

I think the difference lies in whether the player sees the goal they pursue as self-defined or as developer-defined. If you’re trying to finish the story or see more level art, then the goal you’re pursuing is access to more developer-created content. If you’re trying to get a perfect score on something, you’re making your own fun in a sense by inventing the goal and pursuing it. Maybe the former sounds enticingly like “tourism” because it seems like you’re checking things off on a list—but the line is blurry because the difficulty of any challenge is determined by parameters set by the developer, and by turning minute, perfectionistic goals into explicit achievements, developers blur the line still further.

As for Gabe’s situation with Metroid, I think that for some people and some games, the narrative and revelation of content in the single player game compels you to make constant progress, and that confronting an insurmountable challenge jams up the sense of progress towards completion of the whole. The existence of the challenge isn’t necessarily the problem; you falling conspicuously short in confronting it is. If a game is a book that the player coauthors, then a boss you can’t beat is like a sentence whose words you keep jumbling up.

I think the main problem of the tourist metaphor is that it suggests that the “sandbox” (or “the France”) is there in all games and that the game “tourist” is one who largely ignores it by taking a straight shot through. I think, as the Hilmar Petursson quote expresses, many games actually don’t have that going on, and the straight shot through all the amusement park rides is the game exactly as its developers expect it to be played, and in fact they even specify the order of the rides and the length of the lines. So to some extent there might be player types, but of course there are game types too, and basically I think that whether a person turns a game into a sandbox for experimenting with their skills or not is ultimately more a sign of how much they like the game than whether they’ve got the perfectionist bug or not.

Mitch Krpata said...

That's an excellent comment; thanks for contributing it.

You're definitely right that there's a difference between developer-defined goals and player-defined goals, although untangling them in most cases may be tricky, if not impossible. In the most fundamental sense, even if a developer gives you a sandbox and no through-line to follow, you're still constrained to making choices within the framework they've already defined for you.

Good lord, it's the free will argument!

Anonymous said...

Haha-- well, at least in the case of games we get to choose the world we live in.

Anyway, that's how I perceive this dividing line between "skill player and tourist," in terms of seeing yourself as accessing developer-created content versus discovering emergent qualities of the game by yourself. I feel like, from a descriptive perspective, that's a good, clear way of breaking down the difference between these two styles of interacting with a game. Maybe it's more helpful because it's a more explicit continuum, rather than two discrete concepts.

I liked your article very much.

James said...

In this post you distinguish skill players and tourists on WHY they play the game. You could arrive at a somewhat different distinction by focusing on HOW they play:

Skill Players (Min-maxer's, hardcores, etc):
Focus on doing things "the best way" e.g., they stick to the strongest weapons, methods, spells, classes, etc. Mostly concerned with being "good" at the game, mastering the controls, the mechanics, etc. These players prefer games with high skill ceilings like Starcraft or Counterstrike. They often complain about game elements that have "no point" or "aren't worth it". At the same time, they are aware of and appreciate subtle aspects of game design that less competitive gamers will not be aware of.

Tourists ( or "experiencers", "role-players"):
These players play for the immersion, the story, the setting, the sound, the characters, etc. They are more concerned with a nice presentation than challenging gameplay. They appreciate game elements that the hardcore don't, because they aren't as focus on gameplay "win" value alone. They are more interested in the story value or fun-factor.

These players approach games more like how most people approach movies and books, as a fun experience to be immersed in for a time. They aren't as interested in long-term perfection of gameplay mechanics, because for them the appeal of any game, like a book or movie, tends to grow stale over time.

This sort of divide is perhaps most obvious in the MMO genre, but it present in many other genres as well. Halo wars is obviously more about the experience and the story than about the gameplay. Multiplayer shooters like Battlefield focus entirely on gameplay and have no story. One of the appeals of Left 4 Dead is that it brings an element of immersion and story that few multiplayer titles can offer.

One of the big problems with this divide is the fact that the two orientations often inhibit one another. Focusing on competition and winning often waters down any sense of story and realism, and gameplay elements may actively inhibit thinking about the setting and the story. Some obvious examples include: playing with experienced players who want to zip past any story elements, turning off grass effects to gain visibility, cranking up the brightness of the display, etc. On the other hand, the very best games tend to make the gameplay elements work well within the logic of the story and setting.

NW said...

I disagree with James's comment that skill players focus on best methods and best results. I consider myself a hardcore player, and many times I have made up my own challenges in games, for instance, not using the jet pack in GTA San Andreas to collect items or only using one weapon in Fracture. There is no reward for doing these, and it is NOT efficient, but it's fun, and doing it reveals subtleties of the game I don't notice in regular game play.

Anonymous said...

Linked through a post on destructoid regarding DLC and Borderlands.

You're definitions and therefore basis of this entire series is flawed.

Like my previous comment in the previous part, there are only two definitions if you will for gamers. Those who spend time, and those who spend less time. The categorization of gamers as "skilled vs tourist" is more of another discussion. Both skilled and tourist being separate groups, and should be compared against their own counterparts, namely their opposites.

Consider this: A person who plays a game for "achievements" can be a casual player, yet he is still unlocking ranks and what not. Furthermore, in MW2, unlocks and ranks do not correspond with higher skill.

All gamers are tourists by your definition as well. Nobody buy's a game purely for the bragging rights. Any consideration for story or graphical eyecandy is captured by your tourist definition.

I appreciate your article nevertheless, but I hope people will come to realize gaming for what it really is in the future (which is to say, you are wrong).

meerkat said...

Agreeing with Johnson, the term "Tourist" is really insulting to me. Everyone hates tourists. They come, they spend money so you have to be nice to them for the sake of the economy, they are clueless idiots who gawk at things ignorantly, and you are really glad when they're gone. This is the image that the label "tourist" brings to my mind. (Although there are also tourists who learn the language first, go off the beaten path, or don't fit the negative stereotypes in other ways, and they are still tourists, not "knowledge travelers" or some other category of visitor.) So-called casual gamers need a label, if they're going to have a label (I've heard it argued that we're all casual gamers really but I forget why), that doesn't say "people who play games but are not real gamers because they have crappy low skill levels," and "Tourist" is absolutely not doing it for me.

James said...

Some other labels for "tourist":

Story-driven gamer
prolific gamer (they play more games)

Let me explain that last one. One of the distinctions I like to make is between games-as-movies (e.g. uncharted 2) vs. games-as-simulation (e.g. ArmA 2) vs. games-as-chess (e.g. Starcraft 2).

The "tourist" gamer is really just treating games like movies, so you could just call them movie-gamers.