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  • Devising a formula for defining 'casual' and 'hardcore'

    [02.11.14]
    - Brian Keschinger
  • 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 inHalo 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

    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 spendtime 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 popularGrand 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.

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