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Playstyles & Design pt.1

To love video games is to love in part the gamer. Games by nature require interactivity and it's the gamer's choices that ultimately determine victory or defeat. While some games are very strict and linear testing our ability to execute in a specific fashion (Guitar Hero, many puzzle games), most are more open and emergent. Sure, Mario must get from the beginning to the end of each level to eventually beat the game, but the exact manner through which players can guide Mario through a level are too numerous to count. Simply through a few rules and a bit of control, video games allow players to express themselves in how they uniquely overcome challenges. Naturally, instead of exploring the widest range of actions, we as individual gamers tend to form habits and develop playstyles. 

Our playstyles say a lot about who we are as gamers/people. From our general tactics to the specific sequences and timings of the moves we make, our playstyles are like functional finger prints or our virtual personality. Playing Super Smash Brothers Melee competitively for years traveling all over the nation, I've fought more battles than I can remember. Likewise, I've met hundreds of different players. I find it absolutely amazing that even when I can't remember a player's name, I can almost instantly recognize who they are by their playstyle. In the most impressive of cases, I've recognized players I've only seen or played against once many years later despite them playing new characters and improving their game significantly. 

I've even counseled some of my closest friends based on patterns that I recognized between how they play specific video games and their real life behavior. This is not a trick or a comical exaggeration. Such is the power of emergence, function, and human behavior. In other words, with enough ways for players to uniquely interact with a game, gamers tend to draw on a vast library of learned experiences to help them overcome challenges. The same proclivities a person tends to make when facing real life challenges come into play when facing video game challenges. Thus the virtual world is linked with the real world. It's this half-real intersection of game design, art, people that makes playstyles such a rich and interesting subject. 

Gamers exhibit a wide range of playstyles when playing single or multiplayer games. However, the majority of the focus in this series will be put on multiplayer games. I want to focus on how different playstyles interact in a multiplayer environment because the interplay and design of a competitive multiplayer game is directly comparable to a person to person conversation. This multiplayer conversation or debate pits player choices directly against other player choices. There are push and pull interactions between players as styles collide. Sirlin feels the same way. 

If an argument is a heated exchange of words without order and generally without resolve, then a multplayer game is nothing like an argument. Rather, a competitive video game match is more like a debate; a more formal exchange with rules and structures in place that give all parties a chance to present their viewpoint. Personally, I've witnessed more unresolved, unguided, heated, and pointless arguments than respectable debates in my life. Furthermore, in my experience people tend to shy away from confrontation especially when personalities and personal choices clash. As the saying goes in a polite conversation or in small talk, don't bring up religion or politics. Not only does multiplayer competition bring many different types of people together, but it gives them a way to converse with each other in their own style. The game keeps everyone playing by the rules and in the end a victor is decided. This is remarkable. 

Before we can discuss, weigh, and critique different playstyles, we must define a set of common playstyles. If you are unfamiliar with the mindset of a competitive gamer, I highly recommend reading through David Sirlin's free online book "Playing To Win."


Aggressive/Rush Down/The Attackers

  • This style of play mainly involves executing moves that are designed to lead one to victory most quickly. If the point of the game is to attack like in fighting games, then the aggressive style means using attacks almost exclusively. In a more general sense, being an aggressive player means setting the tempo of a match. Setting the tempo means playing in such a way that greatly influences the the opponent to respond. Sirlin calls them attackers. 


  • Playing defensively can involve everything from blocking a lot, moving back, jumping away, running away, hiding, reacting to the opponent's moves/tempo, or playing in such a way that appears to be vulnerable but is actually in the perfect position to counter attack. Sirlin describes these players are Turtles.

The Specialist/The Obsessed

  • Being a specialist or playing obsessively involves devoting yourself to a particular aspect of the game. The more dynamic and nuanced the feature you pick, the more of a specialist you can become. The best specialist know more about their chosen feature than the best players in the world and even the game creators.
  • Sirlin puts it nicely here: "The theory is that if an opponent can’t stop a certain move, then I don’t have to bother with the sticky business of predicting what they will do next. I also don’t have to worry about them predicting what I’ll do: we all know what I’ll be doing! As long as whatever I am doing isn’t making me lose, I’m content to continue doing it and make the opponent prove that he can beat it." Sirlin is one of them, and he calls them The Obsessed.

The Meta Man/ The Snake/ The Cheater

  • Playing in this style requires strategizing outside of the game at hand. Some methods are completely fair and ingenious. Others not so much. Examples include listening to the sound of opponents controllers to anticipate their actions. Sitting in the only spot available that's outside of the glare of the sun at your assigned station. Claiming that you don't know where your opponent is even though you know that he/she went to the bathroom in hopes that they'll be disqualified. Spreading the word about how to counter your techniques that actually make opponents more susceptible to your tricks. And pulling out your opponent's controller cord. Sirlin calls them snakes. 

Playing To Win

  • David Sirlin coined this term, but it has certainly existed as long as there have been competitive games. Take the rules of the game and the rules of the tournament, and then do everything you can to win. Don't worry about being cheap or honorable. Don't worry if you're driving your opponent crazy. Don't worry if you're exploiting a strategy that in your opinion greatly unbalances the game. When it comes down to it and you're sitting in the competitive hot seat, you have to do everything you can without reserve if you want to be victorious over others who will surely do the same to you.
  • Again, read the free online book if you have time. 

The One True having no one style at all 

  • Having the one true style is a lot like being Superman (I imagine). You have so many powers and abilities that you can pick what's best for any given situation. So all styles described here would be at one's disposal. Being able to read one's opponents and practically see the future is an ability that cements everything together. 
  • Sirlin describes it here. 

The Learner/Teacher/R&D style

  • A player experimenting with moves, options, and mechanics to learn new things about a game or an opponent. Winning is not the primary goal. Or a player who plays in such a way to help a learner learn.


  • A player who puts teamwork and team strategies above their own personal styles, choices, and even their own well being. 

The Lone Wolf/ The Soloist

  • A player who refuses to work with teammates or follow any team strategies. Such a player plays his/her own way as if playing a single player/non team based game.

Griefing/Non Objective

  • "A griefer is a player who plays a multiplayer video game to irritate and harass other players, rather than in pursuit of game objectives." wiki
  • A player that's not in it to win it, lose it, or to experiment. For a good video example see here


Keep in mind that a playstyle can be a general behavioral pattern (aggressive) or it can be very specific defined by exactly how the player will react in a given situation (rolls left on the left side of the stage when in a pinch). Different playstyles can also overlap. A playstyle is defined by player choices through game mechanics. For the most part what a player does outside of the game (ie. standing on one foot, playing with one hand, playing with an eye closed, etc) doesn't factor into their playstyle. 

In part 2 I'll provide video examples.

« Playstyles & Design pt.2 | Main | Puzzle Design & Decoder Reading »

Reader Comments (5)

Very interesting topic ! I didn't know Sirlin's writing, but according to your notes and some paragraphs I have read on his website the book worth to get it. I will order a copy on Lulu this weekend. I feel there is really nice stuff in it. Thanks a lot for this post. I'm waiting for the following !

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon B.

@ Simon

Indeed. Playing To Win is one of my favorite books. Short, sweet, and very well written.

January 12, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

If you're not playing to win, you're playing it wrong.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteralastair

Hey, I'm not sure what the best way would be to contact you, but I just wanted to say that I'm working on a game right now and I would be honored if you would be willing to try it and give me some feedback and suggestions on it. You can send me an email if you are interested. Thanks! :)

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

@ alastair

I assume you're joking.
If so, I laugh.
If not, I'm saddened.

January 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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