Monday, August 9, 2021

We Are Explorers

On the subject of repetition, which came up in conversation around here the other day, why not let's go yet another round with Dr. Richard Bartle and his famous four archetypes? I had other plans for the morning but then I read Rowan's post Revisiting Bartle and now look where we are!

On the subject of repetition, this is another great opportunity to out myself as having a really poor memory. I could claim that as an excuse for repeating myself but honestly I usually know when I'm doing that. I have selective forgetfulness only I'm not always the one making the selection.

It's facts I forget. I forget facts a lot. At school I wasn't great at the subjects that required learning long lists of dates or formulas. (This is "Getting to Know You Week" in Blaugust, right?). I was much better at the ones where you were tasked with analyzing information and drawing conclusions but best of all at those that solicited opinions. (Anyone surprised? Thought not.)

I've read Bartle's original paper more than once. There's a strong possibility I've at least glanced through it every time I've posted on the topic or done the test, which has been a few times now. Even so, I didn't recognize the definition of Explorer quoted by Rowan as having been taken verbatim from that original paper.


Here's how it's defined there:

ii) Explorers delight in having the game expose its internal machinations to them. They try progressively esoteric actions in wild, out-of-the-way places, looking for interesting features (ie. bugs) and figuring out how things work. Scoring points may be necessary to enter some next phase of exploration, but it's tedious, and anyone with half a brain can do it. Killing is quicker, and might be a constructive exercise in its own right, but it causes too much hassle in the long run if the deceased return to seek retribution. Socialising can be informative as a source of new ideas to try out, but most of what people say is irrelevant or old hat. The real fun comes only from discovery, and making the most complete set of maps in existence.

Explorers say things like:

        "You mean you don't know the shortest route from <obscure
         room 1> to <obscure room 2>?"
        "I haven't tried that one, what's it do?"
        "Why is it that if you carry the uranium you get radiation
         sickness, and if you put it in a bag you still get it, but if
         you put it in a bag and drop it then wait 20 seconds and pick it
         up again, you don't?"

Both the definition and the examples are fully valid exemplars of what I would consider to be Explorer archetype behavior. I have literally typed "Hmm..." into guild chat on more occasions than I could possibly recall and I frequently ask questions about game mechanics in open chat channels, usually with no expectation of a meaningful reply.

I am most definitely an Explorer. I've tested that way every time I've taken it. I took it again this morning and things came out much as they always do:

The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology

You are 87% Explorer


You are also:

60% Achiever

40% Socialiser

13% Killer

This result may be abbreviated as EASK

I think that's quite fair. I don't quibble with the results. I quibble with the definitions. Rowan really put his finger on the problem when he wrote

"It is worth noting that he [Bartle] was talking about (and possibly promoting) a specific type of game: Multi-User Dungeons. While MMORPGs share many traits with MUDs, they are not the same. And few MMO players have ever played a MUD."

In all the times I've posted about the Bartle Test and the Archetypes I can't remember talking about that specific point. Of course, that might be my memory failing but it might also be a good example of what's so important about repetition. Only by coming back to a topic over and over again can new understanding be achieved.


Here's the thing: as virtual worlds, MUDs exist as a series of "rooms" which players perceive by way of written descriptions. As games they are primarily text-based and players interact with them by typed commands. As social spaces they are text-based chat rooms. (I speak here with all the authority of someone who has never played one for more than a few minutes out of curiosity. I'm sure someone, most probably Wilhelm, will correct me if I've gotten any of that grossly wrong). 

Although some MUDs may have used iconography to add a visual element, MUDs were not and are not primarily a visual medium. Mmorpgs are. 

Even before the move to 3D, which happened very quickly, the first mmorpgs were extremely visually rich environments. I played Ultima Online for a couple of months back around the turn of the millennium and although it couldn't and didn't have the visceral impact on me that EverQuest did, it was still visually absorbing enough to sweep me up and take me in.

They say the pictures are better in your head (Who are they? Where and when did they say that? About what?) and it's true, to an extent. I didn't play MUDs in the 80s and 90s but I did play a lot of single-player text-based adventure games and it was entirely possible for me to "feel like I was there" at times.

After I'd played Eye of the Beholder 2, though, text-based descriptions just didn't cut it for me any more. And when I found myself lost in the dark in the East Commonlands woods with wolves howling and magical explosions lighting up the night... well, there was no going back to purely written description.


If the visual and sonic experience was so intense two decades ago with the primitive technology of the late '90s, how much more overwhelming and all-embracing must it be today, with ray tracing and full motion body capture and sweeping orchestral scores in concert-hall quality audio fidelity? It's not even the difference between an MCU blockbuster and a Keaton black and white comedy - it's Avengers: Endgame versus a faded daguerrotype from the 1850s.

In the bookshop where I work we sell almost no books on video games but the few we do have are massive, expensive coffee-table books dedicated to the sheer gorgeousness of the graphics. Some of them shelve in the art department next to the Matisses and Rothkos. We have books in the architecture section about the cities in games. It can only be a matter of time before publishers start adding game worlds to their travel photography lists.

When I identify as an "Explorer" archetype, this is what I'm picturing. Vast oceans and mountains, real and surreal landscapes, medieval villages and futuristic cities. Strange creatures, stranger people, wild fashions and fantastic devices. Towers that spiral away into the cloud-streaming skies and tunnels that disappear into the deep bismuth caverns of the mountains. I'm not thinking about whether or not my character gets sick from taking something out of a bag.

Yes, I do explore the mechanics of the games and yes I do get a sense of satisfaction from knowing where things are and how to get to them but that's a minor chord in a sweeping symphony. Mostly I explore to see things. 


As we've discussed many times, and of course it bears repeating because repetition is so important, graphics are not gameplay. Neither do graphics equal immersion. As Wilhem points out in the post linked earlier, EverQuest didn't even have particularly impressive graphics for 1999 and yet it was almost unbearably immersive. 

The same "picures in your head" trope can apply to graphical mmorpgs as it can for text-based MUDs. It's possible to look past the linoleum textures and blocky character models to see the truth of the world they show with your inner eye. The early mmorpgs may represent some kind of halfway house between what Bartle was describing and where we are now.

When I glide through the jungles at the heart of Maguuma in Guild Wars 2, spiraling upwards on thermals, soaring over sky islands fashioned from roots and flowers or when I stand in the busy market square in Bless Unleashed, surrounded by the buzz and chatter of festival day, marveling at the dust in the air, the grain in the wood, there's almost no part of my mind that's engaged in making stuff up to fill in the gaps. The vibrant, complex visual worlds we explore in modern-day mmorpgs are there, ready and waiting to be explored in just the way places we might be visit in our own world wait to be discovered. Or that's how it feels.

When I think of the Explorer archetype in the light of my own experience, the time I've spent playing mmorpgs, that's what comes to mind. All the sights I've seen, all the screenshots I've taken, all the places I've, yes, explored

I can't say for sure whether I would have felt that way about the described rooms in the MUDs of Dr. Richard Bartle's day but from my analogous experience in text adventures back then I doubt it. I can remember the plots and characters from some of those games but it's only with the advent of graphical adventure games that I can remember what anything looked like. Which, of course, not to repeat myself, could say more about my memory than it does about the games. 

I'm fairly sure much the same could be said about the Socializer and Achiever archetypes. The magnitudes by which the possibilities for both of these have expanded over the decades since the test was devised renders the original definitions as distant and divorced from present experience as graphical improvements do the Explorer.

Socializing in modern mmorpgs hasn't just altered in the means but in the purpose. Bartle's definition begins "Socialisers are interested in people, and what they have to say. The game is merely a backdrop, a common ground where things happen to players" and goes on at some length to describe meaningful, intimate, complex social relationships. Socialization in modern mmorpgs frequently means drama over DPS meters or drive-by invites to mega-guilds where almost no-one ever speaks.

While socialization has arguably withered and dried out, Achieving has grown to become the tail that wags the dragon. Bartle's definition only mentions "levels" and "points" as marks of achievement. Just about any mmorpg in the 2020s attaches "achievements" to every aspect of the game, including Exploring, Socializing and Killing. 

There's not much you can do in an mmorpg these days that doesn't flag up an Achievement. It's hardly surprising that my secondary archetype is now Achieving (60%). It used to be Socializing but who needs to do that any more, amirite?


Perhaps the only original archetype that hasn't really changed is the Killer. Or maybe that's because Dr Bartle took a pretty jaundiced view of the sociotype to begin with. Here's how he imagined Killers talking:

"Killers says things like:

        "Die! Die! Die!"

(Killers are people of few words)."

It's a good joke but I suspect even in the mid-90s some self-described "Killers" might have taken exception to it. I'm absolutely certain today's PvP and RvR aficionados would exhibit a self-disproving eloquence to dispute that take on their craft.

It's been said many times before (Go repetition!) that the Bartle Archetypes need revising. There have been several attempts to update or create new ones but somehow they never seem to gain much traction. Bartle's four stick. 

And that's fine. They're clear, simple, easy to remember. They have the authority of close observation and academic rigor. It's just a pity that, when it comes to mmorpgs, they were probably never all that close to reality in the first place and whatever congruence they did have recedes further into the past with every passing day.


  1. Great piece! Don't quite understand the conclusion, though: "It's just a pity that, when it comes to mmorpgs, they were probably never all that close to reality in the first place and whatever congruence they did have recedes further into the past with every passing day."

    It seems like the whole piece argues that with some adjustments to the definitions, these four archetypes still stand up really well. I'd argue that this is why they are still used…

    1. That's a very interesting comment. I thought I was making the case for pretty much the opposite, as the conclusion does indeed suggest! I was thinking that, yes, the archetypes are probably quite accurate as applied to the behaviors Dr Bartle was observing in MUDs but that, despite a number of structural similarities, mmorpgs almost from the beginning necessarily operated under very different sensual paramaters, making the two game systems considerably less analogous than our continued use of the archetypes suggests.

      That said, it's not the four archetypes themselves I'm questioning. They do indeed seem to be accurate under most observations and remain the best anyone's come up with. It's the definitions of what those archetypes consist of, which we seem to nod through without really questioning them, that I'm... well, questioning. I suspect that it's the Socializer that may really have diverged the furthest but I'm not in a position to examine that adequately from personal experience any more. I took on the Explorer because, having read the definition in Rowan's blog (and not even realizing it was the Bartle original at the time) I felt it wasn't even getting close to describing what I mean when I identify as an Explorer. It's not that it's wrong, just that it's a very limited, MUD-specific definition. We need mmorpg-specific definitions (and questions on that test) rather than using ones more than a quarter of a century old that derive from a very different game system indeed.

  2. Even though he intended to end it, the author is still making statements about what could have been. It's hard not to think that his opinion on reality was influenced by playing these games so much in the first place.


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