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Game Relationship Gestalts

January 11, 2012

Dear Reader,

In speaking with Issy the other day, I had a fantastic idea for a correspondence with you.  I was telling her about my feelings towards Star Wars in contrast to WoW, about how my relationship with the game had changed, and it occurred to me that I should use types of relationships people have and then superimpose games to see what we’d get.  I’m pretty happy with the results.  Below are 5 of the 10 (we’ll do the second 5 on Friday) relationship gestalts created by Carmen Lynch and Victor Daniels.  A more thorough explanation of each type of relationship is available at the Sonoma University site.

Five Dominant Patterns

Survival Relationship

Without the game, you don’t exist.  You pour all of your time into the game and form a very unhealthy relationship based on needing something the game provides.  Perhaps it’s escape, routine, or simply an emotional connection (in the case of multiplayer games), but the game provides something for you that you feel you cannot live without nor find in the “real” world.

This type of relationship with a game is complicated.  The player is getting something from playing the game, but not what the game was designed to give.  As a result, the player will eventually either feel the game cannot provide enough or genuine enough of whatever they need, or they’ll find what they need from the real world and the game will be replaced.

Validation Relationship

Similar to a survival relationship, some people play games simply because they lack validation in the real world.  They play games so they can feel successful, desirable, and skilled at something.  The game provides ego-support, telling the player that they’re valued and valuable.

This type of relationship can go on for years.  Unlike with real people who could tire of the constant motivating, a game will always be there to be played well.  In WoW terms, I’m sure there’s plenty of hardcore raiders who have desk jobs they hate, so they turn to WoW to find meaning and value in the world.  That’s not inherently unhealthy, as meeting people, working together, and coordinating activity are all useful real-life skills, but as soon as one of them finds something better in the real world, they’ll no longer need the game for validation.

Scripted Response Relationship

In these game relationships, the game acts as the “right” way to spend one’s time.  This could easily be because the player’s friends all like the game, because the player has played other games similar to this one and wants more of the same, or because the player has only ever played this one game (that’s less likely but, I suppose, possible in the case of athletes), but whatever the case, the game is simply a routine activity that has always been there and will always be there.

This type of relationship is based off of expectations.  If the player has been matched to the game by friends, he may never really like the game, but may continue to play simply because he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends.  If the player has always played games like this, he may simply be repeating past relationships without actually playing the game in front of him.  If this is the only game the player has ever played, then he’s limiting himself from trying new experiences.  Whatever the case, the relationship will likely break down as those problems become more apparent.

Acceptance Relationship

In an acceptance relationship, the player sees the game for what it truly is and feels comfortable and enjoys playing the game.  The player doesn’t bring too many outside expectations to the game, though there are some, and he tries to be himself while playing, not forcing himself to play due to parameters beyond the game.

This relationship is very common with games when players don’t have a ton of emotional game baggage attached.  They simply enjoy the game for what it is and move on.  There’s no expectations involved, no “vortex of social obligations” (to borrow from Penny Arcade).  The game is just that, a game, and nothing more.

Individuation-Assertion Relationship

I would have to say that of the five dominant patterns, this is the one I find the least likely to have with any particular game.  It’s certainly possible, but due to the many differences between people and games, this one seems the hardest to achieve.  In this relationship, the player accepts the differences between himself as a player and the game, and the game acts as an opportunity for the player to broaden and better himself.  This is comparable to the first of new genres that really break the boundaries of expectations, where players for the first time get to experience something truly new.  They may not feel totally comfortable or like it at first.  There may be ambiguities in expectations from the game, but the player embraces them and uses them to expand their interests, skills, and experiences.

I don’t find it unlikely that such games exist; in fact, I find it very likely that all of us have had a very few of these already in our lives.  However, due to the re-productive nature of game genres (meaning that they’re mostly clones and not something new), there simply cannot be that many.  It may have been Syndicate in the 90s, (the first squad-based real-time game I ever played), or The Bard’s Tale, (the first party-based RPG I played), or (of course) World of Warcraft, (the first MMO I played), but each of us have had our horizons broadened by a game.

Each of these types or relationships represented the more typical long-term relationships people have with each other (and thus, perhaps, with games).  One major difference between the two “partners” in this formula are the definitions of “long term;” clearly my expectations of the length of my relationship with Dead Island and my wife are starkly different.  Tomorrow, we’ll get into relationships that are by nature more transient and see how those match up with games: Healing, Experimental, Transitional, Avoidance, and Passtime.

Looking back, I feel like for a long time I had a scripted-response relationship with WoW.  In the beginning, I played because it was what my friends played.  I enjoyed it a lot and it did broaden my horizons, so clearly it was also an individuation-assertion relationship, but as time went on and the game stopped “teaching” me (to use Raph Koster’s verb), I should have quit, but instead I kept playing.

“Games are destined to be boring,” Koster tells us, going on to explain that when they do, we should quit, and that the best game design is one that teaches everything it wants to before it becomes boring.  WoW did that, years ago, and has offered little since other than a focus around which to gather with friends, something that Skype can do just as easily.  With Star Wars, right now I feel an acceptance relationship.  I’m playing it as a game without any future expectations, but I can already feel some scripted responses creeping in.  We’ll see if that changes as time passes.

What relationship to you have with whatever your dominant game is at the moment?


Stubborn (and in a great individuation-assertion relationship in the real world)


4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2012 2:13 pm

    I absolutely love this style of post you do, and am very glad to have been the trigger 🙂
    Really interesting reading 🙂

  2. January 13, 2012 7:57 am

    Intriguing….I usually eye player typologies with a bit of worry, because it’s often clichee and borders are very fluent, but I look forward to the second post a lot.

    i think I have played many MMOs under the “Individuation-Assertion Relationship” personally; every time I pick up older stuff simply for its insight on game design, the experience it will give me for my future writing and judgements, despite knowing I won’t play for too long. it’s educational value, with a bit of ‘bored and in need of distraction’ thrown in the mix! 😉

    (p.s. Issy needs to write more of her own articles again.)

  3. Landry permalink
    January 13, 2012 10:38 am

    I feel like “Rock Band”/”Guitar Hero” and “Just Dance 3” (using the Kinect) are good examples of the “Individuation-Assertion Relationship”.

    I don’t consider myself a good musician and I haven’t played the drums since high school. I started playing Rock Band and it improved my drumming skills to the point where I almost started playing the drums at my church a few years ago.

    I had the chance to try out “Just Dance 3” on Christmas Day. I quit dancing/playing the first song because I was embarrassed but the game looked fun while watching other people. I tried two other songs and wound up having the best score out of three people on the last song I tried (sadly it was a Britney Spears song).


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