I happen to subscribe to the International Hobo RSS feed. Recently they posted about a project called BrainHex, which describes a 7 point typology that is supposedly the result of some neurobiological research. I spent some time with the test that they offer, to find out what “class” of gamer I was, but quickly got frustrated. Part of this frustration was derived from the format of the questionnaire, but a lot of frustration came from the typology, and the implicit claims made by typologies.
BrainHex aims to find a neurological justification for the pleasures and motivations of play, but this research cuts out precisely everything that is interesting about games as a communicative or rhetorical medium. We rarely get into typologies of readers, theatergoers, film goers, and the like, except at superficial levels. All of these media can be mastered in a way to produce very calibrated experiences; often films are categorized as tear jerkers, or adrenaline rushes, and so forth. There are neurological explanations for why we enjoy these things, but these operate at a very low level in the brain. Studying neurology says what I am feeling at a certain moment, but says nothing about why I am enjoying or am not enjoying a film. It furthermore is not reasonable to say that there are typologies of film goers that can be deduced from neurology. A typology of film goers based on neurology would divide films into absolute categories such as action, slapstick comedy, horror, and romance, without their being any complexity or middle ground. We do not enjoy films strictly because they are generic, or because they induce calibrated emotional responses, but because the films have meaning.
The typology used by BrainHex comes from a couple of surveys, the first of which being DGD1. The results for this survey were published in a book, and then a subsequent survey was used to build BrainHex. A quick review of the questions asked reveals a few distressing generalizations in asking how the respondents play games. One of the questions, number 12, asks the respondent to put in a binary response to this question: “I’d much rather play with other people than play alone.” In this question alone there is a lot missing. What if I enjoy playing alone and playing in groups? What if I enjoy playing alone in some games and not others? What if I enjoy playing in groups sometimes, but not other times? What if I enjoy playing with only one specific group, under a certain context, and enjoy it immensely, but not do not enjoy any other group play? It is not fair to collapse all of these variations into one binary response. The surveys are therefore hard wired to produce restrictive typologies. They do not permit any complex contextual understanding of players or their motivations.
Like Bartle’s taxonomy, which divides players of multiplayer games into the groups of achiever, socializer, explorer, and killer, BrainHex idealizes player types, and conflates motivations with behavior. Two players may perform similar actions, but with very different reasons behind them. Bartle attempts to partition players based on their activities, while BrainHex attempts to classify them according to affinity for neural responses. In BrainHex, player motivations may as well be the same as their neurochemistry. Like rats pushing levers for pellets, the players of the BrainHex typology seek out and engage in activities which is rewarding to them. Both Bartle and BrainHex implicitly imply that players are belong to only one category, or at most, a combination of two. They do not allow for the possibility that players may enjoy many types of experiences, or have more than a few shallow desires or motivations.
Typologies are damaging and unnecessary. They are detrimental to the idea that games could be used communicatively, rhetorically, or expressively. They imply that players are much less complex and rich than they are, and imply that players are limited to only one or two categories. Typologies marginalize games that do not fall within the generic types that cater to the types, and they marginalize players who escape classification.