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On Thinking Like a Person

Making meaningful distinctions about players, their intuition and assumptions, and why 'Casual' is an unhelpful term.

Seth Gorden, Blogger

December 30, 2010

6 Min Read

Person vs Gamer

On Gamesauce, I recently watched a video about motivating casual players in online games.


The  term ‘casual players’ has seemed a misnomer to me for some time, and I’m starting to figure out why. At first, ‘casual’ described a kind of play, moreso than a person. But as we love our labels, soon we assigned it to people, deeming them casual whenever their play style did not reflect a thorough knowledge and comfort with the history and mechanics of video games and how to play them.

There is a particular passage in the video linked above that talks about player grouping in online multiplayer games. Apparently ‘casual’ players don’t do it. In the examples given, this refers to clicking a ‘Group’ button from a very accessible user interface. Most of their players never click this button, even when instructed to do so. It turns out that their casual players assume that when they sign on to a game with their friends, that believe they are already grouped. Some make their avatars stand close together in the game when clicking the ‘Group’ button, and timed their clicks so that they pressed the button simultaneously. This, of course, has nothing to do with how grouping works in the game. The presenter in the video spoke about this only long enough to describe their observations and how it affected development of their online game. But let’s dig a little deeper.


Are casual players just not interested in groups? Are they all solo artists, too good to ask for help? Certainly not. As observed, many already believed they were in a group. But why? The reason is that a normal human being joins a group by walking up and talking to them. Growing up, we have groups at lunch tables in school, groups on the playground, and groups in classes. As adults, we have analogous places to gather and join in the lustrous endeavor of grouphood. These groups change frequently as we go from one place to another in our day. There is no boolean status that goes along with such grouping. You don’t have to submit an application and be approved in order to join in a conversation at a lunch table. Life doesn’t work like that.

The next obvious retort on this path is that “Games are not life, why does this matter?” And like most ground-breaking ideas in the world of games, it’s about people. Nintendo figured this out a long time ago and has made a fortune on ignoring the confused looks that Gamers give them. The rest of us, myself included, are still scratching our heads to figure out how to reach a broader market, or simply how to avoid our own neighbors and fellow countrymen from lobbying against our industry as a whole. Clearly, we have some people-work to do, across the board. But lets just focus on the players.


What separates players is a set of assumptions and a tolerance for complexity. If you care about accessibility of your game, which is to say… if you want more people to play your game, if you want to stay in business as a developer… you may want to care about the people who try to play it. I am not an industry analyst, but would venture to say that most potential sales that are lost happen when somebody tries your game and chooses not to buy it. Forget piracy, your game’s potential lies in how effectively you can motivate edge-case players to vote with their money on an experience. So, what’s the big lesson here? How do ideas about grouping translate into serving the players?


First, let’s eliminate the term casual. It’s not particularly helpful. There are only two relevant distinctions I see: People and Gamers. People have assumptions about being a person. Gamers have assumptions about being a person and about games they have played before. This is much like the relationship between squares and rectangles. All Gamers are people, but not all People are Gamers. We also have (broadly speaking) two kinds of games: Games for Gamers, and Games for People. And you don’t always know what your game is going to be until you put it out into the world. You can have all the intentions you want about accessibility or hardcore-ness. But when you hit gold and ship… that’s when you find out.

Still, there are some things to think about before you get there. Gamers can (and do) play both kinds of games. But People really only play Games for People. They choose to stick with what works for them, and do not have a strong desire to learn the assumptions of the Gamer, otherwise they would be a Gamer. Basically, you cannot ask People to be architects.


You may have a glorious system of metal and concrete that keeps your building from falling down, allows people to experience a comfortable atmosphere, and directs them to the nearest exit in case of fire. But People do not care why that works, or how brilliant the design is. Most people in fancy buildings show up to do something other than learn how the building stays upright. Usually, they are working, learning, or creating something that has nothing to do with the building. Let’s keep them focused on that.

The next key point is that there are always more People than Gamers. In any industry or group, you have experts and you have average folks. Most folks are average, no matter how you slice it. Enough said.

If you want to really crack open the potential of your game, start thinking like a Person.


Example: Groups. People do not think of groups as an action or status. Grouping is not a common verb for people. You group socks. You might group M&Ms, and perhaps you’re one of those people who groups food on their plate (whyyyy? All foods on my plate are created equal, pile it on). But you don’t go out on Friday night to ‘group’. You go hang out with friends to have drinks, or whatever. There are several intuitive ways here to indentify groups in Games for People. We have Proximity, Relationship, and a Common Activity. All three of these are items we monitor and track in games already, especially online games… even Online Games for Gamers.

What happens when you start using these heuristics for groups? You can have intuitive grouping based on player avatars who are close to each other, who have pre-established relationships, and who share a common goals or are participating in the same activity. People understand these things. You can prompt them to join a group when these criteria are satisfied. You can allow players to enable auto-grouping for people on their friends list. You can come up with your own game-appropriate application of this idea. The point is… once you do it… you take a step toward creating a Game for People, even if you are otherwise hardcore. And maybe, if your game is tempting enough, you will actually create a Gamer. But we have to get People in the door first.


Let’s start thinking like People again.
Thoughts on this? Let me know if you have other ideas on how to think like a Person.

(Mirrored from original post at my website: www.sethgorden.com)

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