At this weekend's Practice conference at NYU, experimental game designer Chris Bell described the four archetypes that he and the members of thatgamecompany uncovered during the course of development of Journey. It's something that you've probably suspected all along -- that the way you play a game must both echo profoundly and diverge wildly from the way other people do . It's comforting (or perhaps creepy) to know that game designers are on the other end of the looking glass, tweaking and prodding with delight.
Bell focused on the improvisational gameplay (profs would call this "emergent" gameplay) that blossomed in the open-world aspects of exploration. (This example of several excitable Japanese players running away from a 1-Up mushroom in Mario 64 is one if one of my favorites.) Journey has a plot and a structure; you're led to a glowing mountain top in the distance. But that didn't stop a wide variety of in-game folk activities from sprouting from capture the flag to mimicry to tandem rock climbing.
In the case of Journey, players split into four rough categories. Lovers searched for the affections of others. Loners didn't. Griefers were jerks and explorers, well, explored. The significance of archetypes is in the broadening of how we think about what the "right" way to play a game should be. From a marketing perspective, gamers are often broken into crude categories of "casual" and "hardcore." (Jesper Juul's A Casual Revolution is a surprising and revelatory look at how coarse those definitions actually are.) Aside from failing to capture the breadth of gameplay styles, the more differentiations we can make between how people play is the closest we'll come from freeing the constraints of genre and the requisite shackles that it places on how we interact in virtual environments.
There are, of course, several attempts at defining gamers such as Richard Bartle's famous archetypes and more recently research from Playnomics and Naked Play to define gamers as Scientists, Habitualists, Soloists, Strategists, Competitors, Collectors, Socialites and Politicians. We may bristle at the idea that our behaviors are so predictable, but I wonder if we're on the brink of a single dominating perspective akin to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for games.