Diamonds Shine, Hearts Love, Spades Dig, Clubs Kill

Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Types

I’ve been binging on recent videos by Dan Olson from his Folding Ideas channel on YouTube and previously wrote about his video on WallStreetBets. After finishing that blog post, I watched this video on World of Warcraft, which didn’t seem as serious as a 2.5 hour documentary on a cult of gambling addicts playing the US stock market. However, I then saw a Reddit comment that piqued my interest so much that I had to write something about it. While it’s somewhat related to the video, this is less about toxic neckbeards yelling at strangers for being bad at playing WoW and more about different kinds of gamers and what they gravitate to.

The thing that got me writing this blog post is the Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types, a classification of gamers based on a 1996 paper by British writer and games researcher Richard Bartle. It was originally intended to categorize different kinds of players in multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), but is still applicable to gaming a quarter century later. When I found out about this from this Reddit comment, I thought it was so clever that I had to write a blog post about it.

Bartle’s taxonomy categorizes gamers into four basic profiles, each represented by a playing card suit — diamonds, hearts, spades, and clubs.

NOTE: Definitions of each category can vary from source to source. My definitions below won’t be similar to that of the Wikipedia entry or other “more authoritative” sources. The only thing I have to back up my assertions is my experience as a gamer, which isn’t that much to begin with. Reader discretion is advised.

Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types

When plotted out on a cartesian plane, this taxonomy categorizes gamers according to whether they’re more focused on acting or interacting with the in-game world or other players. This is the taxonomy as it was intended, determining a gamer’s preference according to how they play and what they play for.

Achievers: Diamonds Shine

Achievers: Diamonds ShineThese players want to play the game well and be recognized for knowing how to do what the game asks of them in the most efficient and optimal way possible, especially when competing against other players. Becoming the biggest giant of the valley is all about being the most skilled and knowledgeable player of the game, coming up with the best strategy for all situations and eking out every bit advantage at every opportunity.

Esports is a whole industry dedicated to finding diamonds that shine the brightest. From the early days with Quake, StarCraft, and Counter-Strike, to the MOBA boom with League of Legends and Dota 2, and to all the shooters and battle royale games in recent years, variety and high participation rate are the spice of esports. However, it’s actually not easy to make money with, which investors found out recently in the early 2020s. That resulted in the current esports recession that has taken place as of this writing.

Quake (namely Quake III Arena, then Quake Live, and now Quake Champions) is a good example of a game with a steep learning curve and a high skill ceiling, which attracted a lot of gamers in the 2000s with its frenetic action and precise movement. However, it can be said that Quake is a “solved game,” which means that you can’t play it any other way than the “optimal” way, or else you just get destroyed. All avenues of exploration have been exhausted at this point and all you can really do is practice to get good at that game.

The Folding Ideas video is mostly about how diamond-heavy the WoW scene got, so much that there’s now an almost impenetrable wall between interested beginners and the WoW community full of gatekeeping veterans who only want to play with other ‘competent players’, thus significantly limiting the game’s growth in the long run and ensuring the slow death of their game while it’s being squeezed for every last bit of value by Activision Blizzard.

Socializers: Hearts Love

Socializers: Hearts LoveThese players enjoy the feeling of being part of a community. The gameplay is still important since players have to like playing the game in the first place to want to stick around in it. However, games that best foster socializers are those with gameplay mechanics that encourage teamwork without being too unforgiving that it results in toxicity. The game is fun whether it’s played seriously or casually, but even more so if played with others.

Team Fortress 2 is one of the best examples of a game that has fostered its own community, which lets it stand the test of time. Even when Overwatch copied its core concepts and initially stole its playerbase, Team Fortress 2 somehow weathered that storm and continued to be a beloved game with a living community, even as Blizzard kept throwing money at Overwatch only to fumble the salvage project turned golden football.

Final Fantasy XIV is another game that’s defined by its community. While World of Warcraft has grown toxic and impenetrable, Final Fantasy XIV became its more casual-friendly counterpart. It was once a failed project, but its developers admitted defeat, reworked it, and relaunched it to be a much better game. Before No Man’s Sky and Cyberpunk 2077, this was the greatest turnaround in video game history. But what’s continuing that success story is the community it has since grown from scratch thanks to its passionate development team.

Old School Runescape is a game I don’t know much about, but it somehow continues to be relevant despite over 20 years of existence. While many other games have waned in popularity, OSRS has maintained its niche and even transcended its origins by having a serious in-game economy that rivals Pokemon cards and Counter-Strike skins. Despite having graphics that harken back to the late 90s, OSRS continues to be played in the 2020s by a passionate playerbase, especially since it can be played in even the most scuffed of potato rigs.

Explorers: Spades Dig

Explorers: Spades DigThese players are fascinated with how systems interact and how they can be exploited in ways the developers never intended or anticipated. Explorers travel every path, read every piece of text, and listen to every bit of dialogue to better understand that game. Some would even use level editors and other development tools to look under the hood and see everything there is to be seen. They care not only for aesthetics, but the reasons and intention behind them.

Some explore the world, some devour the lore, and some relish doing both. They have kept games alive for years or even decades, long enough to attract a new generation to play them, even those who were born after their release. Some would even create content to give tours of these in-game worlds and universes, as well as chronicle their lore and storylines.

I myself am an explorer, which is why I have the most to say about this category.

Completionists are the most basic of explorers, and the most numerous. If you’ve gamed long enough, you’ve looked at the achievements list and thought of getting every single one. You want to use every weapon, try every build, see every sight, and kill every enemy in the game. They squeeze every last drop of juice from the fruit, and then shave off the zest and even plant the seeds on the ground if they happen to like the game so much. Games known for their mods like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls are good examples of the latter.

Speedrunners are the best example of explorers who take it to the highest possible level. They explore and compete to achieve the fastest completion times in games. For instance, Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 speedrunners are legendary for having dug through every nook and cranny of those games for every possible glitch and shortcut to post more and more seemingly impossible times. Speedrunning websites and communities are welcoming to competitors and fans while also hostile to cheaters and frauds.

Loremasters are the type who read every in-game text, listen to every audio log, and watch every cutscene. Some even make three-hour videos on the storylines and lore of a game. Some games I know with such deeply fascinating lore include Dark Souls, Elden Ring, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, The Elder Scrolls, Warcraft, The Witcher, BioShock, and Hollow Knight. You search any of these games on YouTube and you’ll find tons of videos on their lore.

Some may think of story and lore as secondary to gameplay. As John Carmack once said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” However, games made only for gameplay tend to have short shelf lives. People can get bored of them quickly, especially once they figure out the most optimal way to play that game. That’s exactly what happened to the Quake series, a John Carmack product.

Meanwhile, as this Rhystic Studies video on Magic: The Gathering says, “What takes (the game) a bit further though is its ability to remain interesting even when not playing it. The fantasy may be the facade; but for many players, it’s the meat and potatoes of the package.”

For instance, Riot Games is scrambling to make more games and other media to expand on the world of League of Legends to extend the life of their intellectual property. Whatever happens to the denizens of Demacia may not matter to competitive players, but it does to everyone else. The success of the show Arcane is a testament to that.

With that said, if you liked Arcane and have been thinking about playing League of Legends because of the show — don’t start.

Killers: Clubs Kill

Killers: Clubs KillThese players enjoy the rhythm and flow of combat. They like hitting combos, parrying enemy attacks, clicking heads, and so on. Nowadays, they tend to cross paths with diamonds, competing to be the best at fighting or killing in a game. They also tend to be the opposite of explorers, exiting cutscenes and dialogue without a second thought just to get to the next fight, although that gap doesn’t necessarily exist across the board.

Fighting game players are the most prominent of clubs. It’s the main genre when it comes to the joy of combat — it’s in the name. It’s the one genre in esports that sees the most number of players crossover and excel in multiple titles. This shows how consistent and ubiquitous fighting games are, whether it’s Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Guilty Gear, or so on. You can shoehorn Super Smash Bros. in there, despite protestation. While the rest of esports languish due to waning interest from both gamers and investors, the fighting game community sustains itself with the love for combat and competition.

Real-time strategy gamers are into not only the strategy gameplay alone, but also the mental and kinesthetic stimulation of going at least 150 actions per minute to build units and buildings while also controlling one’s own army to defeat the opponent’s army. While many would say that real-time strategy is now an outdated genre, it’s still held in high reverence as the genre that built modern esports and is perhaps the hardest 1v1 genre to excel in.

FromSoftware games have become the bridge between clubs and spades, having the sharp and challenging combat that made Dark Souls synonymous with challenging gameplay in contemporary times while also having the deep story and lore that makes them interesting even if you haven’t played for years. While you continue to sympathize with Solaire and Alexander, you’re also mad and in awe of Friede and Malenia after dozens of attempts.

Crossovers and Overlaps

As you may surmise from the examples I gave for each, they’re too cut and dry for describing contemporary gaming. Many types of gamers these days can fit in two or more of these categories at once. For instance, you can say speedrunners are diamonds as well since they compete against each other to see who gets the fastest times. The same can be said of competitive fighting game players, who are both killers and diamonds.

But you can say any true gamer fits all four, albeit in varying degrees for each. If you’re an achiever, but not an explorer, perhaps your competitiveness would be better served by sports or games like chess since your apparent lack of an explorative nature may mean you won’t want to look around more in games. Maybe you don’t mind not caring about the story or art, but you have to be really dull to not be stimulated by any of that “extra” stuff.

Maybe you’re not much of a social gamer, preferring singleplayer games and rarely interact with other gamers either within the game or in forums and messaging platforms like Discord. I myself am such a gamer, so I understand that tendency, but that doesn’t have to mean you hate socializing and talking about games with other people. You just tend to focus on your first-hand gameplay experience. Everyone has their own preferred pace while playing games.

Instead of strict categorizations, the four archetypes in Bartle’s taxonomy should be seen as different facets of gaming as experienced by gamers. Every gamer has different proportions of each facet, thus showing a more holistic picture of their gaming preferences.

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