I bought a new game in September which I've been playing pretty much nonstop. The game stats claim I've racked up 110 hours. It's possible that I should find that alarming, or at least a little bit embarrassing, but my first reaction to realizing that I've invested that much time in one game in two months is having an urge to brag about it to my geeky friends—people who would usually respond to something like that with appreciation or awe (instead of edging away or making noises about interventions or whatever).
There's a problem, though. The game in question isn't an immersive, engaging RPG, a slick first-person shooter with cutting edge graphics, or even a sprawling MMORPG—it's Bejeweled 3. That's right. A casual game.
It would be one thing if I'd poured that much of my free time into something a little more hardcore, but spending all that energy on a casual game will strike even many of my fellow gaming nerds as a total waste. It will seem worse than just a waste of time, to some, because to them casual games are worse than pointless—they're ruining the rest of gaming. Casual games are stupid, cheap, insubstantial, and meaningless. And, worst of all, casual games are popular, which means that developers keep making them. Developers who could be making good games, real games, games for real gamers . . . ! Casual games are sinister.
You could probably guess that I don't believe that, even if I hadn't started this column out by admitting that I've been playing a whole heck of a lot of Bejeweled 3 lately. But I'll go a little further than just saying that I, personally, like many casual games, or that lots of casual games are pretty good, and say this: I think it is silly to find Bejeweled and its ilk threatening. And more than that, I think that the widespread hate-on for casual games amongst hardcore gamers is often just a flimsy mask for bigotry.
I'd normally stop to define my terms before trying to explain my position, but as it turns out, one of the things I want to discuss is that the lack of a coherent, widely accepted definition for "casual game" is a big part of the issue. Of course, there are problems one bumps into in trying to define any genre (readers of this magazine are no doubt familiar with the slippery borders of the science fiction and fantasy genres, among others), but figuring out which games are "casual" and which are "hardcore" is unusually difficult.
I think the vast majority of gamers would say that Bejeweled 3 is a casual game, but how about Puzzle Quest? The latter has a plot, character classes, world map, and all the other trappings of a classic console RPG, but it's still essentially a match-a-series-of-objects-in-a-row game. But if we call Puzzle Quest a casual game, does that mean Final Fantasy is one, too? Because the only real difference between it and Puzzle Quest is the actual mechanism of the turn-based combat, and there really isn't anything intrinsically "hardcore" about selecting something from a drop-down menu.
And then how about a title like Team Fortress 2? It's free, which it has in common with lots of casual games. It's a first-person shooter, which is a favorite genre among hardcore gamers. It doesn't take long to learn, and you can play in increments as short as a few minutes, which is typical of casual games. Yet, it grew out of Quake, which is a classic old-school, hardcore FPS game, and it uses the Source engine, which also powers hardcore titles like Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source.
I could keep going, comparing games that are "casual" to those that are "hardcore" and pointing out the differences there aren't, though I'm not sure I could keep doing it with a straight face indefinitely (my husband thinks it would be entertaining to see me make the argument for Civilization IV as a casual title, but I'm not that brave). Still, my point here is pretty clear: "casual game" isn't actually a definitive description. In fact, it's way more nebulous and far less useful than the majority of other gaming genre labels. "Platformer" means "game with jumping from one platform to another," for example, and "first-person shooter" means "game with the camera behind/on the avatar, featuring combat with a projectile weapon," which is pretty concrete. "Casual" seems to mean "game I don't approve of," for most hardcore gamers.
Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that "casual" means "game targeted at or played by people I don't consider gamers." While I've seen the term defined as referring to games with simple rules (like Halo?), or games that are free to try (World of Warcraft?), or any number of other vague things, the other definition for "casual game" that I see all the time is "game played by housewives/little kids/grandmas," with the clear implication that those people don't count as real gamers. That they can't be real gamers.
And, unlike playing even a gajillion hours of Bejeweled 3, that actually is embarrassing. It's prejudice. And it's also exclusionary in a way that does more harm to gaming culture than crappy products ever could.
The social damage is pretty obvious, if you agree with me that discrimination based on gender, age, or occupation is a bad thing. Worse, because of the incredibly nebulous definition of "casual game," those who use the label to keep people out can keep moving the goal posts, using an endless "no true Scotsman" approach (no true gamer plays Farmville!).
But the argument these "true gamers" use to justify that sort of behavior is often that they're legitimately worried about damage to the gaming industry—that casual games somehow push more hardcore titles out of existence. Some of these arguments make less sense than others. My favorite brain-bender is the one that suggests that casual games are bad for gaming because potential players spend the money on them that they would otherwise have available for real games.
That's pretty weaksauce. I mean, if a casual gamer isn't a real gamer because they wouldn't be playing games at all if casual games weren't available (say that ten times fast), then it's not like they would have pre-ordered Battlefield 3 anyway, right? And this is anecdata, but I've really never heard of anyone who started out with Madden NFL but then was seduced away to the casual games side, never bought a sports title or touched a console again, and only plays Angry Birds on his iPod touch anymore. Conversely, I can think of several friends who started out with a PopCap Games title on their cell phone and then went on to explore the wider world of gaming. Lots and lots of people who play casual games never play any other kind, but they can definitely be a gateway to the more hardcore titles out there—which means more sales for those titles overall, not fewer.
Another favorite argument is that casual games are bad, and they make real games look bad. I will readily agree that a lot of casual games are, in fact, truly heinous. And it's quite possible that there's a higher ratio of bad vs. good casual games, though the problems that one would run into trying to crunch numbers on that should be obvious. But even if that's the case, gaming has survived a lot of really crappy products over the years. I'm just saying.
An argument that I find somewhat more persuasive is that casual games used to be, and should still be, the first step a developer takes on the road to other genres—a way to build skills and, more important, funds that can be invested in the lengthier production processes required by more hardcore games—but that the profitability of the casual game now keeps potential creators from moving on. That there are large, successful game companies that are specializing in casual games currently could also be a hindrance to brand new talent trying to enter the field at a low price point, meaning that not only are there fewer developers moving from casual games to other games, it's harder for those who might be more motivated to do so to break into the market to begin with.
I'm fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea that any creator "should" be "moving on" from one—presumably lesser—genre to another, whether it's traditional or not. But beyond that, I honestly don't understand enough about the economics of the industry to evaluate whether that argument makes any sense, and I wouldn't even know where to start trying to find numbers that either back it up or disprove it. One thing I do know, though, is that it's not fair to blame casual game players for the fact that some titles take more time and more resources to develop than others. Or for, you know, the basic forces of capitalism.
But it is easy. And satisfying! There are few things more likely to be met with general support than complaining about a marginalized group from the comfort of the (relative) mainstream.
The big problem with that—other than the whole "prejudice is wrong" thing—is that trying to make gaming culture an exclusive club means, logically, fewer gamers. Which is fewer consumers, of any kind of game. How is that a good thing for gaming as a whole?
So if you have the urge to dismiss casual gamers as not "really" gamers at all, or blame them for stuff they aren't in control of, maybe you could rethink that a little. Also, give Bejeweled 3 a try. Barring some grossness about "Zen Mode," it's pretty good! And I don't want to be the only person I know who has sunk over a hundred hours into it.