Get ‘Em While They’re Young

This post is part of a bigger post, something I’m doing (slowly, heh) in response to questions I get asked about why in the hell a game designer is pursuing the collisions between the Big 5 model of personality and game design. It’s more than a tad self-indulgent: you’ve been warned.

Other posts: Prologue 1, Prologue 2

My gradeschool was a semi-hoighty-toighty private school by the name of ‘Evergreen’. It was, I would later learn, structured with what I can best describe as a kind of stew of progressive schooling ideas, circa the mid-1970’s.

I learned 100x more at that weird little elite hideaway than I ever did at my junior high or my highschool. The quality of education rocked, and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for sending me there. (I can tell you, though: being dropped into the public school system after eight years of progressivism was a BIT of a shocker. I adapted… but it took a while.)

One of the cool things about attending that school was that they had a lot of cool books lying around. For example, by the time I was eight, I had read all of the Tintin and Asterix the Gaul comic books. These are amazing, wonderful, imaginative tales of weirdness that are, alas, almost completely unknown within these here United States (being European classics). At my gradeschool, however, they were all just sitting around in the various bookshelves of my homeroom. When I didn’t feel like going outside to be tortured by the bullies during recess, I would go find a corner somewhere and read those instead.

Cover of Please Understand MeOne of the other books that caught my interest during these ‘avoiding going outside’ sessions was an off-blue thin paperback called Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates. The teachers had casually left this book lying around in plain view. Almost like they WANTED us to pick it up on our own. Almost like they wanted us to feel like we were getting away with reading stuff we weren’t really supposed to be reading, because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in our lessons. Clever bastards.

The book held within it a 70-odd-question test (that the author, in a fit of modesty, named the ‘Keirsey Temperament Sorter’) that had an answer key and everything. You could take the test, score your answers, and then the book would serve you up a ‘personality type’ based on those scores, along with a brief, easily digestible description of that type.

After a few weeks of hovering around it incessantly, I stole that book and took it home.

Of course I did! Besides having an instinctive interest in the topic, I was a highly-self-conscious kid who was being tormented almost daily by seemingly unending legions of kids who were meaner and better-equipped than me, and I had some vague hope that understanding myself better might help get me out of this mess.

Also, I would grow up to design video games for a living, and here was a literal book-as-a-game. It was like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure! Everything was laid out in plain language in the book – you could explore the structure of the test as much as you wanted. And I did. I would take it again and again. I would pretend to be different people, to see what the results would be, and to understand the ‘personality’ of the person I had been pretending to be. Sometimes I would attempt to take the test as my tormentors, or perhaps as one of my crushes. I think I actually tried to take the test as one of my teachers one time, to see if I could ‘reverse engineer’ him.

The book used the Meyers-Briggs type indicator for its results, the personality theory that generates ‘types’ like ‘INFP’ or ‘ESTJ’ – 4-letter alphabetical codes that meant a lot to people in the know, but meant absolutely nothing to anyone else. I learned to say “I’m an NF, but I would guess you are an NT”, and make it sound like that meant something really cool and insightful.

This was during the late 70’s. But that Meyers-Briggs test is still being used today, in a wide variety of settings. Usually, to teach managers how to better manipulate their bosses. I didn’t know it then, but that weird little book had infected my young, impressionable mind with some of the best and most modern psychological theories of the day. Clever bastard teachers.

I read it cover-to-cover dozens of times before I hit highschool. I don’t know how many times I took the test, but I know that I had learned to ‘spike’ the test to get whatever result I wanted. (I thought I was pretty clever. Alas, by doing that not only had I circumvented the primary value of such a test – which is getting to know yourself better – I had also managed to convince myself that I was a type that I wanted to be, instead of the type I actually was. Yeah, don’t do that. It leads to years of confusion.)

I didn’t know it at the time, but the way I figure it, my brief-but-intense relationship with that book at the very least burned into my brain a deep understanding that human motivations are widely varied, and at best gave me some solid initial archetypes to work with. By the time I hit highschool, I already had a pretty complex model of human behavior running in my head.

You know who liked that? Girls. Girls liked that. Of course, boys liked it too – but, to me, the more relevant fact was that the girls that I hung around with were, often, delighted to talk to someone who could somehow magically pierce through the cloud of mystifying human behavior around them, and seem to make some sense of it. I was shy – horribly, horribly shy, in addition to being awkward, over-sensitive, all that and more. Having a skill that the ladyfolk that I had miserable crushes on appreciated was its own reward.

So, I got hooked on personality theory.

I studied. I studied everything I could find. Every personality test, every motivation model, anything that I could use as a tool in navigating the shark-infested waters of highschool, college, and early adult-hood, I absorbed. My uncle was a licensed therapist, and a practitioner of something called Neuro-linguistic Programming, and I reveled in his tales of ‘eye cues’, ‘pacing’, and a whole battery of techniques and factoids that further pushed back the boundaries of my understanding of the human species.

Of course, I had no idea if I was really getting any of it right. I would experiment on my friends, and if the results were roughly within expectations, I would call myself a ‘master’ and move on. (It was clear, I think, even early on, that I was more of an entertainer than I was a scientist.)

There is a lot more to that story. Each new system that I digested brought with it personal revelations and new ways of interacting with / manipulating / helping other people. Each system was its own garden of delights, filled with its own unique relationship-destroying pitfalls. But for our purposes here, the point of all of that is that throughout my life, I’ve been adding new tools to my ‘how people function’ tool belt. At every level of my life, I have leaned my mind towards learning about the varieties of human motivation.

Of course, the result was that when I became a game designer, I brought this toolkit with me.

Colleagues of mine, the ones who didn’t automatically reject anything related to psychology as equivalent to voodoo, have often expressed some surprise at my level of interest in human motivation. For many game developers, who have never plumbed the depths of personal analysis, personality theory is mystical bullshit. It’s perceived as a marketing tool at best, and a horrible distraction at worst. But for me, it was as natural as breathing to imagine how differences in personal motivation could lead to differences in preferences of play.

And so, when I encountered the various existing ‘player type’ models early in my career, applying them to our day-to-day game development practice was the most obvious thing. However, that would prove to be a lot harder than I had imagined.

(Which, you know, I’ll probably talk about in the next post…? I think? Let’s wait a bit, and find out!)

Published by


I design.

3 thoughts on “Get ‘Em While They’re Young”

  1. Why would anyone ever-ever-ever go into game development if they aren’t interested in personality, motivation, and psychology as a whole? Of course, most of the game developers (and wannabe game developers) I’ve met have been totally indifferent to the subject, but I still find it nuts.

    Back in game design school, the instructors were way into Meyers-Briggs. They’d spend several lectures each semester telling us that nothing is more important than knowing your four letters, so we had a campus full of people who could smugly report that they were INTJs, or whatever, but like you said, it never amounted to anything more than attempting to manipulate each other in meetings or sound important around students from other majors who didn’t know what these little initialisms meant. The game design applications of psychology were roundly ignored.

    I quickly developed a distaste for mindless regurgitation of Meyers-Briggs test results, as well as the oversimplified player-types (Achievers, Explorers, blah, blah, blah). I think that’s what interests me about your model – not only do you seem exceedingly knowledgeable on the subject, you’ve also considered the practical use of this theory.

    I look forward to reading more. Maybe one day your writing will be misunderstood and abused by mediocre colleges!

  2. I’m not a fan of MBTI as it’s against a lot of what statistics tell up about the world, but it’s still a good starting point for pretty much anything that has to do with people. It may not be scientific but it’s fairly easy to use and just like every other tool can prove useful.

    The same goes for classification of human needs, human emotions, etc. These are all very subjective and hardly scientific but they are a great tool for, say, simulations. Starting from any classification of human emotions and building fuzzy logic around the subject (basing it on ones “expertise” with world) yields great results. Probably not accurate in terms of modeling reality but simulations using these kind of data lead to some interesting results. 🙂

    As for the personal stories – at one point in life I went to the therapist (psychodynamic psychotherapy kind of a deal) and I can attest that my world view has changed significantly. I can see lots of dynamics that were impossible for me to pierce before. Great experience that I highly recommend. Especially since I can see how most of the people around me are struggling, not knowing about their problems. I do struggle but at least I see more. ;]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *