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Applying Videogame Theory to Escape Rooms : a Taxonomy of ER Player Types

Escape Room (ER) games have witnessed a huge growth in recent years, yet there are few resources discussing ER game design. This is the first in a series of articles applying game design theories to ER, starting with Bartle's taxonomy of player types.

Alastair Aitchison, Blogger

July 29, 2019

7 Min Read

Published in 1996, the taxonomy of player types described in Richard Bartle's article "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who Suit MUDs" has remained one of the most enduring and widely-cited of all academic models used in game design. It suggests that there are four different types of player that can be identified, distinguishable by their differing primary motivations for wanting to play a game.
The model was originally based on a study of players in an online MUD, but has subsequently been applied to many different types of videogames. In this article, I'll provide examples and describe the context in which it can also be applied to explain the different motivations of players in an escape room (ER) game.

Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Types

Bartle's model categorises players according to their preferences in two separate axes:

  • The first axis represents the object from which player's derive their interest in the game. At one end of the scale are the players that derive all their interest from the game environment itself. At the other end of the scale are players who derive their interest from other players participating in the game.

  • The second axis represents the type of interaction which players prefer to have with that object which provides them with interest. At one end of this axis are those players that prefer to participate with the object, while at the other end are those who prefer to act upon the object.

When these two axes are used as the x- and y- axes to construct an abstract 2D graph, it is possible to classify players into four main types, corresponding to which of the four quadrants of the graph they lie within.

  • Achievers are interested in doing things to the game, ie. in ACTING upon the WORLD.

  • Explorers are interested in discovery by INTERACTING with the WORLD.

  • Socialisers are interested in INTERACTING with other PLAYERS.

  • Killers are interested in doing things to people, ie. ACTING on other PLAYERS

Richard Bartle's "Interest Graph" of Player Motivations

As a way to help remember the model, these player types can also be expressed as the suits in a pack of playing cards:

  • Achievers are Diamonds (they want to win treasure)

  • Explorers are Spades (they dig around to discover information)

  • Socialisers are Hearts (they empathise with other players)

  • Killers are Clubs (they like to hit people with them!)

Characteristics of Escape Room Player Types

Bartle's study was conducted based on analysis of players in a Multi User Dungeon. But how do these four types manifest in the behaviours of escape room players?

Achievers (Diamonds)

Achievers play to win, and their primary motivation is to overcome the challenges set for them and beat the room to get their reward. They are likely to prefer a relatively simply-presented escape room that contains complex puzzles that present a significant degree of challenge, compared to a room that has more beautiful set design, but fewer, simpler puzzles.

Many escape room facilities advertise the difficulty of their rooms expressed as an "escape rate" - the percentage of teams that have attempted the room and successfully escaped within the time limit - and achievers may be motivated to seek out those rooms with a low escape rate, in order to beat a room known to be challenging, and thus prove their ability.

They may be likely to keep track of the victories of escape rooms they have played in a journal or similar, as a record of their success. Many escape room enthusiasts celebrate milestones of the number of rooms they have played (their 50th, 100th, 250th escape, for example) and celebrate with "escake", and this is likely to be a significant badge of honour for Achiever player-types, who are proud to be recognised for their experience and knowledge as expert players.

Explorers (Spades)

Explorers delight in discovering the unexpected and unknown. They are likely to prefer escape rooms that feature multiple areas and different spaces which only become revealed as the game progresses. They may also prefer encountering unique, novel types of puzzle with unusual and unapparent mechanics, and those that require experimentation to solve.

Explorers enjoy escape rooms that let them escape reality and become immersed in the game, and are likely to favour rooms that have beautiful, themed, high-quality sets and props, giving the feeling of really "being there" - whether that might be in a zombie outbreak, a mad scientist's lab, an ancient Egyptian tomb, or a prison break scenario.

Besides the content contained within the room itself, Explorers like to be able to imagine the events of an escape room within the context of a wider, believable and coherent game world, complete with rich narrative. They value any additional room decoration and artefacts that help to set the scene, even if they are not directly required by any puzzle to escape the room. For them, it is the journey rather than the destination that is important (this is in direct contrast to the Achievers, who are focussed on the prize).

Post-game, Explorers are likely to enjoy analysing how puzzles worked, and may particularly enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of how the room operates.

Socialisers (Hearts)

Most escape room games are designed to be played by a team of players, and effective co-ordination and co-operation between players are often key factors influencing a team's success. For Socialiser player types, this teamplay element and human interaction is the most important motivating factor in playing the game.

Some players always play escape rooms with the same team of players, and some Socialisers will use the shared experience of overcoming challenges together as an opportunity to bond and strengthen relationships within an established team of friends or family. Others will enjoy the opportunity to play with strangers and make new friends that have joined the game as part of a public booking.

Socialisers are likely to prefer puzzles that require co-operation - for example, "hold hands" human-circuit puzzles - over puzzles that require deep thought and concentration by an individual player. They may prefer escape rooms that feature actors or games masters within the room itself, with whom players must engage in role play.

Post-game, they may enjoy posing with their teammates for a souvenir photo, although the time in which they escaped (or whether they were successful in escaping) is not of primary importance compared to the camaraderie and experience of the time spent with their team in the room.

Killers (Clubs)

Killers are competitive players who get their kicks from imposing themselves on others. While the majority of escape room games are standalone, co-operative games, there are a significant minority of "head-to-head" rooms, in which two teams can challenge each other in identical side-by-side rooms. In some cases, the actions of a team in one game has consequences for the team in the other. There are also a small number of escape rooms that are starting to feature more experimental, asymmetric player requirements, such as where the team has a certain objective in order to win, but one player is a double-agent who has a personal objective to secretly sabotage the operation, and they individually win if the rest of the team fails. Killers are likely to favour these rooms, as it allows them to exercise their individual power over other players.

Many rooms publish a leaderboard of the fastest escape times achieved by teams, and a killer player type is likely to be motivated to achieve a new top score - not as a validation of their own success in the room (that would be the motivation for the Achiever type), but in order to assert their dominance and push off the team in the current top spot.

Limitations and Conclusion

It should be noted that the model is not without criticism, and Richard Bartle himself has acknowledged some of its shortcomings in his subsequent works. The nature of any categorisation model is that, by definition, it places each player into only a single specific "box" - yet a given player may exhibit motivations characteristic of both Socialisers and Achievers in roughly equal preference, say, even though according to the model these are polarised opposites!

Also, by the very nature of its simplicity, it necessarily fails to capture many of the more complex motivations of human behaviour and playfulness.

Nevertheless (and, crucially, from the point of view of a escape room designer), Bartle's model creates a useable tool that can form the basis of a structured and easily-understood analysis of different ER player types, and the features of escape rooms that are likely to appeal, or be a turn-off, to them. Using this model, it is possible to design rooms more likely to appeal to specific player types or, alternatively, to create a balanced room containing a range of elements designed to appeal to all types of player.

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