In the pre-RPG days, we had a single gaming style choice. From checkers to chess to Scrabble to Monopoly to Sorry to Risk, not to mention baseball, football or soccer, gaming was one thing: competitive. If you wanted to play a game you were in it to win it. Think of Rocky or the Bad News Bears or even Glee and you already know how highly we value competitive drama.
But the advent of tabletop roleplaying suddenly introduced the idea of cooperation in a game. Dungeons & Dragons asked us to cooperate instead of compete, to work together to defeat a common foe or overcome a more complex challenge, and then share in victory (or loss) together. So perhaps a bit more like a team sport, but without two evenly-matched opponents both following the same set of rules. In fact, sometimes the challenge was completely lopsided. Roleplaying games attempted to simulate real life, in that the game board was the entire world, and the “rules” were simply physics, weather, cultural norms, biological limits of the human body, and depending on what genre you were playing, “magic” or “technology.” In short, the only constraints were kinds of constraints we face in real life.
In these sorts of group-effort scenarios – granted they were placed in a Tolkienesque fantasy setting in D&D – players were asked to support each other to accomplish the major goal. The real opponent was the dragon, the marauding Vikings, or whatever else was threatening the village, or the kingdom or whatever. One can see why roleplaying became a popular tool to businesses attempting to achieve quarterly sales numbers or launch a new product, or change office culture. These were more complex challenges that required group cooperation and effort.
But competition is still very much part of our DNA; our drive to challenge ourselves not only to survive but to achieve is something that will never disappear. If you asked any role- or MMORPG player whether competition has been eliminated within the game, they’d have a pretty good laugh. Of course, there are plenty of competitive games still on the market, and we can safely place those alongside our chess and checker boards; they may be on the XBOX or Playstation now, but the winner/loser model is the same. But what about this “new” world of cooperative roleplaying and multi-player games? How have the cooperative and competitive forces manifested themselves?
Styles of play are as varied as people themselves, but there are some characteristic patterns that became apparent early on in tabletop roleplaying and continue on into multiplayer online gaming. The spectrum ranges from very competitive to very cooperative, and there are immature and mature versions of all these styles. Here’s some of them, and I’m probably missing a few!
The Competitor is the most likely to participate in the Player-vs-Player features of the game, and often will chose which games to play solely on how well these PvP features have been implemented. The Competitor feels that the greatest challenge in multiplayer games is not defeating the programmed foes or scenarios built by the designers, but rather characters controlled by real-world players. Game worlds can be configured such that PvP happens only within the context of tightly-controlled or battleground style arenas. On the other hand, the world can be completely open PvP, where any player can combat another player anytime, anywhere.
The Immature Competitor was prevalent in the initial days of open PvP. Early implementations (Ultima Online, EverQuest) were interesting social experiments that many view as failures. Even so many lessons learned were learned about multiplayer games in this period. “Griefing” was a common occurrence in these open worlds, wherein one player would take advantage of another player in a disadvantageous situation and kill him repeatedly, basically forcing him out of the game. The immature competitor is less interested in true, fair competition and instead focused on making other player’s lives as miserable as possible. Check out some very interesting thoughts on another blog on the whole PvP vs. PvE (Player vs. Environment) debate.
The Mature Competitor, of course loves open PvP, but wants to best their opponent in a fair fight. Desiring more and better competition, he is more interested in bringing more players into open PvP environments than in driving them out. He’s interested in a realistic world where players can conceivably fight one another, but isn’t necessarily interested in killing every person he meets on the road, and in this sense may actually have a bit of the roleplayer gene (see that style below) in him. The whole topic of PvP in multiplayer games is fascinating and I’ll have to revisit this one!
The Power Gamer
The Power Gamer is primarily interested in becoming the best they can be within the context of the game. They are focused on achievement and are happiest when they have attained the best gear, the highest level, the “best” skill and talent combination. They tend to be highly competitive, and are more likely to participate in player-vs-player (PvP) scenarios and environments. They are the most likely to employ “min/max” techniques, ensuring characters are optimized for efficiency and power, even building programs and spreadsheets to discover and employ the best gear or skill combinations. Min/maxers will do extensive research on esoteric functions of the game, so that they become the “best” at their chosen field. Think of a professional baseball player and then compare with someone who plays softball one night a week, and you can understand the power gamer’s perspective.
The Immature version of the power gamer resents being paired with those who are not in his class, and typically only wants to play or associate with other power gamers. Even then, they can become angry and impatient when others are not performing at peak levels, or perform actions that prevent them from achieving a personal goal. The immature power gamer can also be less interested in team play in general, and be focused exclusively on solo achievement, even exploiting poorly defined rules or loopholes to the benefit their character. Think of a football player who trashes a teammate who made a mistake in a recent game – Terrell Owens, anyone?
The mature version of the power gamer still enjoys performing at max power, but understands that other styles of play exist. While she may have a group of similar power gamers in her regular team, she enjoys teaching or pointing out resources to less-experienced players for ways they might improve their character or play. She enjoys building better teams. At the same time, understanding that other styles exist, she doesn’t necessarily expect all other players to heed her advice and min/max their character in the same way she does.
The Gear Quester is interested in obtaining the best possible gear for his or her character, whether it be through quests, participating in dungeons or raids, or in player-vs-player competitions. They might be considered a subset of a Power Gamer, but with a focus on the gear portion of the min/max technique. Gear Questers will do extensive research on the best items in the game, and learn how they can be obtained, then will do everything possible to get them.
The Immature version of the Gear Quester, or “Gear Snob” not only focuses on obtaining the best gear, but also derides others if they have not done the same. Notice a trend here? In the same way that a Power Gamer is concerned with being paired with only the most powerful players, a Gear Snob sneers at those who have not maxxed out their gear, calling players “lazy” if they have not done the research they believe is so valuable. Gear Snobs rarely take into account the player’s general skill at playing their character.
Again, the mature version of the Gear Quester loves the gear progression, and seeks those items as well, but is much more likely to share what he knows with others and is less concerned with others’ style of gaming.
The Casual plays less or much less often the Power Gamer, and approaches the game from much more of a generalist’s perspective. They may shift perspectives in the game frequently, focusing one week on solo questing, another on team dungeons, another on crafting, and another on player-vs-player. They may explore the widest array of offerings within the game world, “stopping to smell the roses,” but almost by definition, not progressing in power in any one particular area.
The immature version of the Casual is an interesting opposite to the Power gamer. Instead of relishing the power of min/maxing, or doing research to improve his own character, he actually becomes worthy of the “lazy” accusations by consistently asking other more experienced players what to do, while at the same time being unwilling to do the basic work of understanding how to better play the game.
The mature version of the Casual loves many aspects of the game and wants to explore them all, but also is willing to do a bit of the work to better understand how to work with the more hardcore gamers. He’ll read up on a dungeon beforehand so that when operating with a group he’ll know how to handle his role, not expecting everyone else to carry him through. While the Casual may not ever possess the topmost gear or maxed spec, he’ll be able to work with a team and play competently and often brilliantly.
The Roleplayer, ironically, is something of a unique animal within the ostensibly MMORPG market. The roleplayer, of all styles, is the most interested in the background history and lore of the world. Serious roleplayers will actually tailor their character’s actions and choices based on what they believe their character would do, given their race, background and interactions with the world and other characters – essentially treating their character as a living being, instead of a walking set of stats and gear. The real goal is to create an interesting story within the context of the game. The game systems – dungeons, crafting, PvP, quests, leveling, gear etc., are only tools to achieve a better story, not goals in and of themselves. With that in mind, some games have established pure-RPG realms where, like PvP, roleplayers can play with like styles.
An immature roleplayer would fail to recognize any competitive aspects of the game, and might refuse to participate in any action that in his view would prevent opportunities for roleplaying, or chastise other players for not playing their character “appropriately.” They might find themselves rigidly policing other player’s in-game behaviors and lecturing them on what they should or shold not be doing. I suppose this might fall into not being flexible enough to adapt the story to the needs of the larger social group within a cooperative environment.
Mature roleplayers are perhaps one of the most balanced players in the game – adapting all aspects of the game world – lore, background, game tools, social interaction to create the most memorable gaming sessions. They understand the nuances of the larger social group and are flexible enough to accommodate the varieties of play.
The Noob, or rookie player, is least experienced in the spectrum, and is still figuring out the basics of play. Often derided by the immature versions of all the other styles, he is typically just getting into the game.
The Immature Noob is a bit like the immature casual in that they can sometimes pester more experienced players for information without being willing to do the work to learn – RTFM, or “Read the Fine Manual” is not something they would typically do. In fact, on this end of the spectrum , the problem is typically with unwillingness to go through the hard work to become experienced in the game. “Twinks” is a term used for a player who goes out and purchases in-game money to buy high level gear without going through the work (questing, dungeons, etc.) of earning it.
The Mature Noob will inquire about a few things, but then go out and through trial-and-error and research learn how to survive and thrive in the game.
Within all these gaming styles, there are multiple other ways a player can decide to focus in a multiplayer environment –the Explorer, the Crafter, the Detective, the Collector – all are ways the player can choose to experience the given world, and it’s this kind of variety, the ability to mix and match styles and focuses, that makes for an engaging experience that keeps players subscribing for years.
At The End of the Day, It’s All Good
The competitive gamer is alive and well in the cooperative game, and he or she can manifest in immature and mature ways. There’s nothing inherently wrong with competition and in trying to achieve the best, but how that competition plays out in cooperative social circles is where it become evident that a player either understands the healthy and unhealthy aspects. Are you playing so that you can (and need to) rub your views in other people’s faces? Or do you believe that the online world is as diverse a place as the real one, where room for all kinds of play is okay? The cooperative element has added a social dimension to gaming that could never be achieved in pure competitive sport, where the rules are strictly defined and enforced. Cooperation brings the complexity and nuance of the real world into the virtual one, and designers are still discovering how best to create an environment that accommodates it.