The Faces of Domination — An Essay on Bartle’s Killer Player Type

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Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus against the Persians, by Cornelis Troost (1737) [from USEUM]

The Bartle’s Player Types is a well-known theory to categorize players according to their motivations to play games, particularly multiplayer games. The theory divides players into 4 specific types: Achievers — which look for in-game defined goals; Explorers — who delight in exploring the inner workings of the game; Socializers — which use the game as a tool to socialize with other players; and, Killers — which use the game to dominate others.

While three of the types are well-defined and easy to spot in games, the Killer player type is quite complicated and even controversial. To start, various sources vary on how common it is to have players identified as such in a game.

Some claim that Killers are a rare breed, and only less than 1% of players fit in this category. Contrarily, Dr. Bartle’s himself states in his book, Designing Virtual Worlds (2004), that 23% of interviewees were killers in one research conducted with over 176 thousand participants. In any case, this question is highly dependent on a myriad of factors (game and genre, for instance), and we are likely never to get a definitive answer for it.

Dr. Bartle also deems the term “killer” as unfortunate due to the emotional nature of the word. As stated previously, a Killer enjoys exerting domination, not necessarily through “killing”. Some game designers prefer the name “dominator”, yet this other one is still bound to be misinterpreted. Both terms are not as straightforward as “explorer”, for example.

Domination itself is subject to manifest in various ways besides aggressive behavior. It can likewise manifest through imposing oneself via politics, pedanticism, and what Dr. Bartle calls “guilt-trip maternalism”:

“No, it’s okay. You go and enjoy yourself. I’ll just sit here by myself, waiting for someone to come along. I’ll think of something to do…”

Helping other players or taking a leadership position are also forms of imposition. Both actions (help and lead) are forms of manipulating other players to act according to the will of the Killer. In this sense, the Killer type is not limited to wreaking chaos — they can be the ones to bring order too. This fact alone reinforces the challenge it is to fit this type in a single-player game.

The Killer’s need for domination also prompts them to not get along with each other. Some games do not have enough space for multiple killers to play. On the other hand, when there is enough space, Killers can form groups (or gangs, as suggested by Dr. Bartle), amplifying their sense of domination. They start to see the game as a group competition or a sport.

Although the 4 player types theory is well known, Dr. Bartle proposed another version of it by adding a new axis that separates the players’ behavior in terms of implicit and explicit action. This version has 8 player types. Curiously, Dr. Bartle often states that he prefers the 4 player types model since it is easier to draw than the 8 player types version.

The term explicit behavior means that the player acts explicitly to achieve an outcome. Contrarily to implicit behavior, in which the player’s actions are not planned or perceived by them. Implicit actions are reflections of the player’s subconsciousness and personality.

This theory divides Killers as Politicians (explicit) and Griefers (implicit):

Politicians are players who impose their will on others explicitly, be it by taking a leadership position or by troublemaking. They plan their activities with specific intent. In a board game, e.g., Politicians will try to coordinate (or control) the other players, even when coordination is not part of the game.

Griefers are the more “traditional” idea of a Killer, as stated by the various sources discussing the Bartle Player Types (such as this, and this other). Griefers are comparable to bullies. They use force and other irritating actions to dominate other players. In an online game, for example, they will annoy the other players using whatever they can. For that reason, Dr. Bartle also associates this player type as common among new players and youngsters. The latter, as they are trying to express themselves and be noticed.

In a more practical example, imagine a group of friends playing Mario Kart: The griefer uses all the power-ups to annoy the others, even yelling and making fun of them for any mistake they make. Simultaneously, the politician is paying attention to all power-ups everyone is getting and trying to suggest how and at whom they should use them.

All of the 8 players types are listed below, with explicit (E) and implicit (I):

  • Achievers — Planners (E) and Opportunists (I)
  • Explorers — Scientists (E) and Hackers (I)
  • Socializers — Networkers (E) and Friends (I)
  • Killers — Politician (E) and Griefers (I)
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Player types are separated into Explicit and Implicit behavior.

According to Dr. Bartle, the Killer player type is an essential part of the player’s journey. As players start a new game, they navigate through different player types while improving their skills. In this sense, many users start a game as killers: they do not know how to play, but they want to show-off that they know something and can win, especially over other players.

Additionally, the first steps in a new environment can be frustrating, but this period also offers the opportunity of a fresh start. For some players, this is also a moment to establish their character. Some players seize the opportunity to try to establish themselves as badasses by manifesting killer traits (or, more specifically, griefer traits). Dr. Bartle describes it in his book as such:

Many newbies will first want to ascertain the established norms of behavior (which can involve killer-style behavior), whereupon they will spend a period exploring the virtual world and their abilities within it. Having gained the necessary skills and knowledge, they can start to play “properly” as an achiever.

Be it as leaders or bullies, Killers are essential to establish a good player equilibrium in a game’s community. However, as pointed out by Dr. Bartle, no player type is indeed necessary. As he states, “the model is descriptive, not normative”. Thus, it is possible not to have killers in a game. Nonetheless, this will affect how other types play the game and how long they will do so.

At the same time, there is the possibility of “faking” the presence of a player type. To some degree, having NPCs and enemies to behave as a griefer, for instance, is possible and common. Single-player games will often display an antagonist to bully and annoy the player. But this strategy might fail when trying to replicate a politician or an explorer, for example.

Eventually, the Player Types theory (be it the 4 or the 8 version) is just an attempt to understand players. Dr. Bartle himself stated that the theory was conceived on a specific environment and, although it seems to fit for various other games, it does not and should not be used as a rule for every game or scenario (it is common to see the theory applied to gamification, e.g.).

There are, in fact, many other models for player types. In their work, Hamari, J., & Tuunanen, J., Player Types: A Meta-Synthesis (2014), the authors discuss 12 different player typologies. All of them segment players according to their behaviors, traits, and motivation. Interestingly, most of them (8 out of 12) are focused on MMOs and online games. Four have a variant of the Killer type.

Killers, Griefers, and Politicians are interesting player type manifestations. Unlike the others, these types manifest traits and enjoy the game in a wide range of possibilities. They embrace the full spectrum from “aggressively hurting others” to “altruistically leading them”. From Ruthless Dictators to, well, a kind of Selfless Commander (they are not inherently selfish).

Although Dr. Bartle’s initial research on the player types focus on categorizing and understanding their dynamic (how the types influence each other), there is room for also analyzing and shaping behavior based on it. Understanding “griefers” as players during a process of “establishing their persona”, for instance, can be used to help players understand their personality. It can help us see and comprehend (a bit of) the person behind the character too.

As game designers, we must consider the different possible manifestations of joy in the game’s experience. That encompasses how players will establish, develop, and exercise their personalities. This process can also be used to emphasize behavior, especially a positive one. Leadership can be encouraged and cheered. Simultaneously, the game can more efficiently guide new players and lead them away from the “badass seeking stage”.

Still, there are always going to be players with aggressive and toxic attitudes. Bullies will be there no matter what is done. For some players, this is even an essential step in their journey. It is a sort of rite of passage.

Finally, identifying as the Killer player type is not necessarily bad. Games benefit from having this player type: griefers create tension and politicians conflict. However, understanding this dynamic can help us better design games to achieve a healthier relationship among types. We can find solutions to open up space for everyone to have some fun.

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Most of this article was written using the following book as reference:

Bartle, R. A. (2004). Designing virtual worlds. New Riders.

Thanks for reading :)

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I'm a Brazilian teacher currently working at Saxion University (Enschede, NL) for CMGT. I write every day for education, programming, and as a hobby. [@yvensre]

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