Design: Player Psychographic Profiles (Part 1)

Over the past few weeks, Whose Turn Is It Anyway is running a series of guest articles about board game design.
In the final article in the current series, Chip Beauvais, wraps up the series by looking at the different psychological profiles of game players, and how to adapt your design accordingly. This article leads directly into a series articles illustrating his study of the individual profiles.


Who is your game for?

Who is your audience? The answer can vary in specificity from “anyone who owns a standard deck of cards” to “teenage female fans of Doctor Who”. This covers a lot of ground, so unless you’re working on a commission (where the target audience has been defined for you), I’d like to recommend a simple solution. Target your game to the playtesters you have available.

Why do they play games?

“Not everyone is a rigidly intellectual young man who desires only mental-skill games that let them dominate others. Some play to relax, some to socialize, some for physical mastery, some to feel part of a shared purpose.”
 – Daniel Cook (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DanielCook/20141227/233237/Top_5_design_debates_ignored_in_2014)
Once you’ve identified your audience, it’s time to dig into their psyches a bit. As a game designer, you don’t create play experiences directly. Instead, you create a system in which those play experiences might occur. As difficult as it is to create the desired effects indirectly, it’s harder still if you don’t know what types of experiences you are aiming for.

Players come to the game with their own goals, independent of the goal of the game. They may want to escape into a fantasy world, or prove that they are better at math, or flirt with the person on the other side of the table. They will enjoy your game insomuch as it provides a way for them to achieve these goals, in concert with the goals of the game.

Consider Once Upon a Time: The goal of the players is to jointly create an interesting story. The goal of the game, however, is to use up all the cards in your hand. As these goals conflict, players end up sacrificing one for the other – either “playing for fun”, and ignoring the game’s goal, or “playing to win”, and ignoring the story.

Consider Scrabble: Your goal may be to create interesting words with a limited supply of letters, but the game rewards knowing (memorizing) obscure words with exactly 2 or 7 letters.

The same game can create different experiences based on the goals of the players. As long as all of the player’s goals can harmoniously co-exist (they don’t have to be the same), the players can enjoy the experience.

What are those players like?

“But eventually you have to learn how to design not just for yourself, but for many types of players. That’s why learning about the psychographics and understanding why people play and what they’re looking for becomes important.”
 – Mark Rosewater (http://dtwtranscripts.blogspot.com/2015/03/3615-episode-207-design-102.html)
There are many different reasons people play games, not all of which can be accounted for in your game design. Rather than attempt to capture all possible motivations, this article will introduce some of the more common player psychographic profiles.

Bear in mind that an individual player rarely fits into a single category. It’ll be more common to describe someone as “mostly Ingrid, with a little bit of Jenny”. A person isn’t locked into a particular profile. It can vary by mood, which other players are at the table, how much mental energy you have, and other factors.

 

Erin Erin is a competitive player. Her goal in playing is to develop and show mastery of the game. Her favorite quote is from Reiner Knizia, “The goal of game is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.” She won’t play with people who don’t try.
Jenny Jenny is a clever player. Her goal is to create combinations of effects that lead to a surprising, unlikely win. She doesn’t win often, but when she does, it’s memorable. She won’t play games with a single dominant strategy, unless she thinks she can undermine that strategy.
Kim Kim is an exploratory player. Her goal is to just see what happens when she takes the road less travelled. No game in her collection is more than two years old.
Anastasia Anastasia is an immersive player. A game doesn’t need to have meaningful decisions to be good, but it does have to tell a good story. She won’t play a game that’s thematically inconsistent, unless she can make up stuff to bridge the gap.
Ingrid Ingrid is the systems optimizer. Her goal is to find and utilize the most efficient path to victory. She won’t play games with luck-based outcomes.
Leah Leah is the social player. Her goal is to get together with friends and have fun. She won’t play games with a lot of rules, setup, or other overhead.
Illustrations by @AndHeGames

I suspect you already know people who fit these profiles. To clarify, let’s imagine them playing a game together.

Erin, who has previously memorized all acceptable two-letter words, is currently winning a game of Scrabble. Kim is only using the 1-point tiles, and Anastasia is only using words that fit into the story she’s making up as the game progresses. They are all waiting for Ingrid to complete her turn – she’s calculating how many vowels remain in the bag before deciding which letters to use this turn.

What’s next?

Think about people you play games with, and see which categories best fit them. You can start by applying this question to yourself. Be introspective about which games you enjoy and why. Look for connections between your top-rated (or lowest-rated) games. Each of these descriptions is an extreme, but you may find yourself sharing the viewpoint of some more than others.

But remember, not everyone plays games for the same reason as you. This is a great way to exercise your empathy muscles and imagine other complexly. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you need to be a mind reader to design a good game. Trial and error, with carefully selecting playtesters, will guide you to the right solution.

In future articles, I’ll dig deeper into each of the profiles listed above.

About the author.

Chip Beauvais started designing games in 2006, and hasn’t been able to stop.
He has a masters degree in Mathematics from Tufts University.
He lives in Maynard, MA with his wife, daughter and two bunnies.

You can contact Chip via his website, or on Twitter @the_FlyingSheep

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