One of the most interesting messages of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is that context plays a greater role in human behaviour that most acknowledge. As one of the central tenets of game design is anticipating and shaping player behaviour, it's important to understand the ramifications of this claim.
This is contrary to the belief most people have about personality and decision making. When observing another's behaviour, most see that person's decisions as indicative of what "kind of person" they are and discount circumstantial influences. In psychology, this is known as Fundamental Attribution Error.
But context matters a great deal. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, where a small mock prison was setup with half the subjects as guards and the other half as prisoners. Otherwise very healthy and stable people (including some who identified themselves as "pacifists") assumed the behaviours of strict disciplinary guards and riotous prisoners with shocking celerity. An atmosphere of terror was established very quickly and due to the extreme stress most of the subjects were exhibiting, the two-week experiment was ceased after only six days.
A similar experiment inspired by the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan was conducted by two Princeton psychologists on a group of seminary students. The seminary students were given a questionaire about their motives for studying theology and were then told to prepare a quick speech on a biblical theme. Some were told to discuss the relevance of professional clergy, others were told to discuss the story of the Good Samaritan. Finally, the experimenters told the students on the way to deliver their speech that they were either slightly late and should hurry or that they were a few minutes early, but it was probably fine to go anyway.
On their way to give their extemporaneous speech in a different building, all the students passed by a man slumped against a wall, eyes closed, coughing and groaning and clearly in need of assistance. So which factors influenced the seminary students to stop and give aid? It wasn't their motives for studying theology, or even having just prepared a speech on the story of the Good Samaritan. No, the only factor that influence their behaviour was whether or not they were told they were late. Of the students told they were running late, only 10% stopped to help. Those that were told they had time to spare, 63% gave aid.
The Broken Windows theory states that where policing does not enforce minor crimes (vandalism, graffiti, fare jumping in subways, etc.) actually creates an environment where people are more likely to commit serious crimes.
If context does affect behaviour with such significance, what implications does this have for designing experiences with different types of player behaviour in mind?
First, we may need to consider that a player's Bartle's Type might not be a completely definite and discrete categorization. A "Killer" type player might say they enjoying fighting other players, but this might simply be because there are some other qualities (aesthetic, demographic, etc.) that draw them to games where behaving like a Killer is rewarded. The same player might enjoy a game that doesn't particularly provide Killer-esque gameplay, but for others reasons, they simply aren't play that game.
Rather than designing toward supporting each Bartle type, it might be the case that we need to provide the context and reward for a specific type of behaviour and then find ways to attract different types of players. Some of the most beloved games (e.g. Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, Mario) aren't successful because they support a great diversity of behaviours, but rather because their context and the behaviours they encourage are harmonious.
To reflect this back to recent discussions of creating meaningful decisions, understanding the importance of context also provides more tools for framing decisions. If we want to create a situation where resisting a violent decision is difficult, we should create an environment that makes violence seem reasonable. If a decision hinges on agreeing or disagree with a large group that holds one opinion, an environment of homogeny will likely affect this decision.
We need to be aware of the effects of context if we want to allow players to make decisions that are truly their own. Otherwise, we might be subtly driving many players toward a certain decision without even realizing it. We actually may want to do this, for a certain aesthetic or artistic message. But this decision should be deliberate, rather than as an unintended consequence of environment art, music or dialog.
As always, thinking about the effects of context isn't a mandate. It's simply another tool to have in our designer workbench. There will obviously be certain games where the effect of context is more pronounced than others. But regardless of the type of game we're making, I think it is important to remember that who we imagine the player to be might be just as important as the circumstances we create for them. And we would do well not to underestimate the potency of those circumstances.