The Play Styles

(excerpt from Your A Game by Damon Suede & Heidi Cullinan)

Why are games fun? There are certain types of interactions we each enjoy and jackpots we pursue. That’s true for board games, team sports, and giant multiuser arenas like online roleplaying games, paintball… and genre promotion.

In 1996, game theorist Richard Bartle identified four ways users join and participate in multiplayer games and virtual worlds.[i] He based these gaming styles on the kinds of fun people seek out and the way they behave during play in an artificial game space. He arranged game play along two axes:Play Style axis: peers vs. genre, connection vs. control

  • Player/World: focus on the other participants vs. focus on the environment
  • Act/Interact: control vs. connection…(or) doing TO vs. doing WITH

Understanding different players (and their goals) allows designers to build better games, prevent negative experiences, and extrapolate the kinds of value and entertainment possible. After all, Candy Crush, Grand Theft Auto, and D&D appeal to very different players. Nobody wants to play games that are boring, scary, or frustrating.

Because of the parallels between gaming and publishing, these same four modes of play offer a useful taxonomy for writers navigating the terrain of genre fiction. For “players” read PEERS (fans and colleagues); for “world” read genre (industry and niche). In the next few pages we’ll list general traits and preferences to help you find yourself in these categories.[ii]

Think of your play style as your piece on the A-game board. (e.g. Heidi always had to play the iron in Monopoly and for Clue, Damon was a diehard Professor Plum). The play style (and path) you choose will change the discoveries and lessons you’ll encounter along the way. You can always mix it up the next time, but for now, play for what you want. Consider what means the most to you at this moment in your career.

What’s your primary focus right now? What kind of a promotional strategy appeals? What sounds like the most fun way to develop your career? What kind of success do you want?

In other words, what kind of an A-gamer are you?


Performers: FlexibleImage & theatrical

Players who take charge by showmanship and persuasion, advancing via influence and maneuvering their fans and colleagues. They enjoy the stimulation and excitement of the game, and they’ll claim center stage through charm, confrontation, and interpersonal politics. They can be sweet as pie or psychopathic, but they’re in it to win it and they will run the show.

Action: Impacting (choose / make / control) Impression: Commands attention
Social impulse: Express Solution: Performance
Bait: Influence and celebrity Goal: Persuasion
Mode: Tactical Principle: Power
D&D class: Rogue Keirsey type: Artisan (SP)

As a Performer, you are going to always look for new ways to express yourself, claim attention, and influence others. Take time to consider intangible benefits. When faced with any opportunity, remember that the flashy or enjoyable rewards may not be readily apparent. Even if something seems boring or difficult at first, look for ways to own it and use it to showcase your unique power.

You’re probably emphasizing attention, influence, interpersonal politics, and establishing authority. Your progress depends on the balance of subtle maneuvers and aggressive action that maximize your impact on other players in your genre.

Achievers: competitive & practicalImage

Players who want to impress others by winning public challenges while developing their prestige, skills, and renown in structured, measurable ways. They enjoy the social status acquired by completing tasks and winning badges and titles; they view these prizes as reward for diligence and proof of mastery.

Action: Striving (win / prove / compare) Impression: Earns attention
Social impulse: Compete Solution: Persistence
Bait: Prestige and awards Goal: Accomplishment
Mode: Logistical Principle: Security
D&D class: Warrior Keirsey type: Guardian (SJ)

Achievers advance logically. When faced with a possibility, establish a measure of success immediately so you have a clear criteria for all your decisions. Take time to map out a strategy, breaking the overall campaign into manageable tasks. Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines and step beyond the well-worn path. Try not to expect proof (and praise) before you’ve taken the necessary steps. Generally, you’re going to look for the sequential steps you need to climb the hierarchy, so make sure you’re pointed up the right ladder.

You’re goal-oriented and focused on competing for status and ranked recognition in your public pursuit of mastery. Every step you take climbs in the professional hierarchy and advances you toward tangible proof of your accomplishments…

Socializers: poetic & personalImage

Players who focus on connecting with their cohorts, building relationships that extend beyond the confines of the game. Socializers seek to help their community and transform the world. They enjoy discussing the conduct and accomplishments of themselves and others. Empathy fuels their work and they thrive in trusted groups with emotional connections.

Action: Relating (meet / join / connect) Impression: Shares attention
Social impulse: Collaborate Solution: Persuasion
Bait: Connections and contacts Goal: Persuasion
Mode: Diplomatic Principle: Guidance
D&D class: Cleric/Mystic Keirsey type: Idealist (NF)

As a Socializer, relationships are your lifeblood so use your diplomatic skills to create the right kind of support and access the necessary resources. Cultivate moments of detachment so you can ask the hard questions. Abstract causes may exhilarate you, but consider the logic and specifics necessary for a real world payoff. Even if someone you trust convinces you a plan is an E-Z no-brainer, keep your eyes peeled for flaws and traps. Call upon your formal and informal networks for facts, advice, and clearheaded support.

You love to stay engaged with colleagues and the community, forging bonds, building bridges. Your best moves will emphasize relationships and ways to connect with others that expand your network with fans and pros.

Explorers: abstract & experimentalImage

Players who prefer to investigate their environment, discovering hidden rewards and accumulating knowledge about the way the genre works as a niche and an industry. They enjoy solving puzzles, improving the status quo, and often learn more about the game than the folks in control because they never stop searching for answers and solutions.

Action: Thinking (know / learn / discover) Impression: Invests attention
Social impulse: Explore Solution: Perception
Bait: Insight and predictions Goal: Immersion
Mode: Strategic Principle: Wisdom
D&D class: Wizard Keirsey type: Rational (NT)

Explorers dig for treasure, testing and probing the possibilities of the genre community. While their discoveries are invaluable, they can also lose track of the personal connections that hold the industry together. Try not to dissect your gut instincts and emotional links. When someone suggests an opportunity, don’t let your prior experimentation or preconceptions about the genre get in the way of the human element. Credentials, research, and statistics count, but they aren’t infallible.

You probably like to gather intel and inside scoops that give you an edge, learning the lay of the land and pieces of the puzzle. Your moves may veer off on tangents as you dig for treasure and peel back the industry curtain…

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Go with your gut. Each of us has shown all of these behaviors at one time or another. These player styles literally arise from what interests you and what you find rewarding.

It bears saying: none of these play styles are inherently negative or positive, and none of them are more or less likely to succeed. There are humble Performers and selfish Socializers. Over your career you will probably operate as all of these at one point or another. What distinguishes each type of player is what motivates them and what they want to accomplish.

Rest in reason; move in passion. — Khalil Gibran

If you’re wavering or uncertain about which path is currently right for you, or if you want a more comprehensive picture of your current play style, we host a short online “play style” test which uses some basic career questions to identify your play style at the moment.

Identifying a play style only provides a lens to help focus your professional A game.

Movable Types

Play styles aren’t static. Bartle’s four player types distinguish and characterize general attitudes and behavior that overlap and evolve over time. As our goals and motivations change, our style of play evolves. Today’s Achiever is tomorrow’s Socializer. You may bounce between Exploring and Performing depending on your current subgenre.

Even before Bartle formulated his gamer types, he observed a general progression between the play styles that also mirrors a common career progression for many genre authors: beginners commonly start out as Performers (wanting to influence/lead their colleagues and fans) then develop into Explorers (learning the genre and developing a serious skill set) then Achievers (competing for rank and recognition from the industry), and ending up as Socializers (supporting, mentoring, and nurturing the genre community). The important takeaway is that over time, your focus and goals change.

As you choose your route through this book, your play style will point you toward the kind of answers you’d probably find appealing and useful. If halfway through you decide that you’ve stopped feeling like an Achiever and want to get your Explorer on, it’ll only keep you on your toes moving forward.

As we proceed, we’ll discuss these four play styles further and how they can help focus your promo efforts. For now, choose the one that speaks to your current pressing goal.

If you’re not certain which applies to you at this moment or you just want to turn the page and splash around, go with what feels fun and makes you curious.

Remember: with your A game the only requirement is participation.


[i] Richard Bartle’s original Player Types have become iconic within the game design community. Our use of the Bartle Types also drew on an inspiring article by Bart Stewart, “Personality And Play Styles: A Unified Model.” Bartle also gave a fantastic talk on these types and their utility in other fields: “Player Type Theory: Uses and Abuses by Richard Bartle.” Delivered at Casual Connect Europe, February 2012”  

[ii] Many of these observations derive from Bart Stewart’s article mentioned above. The social engagement verbs come from Amy Jo Kim, a gamification blogger who admired Bartle’s system, but wanted to articulate a “useful starting point for thinking strategically about what motivates your players.” cf. “Social Engagement: who’s playing? how do they like to engage?” by Amy Jo Kim

© 2016 Damon Suede & Heidi Cullinan, All Rights Reserved

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