Casual Gaming: An introspective ramble

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!

5 thoughts on “Casual Gaming: An introspective ramble

  1. What an excellent read! I can think of four criteria on which we may distinguish between casual and hardcore (yeah, I hate the terms, but I guess we have to start somewhere):
    1) the required player skillset / barrier of entry: hardcore requires prior knowledge of the genre or serious gaming skills, casual is meant for everybody to pick up and learn along the way
    2) the required player investment – quantitative: how much time do you have to pour in, how many hours you play
    3) the required player investment – qualitative: being fully immersed and spending time on forums reading up or devising strategies, above and beyond what’s immediately necessary
    4) the player’s socio-economic investment in the larger games phenomenon (ludophilic culture): reading interviews, previews of upcoming games, or sticking with a particular developer or genre of choice

    I’m sure we could find more. But your ramble shows that indeed, there’s a need to update our vocabulary with some critical observations. Juul’s little passage on the language issue got me thinking recently. He says in Half-Real that in the Scandinavian languages, you have a separate verb and noun form for both play and game, so you can “play a play” and “game a game”, so to speak. This allows some richness of criss-crossing: one could conceivably “game a game” or “play a game”, and as well “play a play” or “game a play”. If we transpose that to the hardcore and casual debate, one can “hardcorely” play a casual game, as well as casually play a hardcore game. Sounds a bit like what a part of your rant is about.

  2. Thank you Dominic, the criteria you put forth is an interesting. I am not sure I am fully on board with #4, as I think that its an interesting criteria, but not a necessary one. Complimentary to the others, or perhaps a sub-crit I would say.

    I remember Juul’s excerpt, and agree that language is part of the problem – but the problem (for me) is also embroiled in this sort of value hierarchy Game Studies (and gamers in general) have about what a video game is. Just think about the way sports games are often discussed (or excluded) when people talk about games (and by people I mean the academic community). There is often an underlying belief, or attitude that says ‘oh, that’s not a real game’. That puzzle games fall well below FPS and action adventure games. Even when people cite the statistics on who are playing digital games, the female contingent is always dismissed since the games they often play are online, flash games, or embedded in other online activities – this somehow gets placed into a ‘not really gaming’ category. What I think we should look at instead of what type of game they are playing, but how they are playing (re: your criteria). I think this is an important shift (slowly happening) in thinking about digital gameplay, especially with the increase of ‘casual’ mobile games and iphone apps that shake up the existing value laden hierarchy.

    The criteria you put forth allows the genre to be placed behind the experience. I am not saying that we need to look at all genres (and experiences) with the same lens, but we cannot discount certain types of digital play based on a narrow perceptions of video-gameness. Of course, this goes back to the work on ‘what is a video game’ and even then, it is a can of worms that often is not resolved (oh the world of definitions!).

    Your last sentence is exactly my point of this rant though – indeed “If we transpose that to the hardcore and casual debate, one can “hardcorely” play a casual game, as well as casually play a hardcore game.” This would / could put the range of digital games on a relative playing field for consideration (of course not all questions can be addressed this way) and allows us, as researchers, to look at digital gaming as cultural form in a broader perspective that includes a larger part of the population. What does this say about the society we currently live in? Where leisure was once considered that of a privileged class – one that could afford leisure (in time as well as scope), is now accessible to a range of socio/economic classes. That through digitally mediated technology, people can play while they work (and work while they play). That leisure can be had through intermittent spurts of flash gameplay and iApps when lengthier, or more intense leisure is not possible. But that is another post for another day.😉

    *Apologies if some of this is not coherent – it was written in a bout of insomnia =)

  3. Just to clarify: I meant the criteria are different ways of “valuing” someone as “hardcore”, not a set to which one must correspond wholly. For some people, being hardcore is playing all the time, for others it’s a way of playing, for others it’s being highly proficient in certain genres, and for others it’s being knowledgeable about games and developers etc.

    Anyway, this whole thing reminds me of the film studies question. Roger Odin said that film theory is, by and large, a theory of the fictional feature film, which leaves other forms marginalized (the documentary, the corporate training video, music video, even the art movie). Since a few years, these alternate forms are gaining more and more theoretical interest, and this seems to coincide with the questioning of “what is film” and the increasing shift away from “film” to “motion pictures” (Concordia’s PhD is in “Film and moving image studies”, for instance).

    We are replicating just that in game studies, however there already are some voices studying the more marginal phenomena, even though they are lacking “equal representation” (famously illustrated by the disparity between sports games studies and RPG studies). However I wonder if it’s not inevitable in a sense. Maybe the process is to look at video games considered prototypical (resonant with the cultural stereotypes and natural images most people have when thinking of video games..although that in itself would be worthy of study!) to derive some theoretical insights on it, and then apply these theories to less prototypical objects that draw more on film, more on traditional games, etc. If that is the case though, we are indeed shaping a set of lens (the “blockbuster”, AAA, console- or PC- game) through which we will frame (and may obscure) the specificity of those other forms of gaming. Which, you know, curiously reminds me of a certain narratology debate…you’d think we’d have learned something from there.

  4. Oh – I knew you were setting it up as a varying set of criteria – I just tend to ramble outwards from things at times.

    moving past casual/hardcore content/play – what I find interesting is that if we do look at blockbuster games as Odin says of fiction film as you rightly point out, it still confuses me why sports games do not get the attention they would appear o deserve in that they are some of the best selling, widely played games. The Madden series – NHL series – heck, even the Tiger Woods games have incredible sale numbers and reach out to a broader cultural range.

    Although I do agree with you – sports games do not fit within the ‘prototypical’ images most people have when thinking of video games (end quote)😉

    Now to get some coffee! (maybe I should have coffee, think THEN write!)😉

  5. i was passing by saw the calvin and hobbes thing in google search your blog made me laugh.. casual gaming🙂 im gonna bookmark this blog.

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