Four Types of Metaverse Users
Applying Game Design
I’ve been compulsively playing a game called Hades lately. In it, each time you clear a room of bad guys, a chime sounds, and an item appears next to you in a halo of light — a gift, literally handed down from Olympus. It could be a few different things, but it’s often some sort of technology upgrade to make your weapon more effective. What were once plain old arrows flying from your bow are now… thunderbolt missiles! Nice. Thank Zeus.
In the real world, though, compassionate deities aren’t just dropping new tech into the room. The process is instead much more evolutionary: technology develops as an iteration of what came before, and you can trace the chain of innovation back into simpler and simpler forms. The virtual worlds that I study and write about are no exception. While it may seem like the first ones materialized out of the void some 20 years ago, these too were really just incremental improvements of the virtual worlds that came before. The full history reads like a sort of evolutionary chart in which the original, completely text-based “Multi-User Dungeons” (MUDs) of the 1980s and 90s emerged, stood up on two legs, and began trading ETH.
The australopithecus of the bunch is called “MUD1,” assembled in 1978 by Richard Bartle and Rob Drubshaw. Bartle in particular has gone on to become a kind of patriarch in the field. For over 40 years, he has been observing and writing about virtual worlds. He has produced numerous books on the topic, including Designing Virtual Worlds, which has taken on the aura of scripture since its publication in 2004. Bartle has also engaged in a significant amount of virtual world research, acting as a contributing editor to the influential blog, Terra Nova. Ironically, though, Bartle’s best-known work is possibly a small article from 1990 that appears to have been written on a bit of a lark.¹
Over the course of six months, the elder players of his text-based multiplayer adventure, “MUD2," engaged in a debate. The discussion centered around what makes these sorts of games so much fun. There was really no broad agreement on a single answer, but Bartle took it upon himself to see if he could sift through the various responses and perhaps tease out a set of answers that covers all players.
The resulting model is now known as the “Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types,” and it posits that players in virtual worlds tend to fall into one of four categories. These are “achievers,” “explorers,” “socializers,” and “killers.” ² The names refer to their preferred in-game behaviors. “Achievers” tend to focus on doing things related to their in-game advancement. “Explorers” are drawn to learning about the world of the game. “Socializers” are more interested in the other players, hoping to enjoy time online with friends, and the “killers” want simply to defeat and irritate others.² There’s obviously a certain degree of overlap here: people want to do more than one thing in a game. Still, most have a preference that shapes their style of play.
Bartle created these using a conceptual, two-dimensional grid. The X-axis represents a preference to engage with the world on one end, and a preference to engage with other players on the opposite. The Y-axis shows the desire to “act upon” things on one end, and the desire to “interact with” things on the other. Thus, there are four quadrants.
Those who prefer to enact their will upon the game world are “achievers.” Those who do so on other players are “killers.” Players who mostly interact with each other are “socializers,” and those who prefer to interact with the game world are the “explorers.” ³
It’s a simple model, and in Bartle’s conception, all play styles must fall somewhere on this graph. Among those who participated in the initial discussion, there was also a general agreement that the model captured the essence of things. I doubt he believes that everyone fits neatly and perfectly into any one category, but the industry has found this to be a useful rubric. It has been used to inform game design ever since, shaping the history of multiplayer games.
This taxonomy is over 30 years old at this point and designed to describe a species of virtual world that has long since been confined to the museum. The recent, socially-oriented and NFT-compatible worlds that people are beginning to call “metaverses” — things like The Sandbox, Decentraland, Cryptovoxels, and Somnium Space — certainly have some novel features. But, they share enough characteristics of their text-based forebears that we can still find some usefulness in applying the old model that Bartle developed.
The Four Types in 2022
It seems to me that “achievers” are presently the ones driving the Metaverse space. In the context of online games, they are those players that mostly want to gain levels or collect points. Achievers are not opposed to interacting with other players, but that interaction is very often directed towards accomplishing their goals. They’re the sort who want to see themselves on the top of the leaderboard, and the bow of their ship is forever pointed towards in-game progress.³
So, it may seem a shame for the “achievers” that metaverses feature no points systems or levels, but there is a potentially better alternative on offer: money. Achievers, in the context of a metaverse, are looking for wealth. You’ll find them saving and investing, as well as purchasing and showing off items that indicate their success. For better or worse, their philosophy is the one driving metaverse use: “get rich.”
I suppose practically everyone would like to be rich, but there are far fewer people able to get there. Much larger is the number of people who are excited by the prospect of logging into a virtual world to meet with friends and have shared positive experiences. Such people have always existed in MMOs, and they are a large part of what keeps the in-game communities thriving. These are the “socializers,” and while they may not care about being the best player, they do care about making friends and doing things together.
Not much has changed for them with the advent of metaverses. If anything, their lot seems to have improved. Metaverses are inherently more oriented towards social interactions than online games tend to be. There are no levels to grind out, no points to score, and — mercifully — no “killers” slaying the socializers mid-discussion. Socializers tend to be the ideal prey for killers, by the way. They’re usually less concerned with in-game skills, they travel in packs, and they’re going to have something deliciously cranky to say about you having murdered them in the middle of their good time. With no character death in the Metaverse, it’s as if the lions have left the savannah, and the antelopes are now free to set up virtual art galleries, discotheques, and stores. It’s a good time to be a socializer.
By contrast, the least fun prey for the “killers” are probably the “explorers”. They’re not typically high-value targets like the achievers, they’re not going to be nearly as reactive as the expressive “socializers,” and they’re probably not going to be that easy to find anyway. These are the folks that tend to be off by themselves, exploring in-game lore and mechanics, learning as much as they can. They pride themselves on understanding a game at a deep level, and they tend to be fascinated by its more esoteric aspects and places.
This is the category I fall into when playing games, and I think my place in the metaverse community is reflective of that. We “explorers” are always looking for the latest thing — when we aren’t making it ourselves. In the Metaverse, this type may come to dominate the content creators and trendsetters.
“Killers” are the last category. They impose themselves on other people, hoping to dominate and defeat them. In MMOs, this is usually expressed through killing other characters, whether for loot or infamy. Absent either, any distressed reaction from a victim seems to be sufficient. For them, there is fun “only in the knowledge that a real person, somewhere, is very upset by what you’ve just done, yet can themselves do nothing about it.”³
Metaverses don’t really provide a way to kill another player character directly, but the opportunities to annoy people abound. As I’ve warned in previous articles, the decentralized and anonymous nature of metaverses is bound to attract many, many people of this type. Most “killers” are obnoxious, but ultimately not particularly harmful. “Trolls,” in other words. “Griefers.” Think of the sorts that invaded Habbo Hotel for the infamous “Pool’s Closed” raids of 2006-2007. Others are more sinister, though, and where NFTs are valued in the thousands of dollars, you can be certain that “killers” in the form of scammers and thieves will be there, looking for ways to snag a little easy money.
I’m not a big fan of using the term “killer” to describe these types in a metaverse, honestly. The aura is a little too “Jeffery Dahmer” to describe garden-variety Internet trolls and scammers. Still, they have to be included in any taxonomy of virtual world users. There’s just no way around them. 1% of the human population is considered potentially psychopathic anyway,⁴ and more still are said to be suffering from narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders. So, it’s no surprise that we see some people behaving badly online. Dip a large enough spoon into the soup of society, and you’re bound to catch a few of the crazies floating at the top.
That’s not to say that everyone in this category is pathological or evil, though. They’re not. Some are just very competitive, and there is something positive to be said for that. Others just want a laugh. However, the most common manifestations of “the killer” are, in the end, negative. They participate with the goal of making others’ experiences worse, and for that, they need to be put in check.
Reflections on Player Types
In writing this article, I realized that while these categories are intended to describe how players act within games, they really describe something larger: how human beings behave within worlds generally. We can see these four types playing out everywhere, including the physical world. Think about it. There are those of us who find our happiness in exploring our world’s possibilities. These are your friends and family that travel, read about science, or engage in artistic endeavors. We have also encountered those who live to climb to the top of the social ladder, get rich, and make a name for themselves. Some (perhaps most) find their time is best spent building meaningful relationships with others. And finally, we have all met those who simply want to impose their desires on everyone else. These types are not unfamiliar to us from our ordinary, offline lives.
I think it circles back to the base desire that people have to take pleasure in their existence. Call it “fun.” Regardless of the world we inhabit, we want to have a good time there. What constitutes that good time, though, is different for each person. And while it’s not reasonable to say that every human really just wants one of four things, we can use this breakdown of player types to gain some insight into the tendencies that find expression in the way that we behave. This is important.
Our physical world and the worlds of 0s and 1s are different in a few aspects, but one of the most salient is that we elect to enter digital worlds. People must be convinced to come. And, if we want to bring people in, we need to appeal to what they enjoy. By designing our worlds — wherever they may be — such that they can provide fun to all four types, we are likelier to create better experiences and a more meaningful existence for people everywhere.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider following me here on Medium! I also moderate a community on Discord called STRAB0 in which people discuss issues surrounding virtual worlds. STRAB0 includes bloggers, industry leaders, metaverse devs, and others. Find out more at www.strab0.com.
Also, if you’re curious where you fall in the Bartle taxonomy, you can find a quiz at https://matthewbarr.co.uk/bartle/. Feel free. I got 80% explorer.