The Paradox of Comradery and Competition in Squid Game & the Classroom: Bartle’s Taxonomy of Players

By Dylan Altman

*There will be spoilers to the series Squid Game, so read at your own peril!*

There are a group of people in green track suits with a white stripe, a group of men in masks and pink jumpsuits, and a man with a black mask at the center. The title Squid Game is at the foreground. (Source: Netflix)
Squid Game Poster (Source: Netflix)

A group of people, crippled with debt, fight to win. At first, they unite together to complete each game and achieve each objective. They are a team and can beat the obstacles together. Over time, they fracture into smaller groups that fight amongst themselves to be victorious. However, even those boundaries begin to break down.  At the end, only one can be the winner. Each individual is left to fight for their own success until there is only one person left.

Yes, this is the plot to the enormously successful Squid Game, but it is also a dystopian narrative that can be reflected in gamified classrooms if only rank based motivation is used to interest the students! Instead of appealing to one type of gamer, gamified courses should try and appeal to every type of gamer.

When most non-gamers think of the concept of gaming, they consider it in binary terms: winning and losing. However, gaming is more than just a competition to see who is the “best.” Gaming is a spectrum of driving factors that keep players invested. Of course, the intended goal of every game is to get from the beginning to the end. However, each gamer plays for a variety of different factors that drive their focus. Richard Bartle, in his  discussion of the taxonomy of Players, classifies the types of Gamers in Role Playing Games as Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers. However, I think that Bartle’s classification system can be tied to the motivators behind an individual’s investment into a class’s  game(s)– or in our case the students’  investment into the materials we are teaching. For the purpose of this paper, I will extend Bartle’s taxonomy of gaming motivations to the players in our classroom–however problematic some of these archetype names might  appear.

Bartle's Taxonomy of Players with the Four categories in their respective quadrants: Killers, Achiever, Socializers, and Explorers.
Bartle’s Taxonomy of Players (Source: Bartle)

Achievers

In the gamified world, Achievers play to win. They are the gamers who are motivated by being the best and by showing it. This could translate into seeing themselves higher in rankings, showing off their gaming prowess, or just enjoying the competition itself for the sake of the game. However, an Achiever craves reward in the sake of collectibles, achievements, etc. While they might play a game solo or in a group, their goal is always the same, to win no matter the cost.

In Squid Game, the typical Achiever is Player 218 (Cho Sang-woo), played by Park Hae -soo, who plays to win. He wants to win, and he makes cold calculating decisions in order to always end up on top. Although the audience hasn’t figured out the clues to the next game, we see Player 218 hold back information that he hears about the sugar, the symbols, and the probability of the game involving dalgona. In fact, you see Player 218 call out to his childhood friend, Player 456, when 456 walks to the hardest symbol for the dalgona game, the umbrella. Instead, Player 218 stops himself and allows Player 456 to walk to the umbrella symbol. Through his process of deduction, Player 218 knows that the game will involve dalgona, so he chooses the easiest symbol and is prepared to pop the shape out of the cookie without completely breaking it. At the end of the day, the financial incentive motivates Player 218 to do whatever it takes, even betraying his childhood friend, Player 456. In this aspect, the Achiever is a Gamer who only has their own best interests at heart.

Squid Game Dalgona Challenge Cookie with needle in to cut it out  from Etsy
Dalgona Cookie and Pin from Squid Game (Source: Etsy)

Rank-based gaming is an organic medium for Achievers. Completing assignments and competing for top place is perfect for games in the classroom. This can be done with leaderboards, point based games, and even LMS badges; however, If we only use rank-based gaming in the classroom, then our students’ internal motivation is limited to just beating the competition, their fellow classmates. They might become obsessed with their ranking, but there is no guarantee that they’ll be interested in the information.  Additionally, this will ruin the comradery that the game is supposed to encourage. Like Player 218, they will ignore the friendships, in order to stare at money filled pig– or beating their fellow classmates­– and only think about winning. They will study the game, learn the information, and show their skills; however, only tailoring a class to this singular type of gamer will detract from their overall success;  it won’t inspire those who have different motivations,  and it will  ruin the class’s organic relationship.

So, we shouldn’t design our games or classes for one type of gamer.

Explorers

Bartle goes on to call the gamers who game to explore, collect, and review the world: Explorers. In a RPG, an explorer plays to find new information, go where “no one has gone before,” and collect rare loot along the way. In many ways, this kind of gamer plays for the story and the achievements that they can attain through their exploration.

Explorers play for adventure, and our use of games and gamification in the classroom can encourage the exploration and “play” necessary to become fully invested in course materials. Due to their exploration, Players find innovative solutions to the games‘ problems. In other words, by using hidden assignments, easter eggs, hypertext readings, and more, the educator can create enigma and mystery in the course. Just like any MMORPG, or a game-like Resident Evil or Skyrim,  this enigma and mystery makes the reader read more Journals, Computer Logs, Books, etc. in order to  learn more about the lore of the world.

In Squid Game, this Explorer mindset is seen with Player 67 (Hwang Jun-ho), played by Jung Ho-yeon. She is an explorer through and through. When confronted with a task, she explores for more information, literally. The night before the second task, she crawls through the vents, spies on the game-preparing process, notes the sugar that they are using, shares the information with someone who can place the clues together(Player 218), and then she copies his choice. An Explorer searches for advantage but only learns the information through their journey.

player 067(Hwang Jum-ho) is in her green 67 tracksuit and looks exhausted
Player 67 from Squid Game (Source: Netflix)

In the classroom, this can translate into creating more interactive puzzles and problem solving tasks to interest the Explorer. This kind of task-based activity interjected with factoids gets the students’ brains working on the practical materials at hand.  An educator can create games where the students’ exploration-driven knowledge can give them advantage in a precarious situation, such as background knowledge in strategy games or even extra credit opportunities/questions on these explorational readings.

Socializers

In contrast, Socializers, according to Bartle, are those gamers who play games for the social aspect. These gamers only enjoy a game when they can interact with other players or non-playable characters.  In many ways, Socializers play for the sake of “playing” with others. They tend to game more for the sake of gaming, so they are more willing to help newer players achieve tasks and get items.

Player 199 Or Ali Abdul in his green Squid Game tracksuit
 Player 199 from Squid Game (Source: Netflix)

Of course, in Squid Game, the true Socializer is Player 199 (Abdul Ali) played by Anupam Tripathi. His character is depicted as someone who is the true altruistic player. From game one, he uses his skills and abilities not to beat the other characters, but to create a team, so that they can all succeed; however, without proper checks and balances, his altruism is taken advantage of and exploited for gain.

Thus, in our classroom, we have to acknowledge the fact that some people in a class group activity are altruists to their own detriment. They can become so focused on the group’s success, that they ignore their own and are taken advantage of. In order to prevent that, we must instill checks and balances into the gaming process. Like the Gamemasters in Squid Game, we must maintain the integrity of the system by discouraging cheating and encouraging entire group work–without resorting to violence.

Killers

In contrast, the last kind of gamer that Bartle discusses are the Killers. Often the most misunderstood classification, Killers aren’t blood thirsty murderers, at least not usually. According to Bartle, Killers are the gamers who simply play to win. They play games for the sake of competition. Killers, especially in Single-Player games, are often rank-motivated, but they are also motivated by the desire to “pwn newbs” and  establish their dominance.

Player 101, Jang Deok-su, is in his green Squid Gsame Tracksuit.
Player 101(Jang Deok-su) Source: Squid Game Wiki


In Squid Game, the Killer is a literal killer, Player 101(Jang Deok-su) played by  Heo Sung-tae. Player 101 wants to win no matter what. Not only does he want to win, but he enjoys the process of winning and of rubbing his victories in everyone’s face. In many ways, he is the perfect example of the warnings of only tailoring a game, activity, or class for the Killers. With too many games designed for Killers, the activities and classes becomes more about the competition itself, than understanding the information. Additionally, this creates a hostile environment where no one wants to help each other, so no one is able to learn from each other. We see that in Squid Game when Player 101 betrays his “girlfriend.” Player 101 promises his new “girlfriend” that he will never betray her, but when he finds out that the next game will be a strength challenge, he kicks her out of the group immediately. Although he makes a decision from a seemingly strategic standpoint, his rude rejection of her ends up being his undoing.

Designing a game or class with Killers in mind is a good idea, but if we design games and classes for only Killers, then the class will devolve into a competition without the understanding of why the students are “playing.” They will lose track of their education on the path to victory.  Additionally, this Killer dynamic immediately deteriorates the group formation that takes place in games, which is the whole point of these kinds of activities.

The EveryPerson

A picture containing player 456 in his green jumpsuit standing in line behind Player 218
Player 218 in front of Player 456 in l (Source: Netflix)

Thus, a classroom or an activity that uses gamification should be designed with every type of player in mind, the EveryPerson. The classification EveryPerson is my own, and it is loosely adapted and updated from the allegorical Moral plays of the Middle-Ages, in which the main character was depicted as the Everyman, as a way to connect to any person watching the play.  In Squid Game, Player 456( Seong Gi-hun), played by Lee Jung-jae, is a perfect amalgamation of all the gamer classifications, the EveryPerson. As a gambling addict, he is already an Achiever and a Killer. He plays games to win and be the best, but he also enjoys having something to brag about in victory.  However, the reason why Player 456 wins is because of his Explorer and Socializer mindset. Although he  plays to win, he stops to explore along the way. And these explorations give him unlocked achievements; he experiments, puts the dalgona cookie in the light,  and sees the outline of the umbrella shining through; he even licks the center of the cookie along the shape to easier pop the umbrella out. He socializes with his fellow Players, but he doesn’t allow socialization to blind him to the goal, winning. In fact, he uses his Socialization to his own advantage to take “win” a game of marbles over the confused Player 1. In many ways, Player 456 is the Player/Student ideal. He is the EveryPerson player. He has characteristics from every classification, and they drive him to all be the best version of himself. His multifaceted classification gives him an advantage over all of the rest.

So, where do educators come in? How can academics use this metaphor–or an excuse to binge watch Squid Game– and gamification in our classes and activities? Well, we can take these lessons from Bartle and Squid Game to heart while crafting our courses. We need to create courses not for just one classification of gamers, but for all classifications and those in-between, the EveryPerson. The categorization of gamers that Bartle created is fluid due to the variety of gamers and games out there; there are a spectrum of gamers that can fit into all of those categories and none of them. We must create classes and activities that aren’t just rank-based. Instead, we must plan activities and classes that are geared to all kinds of players and students in order to bring out the best in them.

References

Squid Game. Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Netflix, 2021.

Bartle, Richard. “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit Muds.” MUD. https://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.html

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