Over the last month, I have been playing a lot of casual games (gearing up to the big ones perhaps hehe). I have been no stranger to digital casual play – I shamelessly bought the highly addictive shareware solitaire package Pretty Good Solitaire – something about having over 700 different solitaire games intrigued me (although I only play about 5). Of course, I spent my share of time in the world of Bejeweled, back when I played mmo’s intensively. Always saw it like a weening process from hardcore mmo-play to mindless clicking to getting up and getting back to the rest of the world. Of course, Farmville and CafeWorld (damn you Facebook!) – while fun for the 3 minutes of actual ‘play’ these two games offer (harvesting, planting, arranging/making food & arranging your restaurant…), the design pretty much keeps them ‘casual’ in the sense that you cannot devote excessive time or ever get intense (immersed?) into the gameplay as such.
Then there was Zuma … ahhhh Zuma how many hours have I spent trying not to blink as I tried to stay a few steps ahead of the ever-faster stream of incoming marbles, thumb aching from the xbox joystick (damn you!) as I try to spin my frog fast enough to keep up (might sound lame, but one you can get VERY sucked into this, let me tell you!). I made it to the last level, but never finished it. My daughter eventually started a game of her own and finished it in half the play time than I had put into it. Seeing the ending was gratifying enough for me (as simple and anti-climatic as it was).
The thing about Zuma for me, was that while it may be classified as a casual game (arcade actually), there was nothing ‘casual’ about the way I played it or how much I played it – at the time. Without getting technical about where the lines between casual and other types of gameplay, for me, it is usually about how hard it is to put the controller/mouse down.
The latest casual game to enter my play-o-sphere is Kingdom for Keflings. I know … it is hard for me to even be saying any of this out loud – but I think there is a place for this kind of gameplay, and merit in thinking about what goes into this kind of gameplay; why it often takes a back seat to other gameplay styles and genres. I know that personally, I have spent more intense bouts of play in KfK over WoW on several occasions. A lighthearted sim-kingdom game, I often found myself playing this game with the same sort of zeal as when I was a little girl playing with dolls. I would catch myself talking out loud when I would build a new house, Wizard or Sculptor’s place and had to pick up a Kefling to designate them the resident artist or wizard “I am going to make you the mayor young lady – do a good job” – “, I caught myself saying as my lady Kefling screams and flails her arms as my giant self would walk across the kingdom. When assigning tradeskill tasks, I would often consider things like how far my Keflings had to walk to bring the resources to their destinations – do I want my lady-Kefling cutting down the trees or carrying the logs to the lumber mill? Hearing myself mutter “come on out of the crystal mines m’lad, you can work in the tailor shop instead” – I was a bit surprised at how ‘into’ the game I got.
I have always enjoyed the trade-skill/resource collecting part of of MMO gameplay. It was one of the reasons I loved Horizons – not many mmo’s really get it right, but Horizons was all about the trade-skill, less about epic battles for me. Kingdom for Keflings – on a very basic level, fulfills this desire to collect and build things, and sometimes even add my own little story to it. My partner thinks KfK needs some action, ability to invade each other’s kingdoms, etc – but I like the mellow head space playing a few hours of KfK puts me in – no stress, no timers, no monsters; just mellow resource collection, mellow music (elevator music reminiscent of ‘Walking on Sunshine‘).
All of this to say, what makes this a ‘casual’ game? The design – in that it does not ‘demand’ much of the player? Low point of entry? Scope of gameplay complexity? I know on a personal level, the amount of time and energy dedicated to gameplay and strategizing (yes, I strategize in Kingdom for Keflings – to maximize efficiency of production) and the immersiveness I feel, I have had more ‘casual’ experiences in mmo’s, mindlessly grinding to level up or waiting for a group to gel. For me, the casual / hardcore line is based more on how I play, and not the game itself. I guess in a way, it bothers me that so many dismiss the numbers of female ‘game players’ because they play ‘online, flash-type games’ and solitaire, etc. While I understand that the term “gamer” may not be applied to this demographic, they should count for something as defined perhaps by the player experience instead of the game they play. While a bit off center from this is the same way that sports games (and their immense fan base) are often put into a different box when talking about gamers, gameplay and the casual/hardcore debate.
Guess I should go back to the literature on casual / hardcore gaming – its been a few years!