HEARTS, CLUBS, DIAMONDS, SPADES:
PLAYERS WHO SUIT MUDS
MUSE LTD, Colchester, Essex.
Four approaches to playing MUDs are identified and described. These approaches
may arise from the inter-relationship of two dimensions of playing style: action versus
interaction, and world-oriented versus player-oriented. An account of the dynamics of
player populations is given in terms of these dimensions, with particular attention to how
to promote balance or equilibrium. This analysis also offers an explanation for the
labeling of MUDs as being either "social" or "gamelike".
Most MUDs can trace their lineage directly back to Trubshaw's 1978 game (Bartle,
1990b; Burka, 1995) and, perhaps because of this heritage, the vast majority are
regarded as "games" by their "players". For the convenience of its readers, this paper
continues to view MUDs in this tradition; however, it should be noted that MUDs can be
of considerable value in non-game (i.e. "serious") applications (Bruckman, 1994a; Kort,
1991; Bruckman & Resnick, 1993; Curtis & Nichols, 1993; Evard, 1993; Fanderclai,
1995; Riner & Clodius, 1995; Moock, 1996). Indeed, the thrust of this paper
emphasizes those factors which should be borne in mind when attempting to create a
stable MUD in general, whatever the application; it is only the terminology which is that
of "fun" MUDs, not the subject matter. In any case, even those MUDs which are built,
from the ground up, to be absolutely straight are still treated by users as if they were
games in some respects, e.g. by choosing whimsical names rather than using their real
ones (Roush, 1993).
It is worthwhile considering for a moment whether MUDs (as they are generally played)
really are games, or whether they're something else. People have many recreational
activities available to them, and perhaps MUDs fit some other category better? Looking
up the word "game" in a dictionary of synonyms (Urdang & Manser, 1980) elicits three
related nouns: "pastime", "sport" and "entertainment" (a fourth, "amusement", is the
general class of which the others are all examples). So it might be useful to ask:
games? Like chess, tennis, AD&D?
pastimes? Like reading, gardening, cooking?
sports? Like hunting', shooting', fishin'?
entertainments? Like nightclubs, TV, concerts?
Or are they a combination of all four? Perhaps individual players even see the *same*
MUD differently from each another?
These questions will be returned to at the end of this paper, along with some proposed
A SIMPLE TAXONOMY
This work grew out of a long, heated discussion which ran from November 1989 to May
1990 between the wizzes (i.e. highly experienced players, of rank wizard or witch) on
one particular commercial MUD in the UK (Bartle, 1985). The debate was sparked by
the question "What do people want out of a MUD?", and comprised several hundred
bulletin-board postings, some of considerable length, typically concerning what the
players liked, what they didn't like, why they played, and changes they would like to see
to "improve" the game. Some 15 individuals took a major part, with perhaps another 15
adding their comments from time to time; this comprised almost the entire set of active
wizzes during that period. Although at times the debate became quite intense, never did
it lapse into the flaming which typically ends most open-ended, multi-speaker, online
The fact that the people contributing to this argument were the most advanced players in
a MUD which allowed player-killing might, on the face of it, be taken as evidence that
they would probably prefer more "gamelike" aspects over "social" ones. However, this
was not the case: the MUD in question had players of all types in it, even at wiz level.
(Later in this paper, an analysis is given as to how such a MUD can come to be).
When the participants had finally run out of new things to say, it became time for me (as
senior administrator) to summarize. Abstracting the various points that had been raised,
a pattern emerged; people habitually found the same kinds of thing about the game
"fun", but there were several (four, in fact) sub-groupings into which opinion divided.
Most players leaned at least a little to all four, but each tended to have some particular
overall preference. The summary was generally well received by those who had
participated in the debate.
Note that although this MUD was one in which player-killing was allowed, the taxonomy
which is about to be described does (as will be explained later) apply equally to "social"
MUDs. The advice concerning changes which can be made to affect the player
make-up of a MUD is, however, less useful to social MUDs, or to ones with a heavy
role-playing component. Also, the original discussion concerned only non-administrative
aspects of MUDding; people who might play MUDs to learn object-oriented
programming, for example, are therefore not addressed by this paper.
The four things that people typically enjoyed personally about MUDs were:
I) Achievement within the game context.
Players give themselves game-related goals, and vigorously set out to achieve them.
This usually means accumulating and disposing of large quantities of high-value
treasure, or cutting a swathe through hordes of mobiles (i.e. monsters built in to the
ii) Exploration of the game.
Players try to find out as much as they can about the virtual world. Although initially this
means mapping its topology (i.e. exploring the MUD's breadth), later it advances to
experimentation with its physics (i.e. exploring the MUD's depth).
iii) Socializing with others.
Players use the game's communicative facilities, and apply the role-playing that these
engender, as a context in which to converse (and otherwise interact) with their fellow
iv) Imposition upon others.
Players use the tools provided by the game to cause distress to (or, in rare
circumstances, to help) other players. Where permitted, this usually involves acquiring
some weapon and applying it enthusiastically to the persona of another player in the
So, labeling the four player types abstracted, we get: achievers, explorers, socializers
and killers. An easy way to remember these is to consider suits in a conventional pack
of cards: achievers are Diamonds (they're always seeking treasure); explorers are
Spades (they dig around for information); socializers are Hearts (they empathize with
other players); killers are Clubs (they hit people with them).
Naturally, these areas cross over, and players will often drift between all four, depending
on their mood or current playing style. However, my experience having observed players
in the light of this research suggests that many (if not most) players do have a primary
style, and will only switch to other styles as a (deliberate or subconscious) means to
advance their main interest.