The medium of video games is very young in comparison to other related facets of entertainment, like film, literature, and music. As the medium has grown older, two descriptors have emerged in relation to its players and games: casual and hardcore. This paper is intended to criticize how the definitions of casual and hardcore games and players are produced.
As games have evolved, they’ve become more complicated with each game growing on the conventions of the last. With games becoming more complex, the gaming community has split into two different groups: the casual and the hardcore. Braxton Soderman defines casual games as being played in short bursts by women in order to kill time (332¹). And Michael Samyn asserts hardcore games as competitive elements played by teenage boys (The Contradiction of Linearity²). These stereotypes have strengthened over the years and are more prevalent in today’s gaming culture than ever before. Publishers use the stereotypes as marketing ploys, developers produce games for one specific subculture, and gamers don’t like to be mislabeled as one term when they self-define themselves as the other. But there are problems with defining these stereotypes, whether being generated from the community or scholars: the lines between casual and hardcore players are blurred, and the attributes between a casual and hardcore game are not clearly separable. Both of these reasons leave too much grey area when defining the player or game as casual or hardcore. This is because the definitions in relation to the player and game are loose and circumstantial to each individual experience. But the interaction between the player and game produces an experience that I argue can be characterized as hardcore or casual. Deciding whether the experience is casual or hardcore solely relies upon how the player chooses to play the game. Games are only the site for which the player performs; they can’t dictate what kind or style of play occurs.
The definitions of a casual or hardcore “experience” can withstand much more stress because these definitions are more concrete than those of casual or hardcore players and games. The formula for the experience definition, relies on two factors: the player and the game. The player interacting with the game produces the experience, but the formula isn’t weighted evenly between the player and the game. The player is the primary factor in the formula, almost entirely dictating what the experience will be. Yet the game still matters in the formula for it is the site where the player produces the experience.
Defining a player or game as casual or hardcore is very tentative because there are many ways to play a given game. The stereotypical, middle-aged woman can create casual play by fooling around in Halo just as easily as the stereotypical, teenaged boy can create hardcore play by playing Candy Crush to be the best in the world. Even though the definitions of games and players as hardcore or casual crumble very easily, they’re important to discuss as pieces to the sturdy definition of casual and hardcore experiences. In the next section I will discuss the role of the player, followed by a section on the game examining why it merely provides a set of tools for playing and is strictly a site for player performance, all the while explaining how each factor relates to defining a casual or hardcore experience.
The player drives the definition of the experience, for he or she is the one to decide how to play the game. The player makes many decisions, conscious and subconscious, as to how much time to invest in the game and what his or her intentions are for playing the game.
If the player chooses to play the game for hours on end, this would almost demand a hardcore experience. On-the-go gaming is on the other end of that scale . If the player is playing a game on his or her cell phone on the bus on the way to work, this is a much different, and more casual, experience than that of the player marathoning a game. The difference of time investment also introduces another question: Is the player spending time or killing time while playing the game?
Killing time versus spending time is an important dichotomy when considering time in the modern era of gaming. Mobile gaming, with the evolution of cell phones, is available to almost anyone at any time during the day. Soderman, in his dissertation Interpreting Video games through the Lens of Modernity, writes:
casual games in general are often framed in terms of killing time as one waits—waiting for an infant to wake up from a nap, for a commuter train to arrive at the station, for a colleague to arrive for a work meeting, etc. (332)…It is often noted that casual games are played during work when one takes a short break in order to ―zone out or reduce stress (Brightman), but these games can certainly be played at home (or anywhere for that matter if one uses a mobile phone)(326).
If the player engages a game to waste time while waiting for some time-constrained event in his or her life to be over, then this is a casual experience. In a hardcore experience, the player would spend time inside the game exploring, interacting, watching, and possibly even competing. This is not to say that all on-the-go gaming is casual, but it is a much more apparent site for such an experience. The player could be playing Candy Crush, a popular match-three game, on a cell phone while commuting to work with the intentions of getting the highest score in the world. Even though most experiences when playing Candy Crush are casual, this particular example would produce a hardcore experience.
The intention of the player is the other factor, besides time, that defines the player. Continuing with the previous example, if the player intended to get the world’s best score in Candy Crush and played the same level over and over for that sole purpose, then this is a hardcore experience. But if by some stroke of luck, the player was just killing time on the way to work and happened to have received the world’s best score in Candy Crush, then this is a casual experience. Whether the game is Candy Crush, Call of Duty, StarCraft, or Cooking Mama, playing it for sport automatically results in a hardcore experience no matter what. The competitive nature of trying to win when playing the game is hardcore. If the player were playing the game for social purposes, this is typically a casual experience. Jesper Juul, in his book A casual Revolution: Reinventing Video games and Their players³, describes how the intentions of the player in the same game can affect the experience that is produced:
[Guitar Hero and Rock Band] are different depending on the goal you set as a player. If you seek to play the game as a social event, you can play the game one song at a time. In this case, the game requires only marginal time investment, making it closer to casual game design principles. If, on the other hand, you play the game with the goal of mastering it, you will be replaying the same song over and over, and you will be memorizing the specific button presses needed to complete a song. In this case, the game is closer to traditional hardcore game design principles (142).
The social nature of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band makes it easier for a casual experience, but it is the player’s intentions when playing the game that define the experience. Those two games fall into a loose category of games without goals or ones with optional goals. For instance, the popular Grand Theft Auto series is usually considered a site for a more hardcore experience with its large, open worlds, hours of narrative, and skill required to play, but because of the design where the goals of the game are optional, casual experiences are easy to have in this series as well. Juul goes on to explain that:
games without goals or with optional goals are more flexible: they accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting you choose what kind of game you want to play (138)...Guitar Hero and Rock Band are therefore not simply ‘casual,’ ‘hardcore,’ or somewhere on a scale between the two, but represent a kind of flexible design that lets players decide what type of game to play (129).
The player, the most important factor in the formula for defining the experience, chooses his or her style of play from game to game. There are different relationships between the player and the game that ultimately produce a unique experience for every player, as they interact with each game for different amounts of time, in different settings, with different intentions for playing each particular game.
Though the player carries most of the weight for the definition of the experience, the game is still a very important factor for determining whether the experience is casual or hardcore. Think of the game as a playground. The people who designed this playground can’t dictate what kinds of games children (the players) will play on it, just like developers of video games can’t dictate how players use their game. Now, the designers of the playground may provide a roundabout, monkey bars, and a swing set, which make it easier or harder for children to play certain types of games, but they will never be able to limit the kind or style of play to a specific game. This is the same for video game developers and the people who play their game. Developing a game with “mimetic interfaces” (games where physical activity mimes what happens on screen, i.e. Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Wii Sports, etc.), as Juul calls them, offers a site for a more casual experience, but doesn’t dictate when the player is able to have a hardcore experience in mastering the game.
Steve Meretzky, a game designer who PC gamer magazine named as one of its 25 "Game Gods," gave the introduction to the casual games Summit at the game Developers Conference in 2007⁴. In his introduction, he stated casual games have certain characteristics: easy to learn, forgiving, short playing time, highly replayable, quick loading and starting, non-violent themes, and inexpensive. Though many casual games do contain these characteristics, these can’t define the game as casual, as the player could have a hardcore experience if he or she chooses to do so. But if the game does contain all of those characteristics, it is a much more conducive site for the casual experience.
Real-time strategy (RTS) games, like StarCraft, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), like World of Warcraft, are known for being sites for the more hardcore experience mostly because their genres demand it. RTS games and MMORPGs are a more likely site for the hardcore experience because their genres require certain prior knowledge to have an experience and a minimum time investment for having an experience. You could jump into World of Warcraft for only 10 minutes to run around, but your experience won’t be substantial because actually doing anything in the game, like completing quests, requires a minimum time investment, making it more difficult to have a casual experience with this game.
The game as a site influences the experience that the player chooses to have. Playing a game in your web browser on Facebook offers a completely different site than playing a game on your console. The same goes for the experience available when playing on your handheld Nintendo 3DS or playing the latest Call of Duty on your up-to-date gaming PC. These play spaces are influential to the experience available for the player, but again, they cannot dictate the experience that is had.
Juul says that games, like music or other story forms, have this notion of ‘the pull’ surrounding them. ‘The pull,’ is this need to play the game, make the next move, or find out what happens to a group of characters. ‘The pull,’ can help us decide what is a more likely site for the casual experience is as they usually have a stronger pull.
While it is fairly certain that you know what a jigsaw puzzle asks of you, and there is a high chance that you know what to do with the game of Pac-Man, a modern game like StarCraft is divisive. Not everybody feels the pull: not everybody knows what to do, not everybody wants to pick up the game and start playing (4).
‘The pull’ represents the idea of a common denominator in gaming. If ‘the pull’ is apparent in a particular game for most people then it is usually has much more simple game mechanics and strays toward the casual end of the scale. Continuing with Juul’s example, if you showed the screenshot below of Pac-Man (Figure 1) to just about anyone, of any age, they would know what move to make next and want to make that move.
Pac-Man, Figure 1
But if you showed the screenshot below of StarCraft II (Figure 2) to people, most wouldn’t know what move to make next. This is because StarCraft II is a much more complex game than Pac-Man, making it a more likely site for a hardcore experience.
StarCraft II, Figure 2
Mike Reparaz wrote in an online article entitled The Death of hardcore Gaming?⁵.
Casual games—usually defined as simple games that are easy to get into and relatively inexpensive to make—have been with us for a long, long time. For years now, their biggest audience has been on PCs, where downloadable games like Diner Dash and Cake Mania entertain a mostly older, female demographic more interested in killing time than in killing monsters.
In this definition, Reparaz addresses several stereotypes of casual games that have already been discussed in this paper, such as being simple, inexpensive, and used for killing time. But Reparaz does bring up an additional, important stereotype: casual games are a site for femininity and implying that hardcore games are a site for masculinity.
Gender in the realm of casual and hardcore
Just as there are existing stereotypes for both casual and hardcore games and players there is an existing stereotype for gender in relation to the experience. Competitive first-person shooters, like Halo and Call of Duty, are known for their stereotypical hardcore male player base, while the casual scene has been pinned as a place for femininity. Though, as previously stated, just because a game is a more likely site for the casual experience doesn’t mean that experience is always the one to be had. Maria Consalvo in her paper Hardcore Casual: Game Culture Return(s) to Ravenhearst⁶ analyzes the release of a particular, more casual game, titled Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst on the game’s forum. In her following of the all-but-casual community, they were making walkthroughs, interactive maps, and video guides, but the most surprising thing was that the community was almost entirely female. Consalvo goes on to write that:
Clearly, many players of casual games are not at all casual in how they play or think about such games. At least some players are heavily invested in anticipating new titles, discussing various aspects of past and future games, and solving the mysteries that some games provide. They likewise form a community of sorts, helping other players with rough patches in various games, creating valuable sites for support and advice. They can also take extra steps, creating interactive downloadable maps for others to use, thoughtfully reviewing or discussing aspects of various games, and creating game-related artifacts such as fan fiction to extend theirs and other players’ enjoyment.
It didn’t matter that Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst was a more likely site for a casual experience or that the community surrounding it was mostly female -- the community still generated a very hardcore experience by becoming so invested in the game. Just as it is circumstantial to say that all mobile gaming is casual or that all first-person shooters are hardcore, it is circumstantial to say that one gender is casual or hardcore, too. But a vocal minority, along with marketing companies, is keeping these stereotypes relevant. Soderman points out that:
In the last five years or so the rise of casual games and its concurrent gendering as feminine has ignited a palpable anxiety in (masculine) hardcore culture where these gamers—once the darlings of the gaming industry—worry that the mass consumer and the casual gamer will kill or overrun the hardcore. The hardcore gamer frets that games will be ―“dumbed down” and increasingly simplified, a process that supposedly will not ignore titles traditionally viewed as hardcore as these too will absorb principles of casual gaming in order to increase their audience and distribution (301).
While the stereotypes still remain, it is up to the player to decide if they are to have a casual or hardcore experience, no matter what their gender is.
The game cannot force the player to perform their play in a any specific way. The experience of the player interacting with the game, casual or hardcore, is entirely up to the player. The player is not a concrete being that is set in his or her ways. He or she can change his or her experience from casual to hardcore, or vice versa, over a set of years, from day to day, or even within a single play session with one game. The player has the ability to evolve, and he or she usually does. Juul, in his book, conducted several sets of surveys asking players about their experience with their changing habits.
Survey response from a 40-year old female player.
Q: Have your game-playing habits changed over the years?
A: I used to only play RPGs like Guild Wars but you can start and stop casual games easier during the day (162).
Survey response from a 38-year old male player.
Q: Have your game-playing habits changed over the years?
A: As I grew up and had more obligations my time and patience became limited towards investing in epic games. Though I still love the idea of playing epics like Civilization or Warlords or SimCity, the time required is just more than I can provide (163).
We can see that their usual experience with games used to be hardcore, but as they grew older their lives didn’t allow for such a demanding experience which is why it changed to a more casual experience. A typical time in one’s life for this to happen is during college. The college fallout from the hardcore experience with gaming is typical because you become exposed to many new things, a lot of which require the time you once spent Experiencing games in a hardcore way.
Each individual interaction between the player and the game creates an experience which is why the formula for determining whether an experience is casual or hardcore holds up. The player is constantly changing, along with their intentions for playing, and the game is only the site for player performance. This is why we are unable to state that a player or game is casual or hardcore. It is the product of the two, the experience, that is casual or hardcore.
1. Soderman, Braxton A. Interpreting Video Games through the Lens of Modernity. Diss. Brown University, 2011.
2. Samyn, Michael. "The Contradiction of Linearity." Gamasutra. 7 Oct. 2010. Web.
3. Juul, Jesper. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.
4. Meretzky, Steve E. "Casual Games Summit." game Developers Conference. 2007. Lecture.
5. Reparaz, Mike. "The Death of Hardcore Gaming?" games Radar. Web.
6. Consalvo, Maria, Ph.D. "Hardcore Casual: Game Culture Return(s) to Ravenhearst." Web.
Figure 1 - Pac-Man
Figure 2 - StarCraft II