Papers on Gaming: Nine Ways to Play

I mentioned a while ago that I’d been reading some academic papers about gamer culture, and that I’d share some with you all.  I’ve found a few interesting things.  Firstly, there is a whole academic journal, Simulation and Gaming, devoted to the topic.  Unfortunately academic journals charge massive fees to read the articles unless you’re a student or professor. Behold the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.

But that’s partially why I’m sharing this – my work gives me institutional access.  The article I’m going to present and discuss today is At Least Nine Ways to Play: Approaching Gamer Mentalities by Kallio, Mayra and Kaipainen.  These Finnish researchers recently (2010) completed a massive three-year survey to discover attitudes to video gaming among people of all ages.   The survey they made was restricted to digital gaming, but I think the results can be applied to traditional games too.

OK, now for the fun part.  They discover that there are three main attitudes to gaming, with sub-attitudes within each.  The authors make sure to state that these aren’t types of gamers – they are ways people play.  People do not fit neatly into these categories.  Most gamers play more than one sort of game, and they may play one game in one way and another in another sort of way, or even the same game in different ways at different times.

Anyway, here are Kallio, Mayra and Kaipainen’s nine gaming mentalities, as summarized by me:


Gamers with a social mentality toward a game play that game mainly as an excuse to spend time with others.  The researchers found three main reasons for social gaming:

  1. Gaming with Children: Pretty obvious.  These sorts of gamers play a game with their kids as a shared activity.
  2. Gaming with Mates:  Party gaming.  Gaming of this type tends to be done in a social setting like hanging out and playing the Wii with your friends, or the vodka-shot Street Fighter tournaments I played in high school.  People play only until the group gets bored and does something else.
  3. Gaming for Company:  This is when you sit and watch someone else play, helping out with advice and maybe joining in every now and then.  I play a lot of games in this way, watching my girlfriend play RPGs or joining in with her on FPS’s.


Casual gamers use games for some other purpose, as a means to some end.  Usually it’s one of these three purposes:

  1. Killing Time:  Again, pretty obvious.  Playing when you have nothing else to do.  Most common among the unemployed!
  2. Filling Gaps:  Playing to move from one kind of activity to another, such as taking breaks from studying or work, or waiting for a program to install or something to download.
  3. Relaxing:  Gamers who play to relax normally play regularly for a set time, like every evening, but not to fill gaps or kill time.  They play to wind down, and make time for gaming for this reason.  People usually play like this alone or online.


Committed gamers consider the game itself important as a game, rather than as a social activity or to achieve some purpose.  These mentalities are probably the most interesting for us.  Again, there are three main ways people play a game with commitment.

  1. Gaming for Fun:  Your typical competitive gamer.  This approach treats gaming like a sport. In the words of the article (p. 344) “the most important difference between the fun gamers and the other committed gamers is that they do not identify with the characters or immerse themselves in the story so much on an emotional and experiential level.  Rather, they enjoy playing as gaming or sports.  Speed, progress, flow, skillfulness, and other such characteristics of the game are more important than the story or the characteristics of the personalized game characters.”  This mentality reminded me of this post I read the other day on Sons of Sanguinius.
  2. Immersive Play:  The opposite.  “Within this mentality . . . games are not typically approached merely as games that offer an opportunity to spend time together or produce entertainment or “things to do.”  A caricature of an immersionist dweller is one of a fantasy-driven hobbyist who swears by the name of a genre, game series, guild, team, or all of them.  Thus, sharing game worlds with other gamers and gamer communities is the salt and pepper of immersive play. (p. 344)”  This sounds to me like a typical fluff player, someone who is loyal to the background and feels an emotional connection to the game.  The authors say that this sort of play is most common with RPGs and MMOs.
  3. Gaming for Entertainment:  This one is interesting.  This approach treats games like movies or music – you get hold of every new one that looks good and play it, and then move onto the next shiny game.  You are a consumer of games as media products. I know people who play like this, and I guess this is the approach the games companies want us to have!  Interestingly, this approach reminded me of GMort’s defence of bandwagon jumping on House of Paincakes.  Consuming new codexes for advantage or just because they’re new looks to me a lot like this gaming mentality, and is something that was very rare in the 40k community even ten years ago.  Maybe this is an example of traditional gaming culture being influenced by digital gaming culture?

So there you have it.  Nine ways to play.  The categories work really well for digital games – I obviously play Street Fighter to fill gaps and relax (Casual 2 and 3), and RPGs and FPSs mostly as a companion gamer (Social 3).

My attitude to 40k is much more complex, probably because it has more than one dimension.  After thinking about it I’d say these categories only apply to the actual gaming aspect of something like 40k, and don’t fit well for describing the hobby aspects.  In terms of 40k gaming, I most definitely play socially (Social 2), with some traces of skill-honing and immersion (Committed 1 and 2).

I think it’s kind of funny that the authors label what we in the table-top community call competitive gaming as “Gaming for Fun.” Also interesting is that competitive and narrative gaming would both be kinds of committed gaming, so a competitive player and a narrative player may have more in common than they think.  They both think the game is important for it’s own sake, unlike, say, a social gamer like me.

As always, discussion would be great.  There’s a lot to think about here, and even more in the original paper if you can access it.

Let me know if you want more of this sort of thing . . .

13 responses to “Papers on Gaming: Nine Ways to Play

  • Brian

    This was a tremendously interesting read. Please sir, more

  • Von

    Yes, more like this please.

    I have to say, though, I think it’s a little over-prescriptive to assign all bandwagon-jumping to the ‘entertainment’ category: I think the people who change faction for competitive reasons are probably more filed under ‘fun’, like sportsmen investing in new kit or adopting a new training regime. The people who always seem to have a cool new system to try out – they’re more your gaming-for-entertainment types, migrating on to a new thing because it’s there rather than to perfect their capabilities. They’re the ones who’ll play a computer game once and then hie down to CEX (Gamespot? I’m not sure how that translates into non-UK brand names) to trade it in, because the idea of playing anything for too long is alien to them.

    I understand that the categories aren’t absolute; I just wanted to point out another motivation for bandwaggoning, one that lies elsewhere.

  • Frontline Gamer

    I’m firmly in the camp of more articles like this please. I too used to have free access to Journal articles myself and found many papers on gaming while studying psychology (as I’m sure you can imagine) and I certain think its an interesting area of study. If you take gaming or play at its base level there have been many articles that show that play and gaming isn’t solely a human past time and that its actually something a lot of creatures do to make learning interesting and fun.

    Any way back to your article, I agree with Von Bandwagon jumping is a very difficult behavior to narrow down in terms of motivation. There’s also the collection archetype, the person who just has to own everything. I think though categorising people or behavior is a tricky subject, but nevertheless by looking at it and attempting it we learn more about what is going on, if not getting the whole picture. If nothing else it made me think about my own motivations and for that I thank you. Good read.

  • James S

    @Von, I think you’re right, I may have been overly generous putting bandwagon-jumping into the entertainment category. I think it just reminded me of something in GMort’s article, or maybe it was the comments, where it was claimed that some people do it for novelty not to improve their game. That could easily be an excuse in the face of criticism though that I took at face value. Most no doubt just want to be the best, so they’d be fun gamers.

  • James S

    @Frontline Gamer, yeah people have done a lot of work on gaming and it’s a whole new perspective from the opinion-based ‘insider’ discussions we’re used to in the blogosphere.

    On the topic of lumping people into categories, I personally don’t think it’s that helpful, and is always in danger of mis-representation. I’m not really a social scientist or psychologist so surveys and taxonomy are not my methods, but it seems to me that even a lot of those guys seem to be moving away from claims that categories like this are very useful. The people who wrote this article spend ages saying that putting people into categories based on their responses to questions is only the first step in learning about their behaviour, and needs to be built on in the future. They say that the nine ways to play are a heuristic device to help us learn more about gaming culture.

    It makes me wonder why social scientists bother with this method at all if they don’t buy it, but I suppose their answer is that it’s a starting point, and that seems reasonable.

    Also it’s fun and easy for informal discussion 😀

  • James S

    @Brian, I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely do more. They take a lot more work than a regular post though so it might be a while till the next one!

  • Blackmane

    That was a very interesting read, certainly more so than some of the articles on BOLS recently. More of these kind of articles would be much appreciated.

  • Von

    “It makes me wonder why social scientists bother with this method at all if they don’t buy it, but I suppose their answer is that it’s a starting point, and that seems reasonable.”

    I think that’s it. Taxonomies are useful things to refer to if you want to avoid your discourse becoming overly elaborate in constantly defining and redefining your points of reference, even if they mean the ultimate application of your work is finite (limited to elements that fit neatly into one taxonomical position). It does give you an excuse for a follow-up though; how to deal with various combinations of taxonomical qualities (if someone is both A and B, or B, C and E, what do we expect of _them_?)

  • Frontline Gamer

    Von’s right. Sadly we understand the world we live in by compartmentalising things, we call it stereotyping 😉 . Our brains can’t quite compute things on the ‘infinite’ scale so there is a tendency towards reductionism in all we do, scientific inquiry was born of this need to reduce the world as a means to understanding it. In psychology there has been a never ending debate as to whether our natural inclination to classify things and human behaviour actually restricts understanding and knowledge. I say yes it does BUT without it we wouldn’t have debate and without debate we’d have no knowledge at all. Its not great but its the best we have.

  • James S

    @Frontline Gamer, I agree, our classificatory tendency masks the real world, but without it we can’t easily share ideas. It’s like language itself. I tend to think that this tendency is a necessary evil of having language.

    A word is just two or more people agreeing on a sign for representing something in the world, and in order to do that the world has to be mentally carved up so that there’s a chunk of it we can say is represented by word x.

    So to communicate ideas to others even at the most basic level we need to carve up the world into categories that ultimately we’ve decided on. Reductionism I think is caused by people forgetting that they made the categories in the first place, and mistaking them for natural phenomena.

    There’s a delicate balance though when it comes to scientific discourse. We need categories to be able to talk about the world, but we need to avoid taking our categories to be real, or we just end up discussing our point of view and how things have been carved up by us (what they call phenomenology in philosophy).

    I guess what I’m saying is that science is a language, and no more captures the facts of the world than a natural language like English or Korean does. We can use it, but we always need to remember that it is built on our interpretations of nature and we could have easily interpreted things differently.

  • James S

    @Blackmane cheers, I’m glad you found it interesting. Like I said, I’ll do some more, but maybe not for a little while.

  • PartofthePlan

    Very interesting read, thanks for posting it.

  • Too Into Gaming « Warp Signal

    […] “hard-core” with being a “true gamer” whenever I see them.  There are many ways to play and none are more valid than any other.  But even I have been obsessed.  I may not play […]

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