Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Beyond Hardcore and Casual

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“[Video games] do not represent two discrete populations, [casual] and [hardcore]. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that [the world] rarely deals with discrete categories... The [entertainment] world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively [casual] and exclusively [hardcore video games], it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of [casual] and [hardcore subjects and qualities] in each product... An individual [game] may be assigned a position on this scale, for each [facet of its design]... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist."

- Kinsey, Alfred, et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). pp. 639, 656
(Modifications to original text by the author.)

While the terms “casual” and “hardcore” have served some purpose in the past, dividing groups like soccer moms from LAN partiers, browser games from console titles, and socially acceptable games from nerdy pastimes, the lines between casual and hardcore have become increasingly jagged. World of Warcraft, a roleplaying game full of orcs, elves, and magic, now boasts over eleven million monthly subscribers, making it a more popular place to live than Belgium. On the other side of the gaming spectrum, PopCap, makers of Peggle and Bejeweled, recently released a “casual” game in the tower defense genre, a genre that gained popularity in user-created maps for notable “hardcore” real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Age of Empires II. It is clear that the current situation requires more intricate language: it is no longer sufficient to classify games as either casual or hardcore, since few are exclusively one or the other.

There is a concern in the more traditional video gaming circles that the rise of so-called casual gaming is diluting the more proper, traditional games that we have come to know and love. The next Mario-branded title from Nintendo, for example, is adding a feature that allows the game to play itself if a section becomes too difficult. The latest Prince of Persia introduced a mechanic which removed player death from the game entirely. It seems like everywhere we look some beloved franchise is getting simplified or modified to appeal to a wider, more casual market. But the amalgamation works both ways: the aforementioned PopCap title Plants vs. Zombies shows how more nominally hardcore qualities like collection, strategy and zombies can make for a wildly entertaining title that appeals to a casual audience.

Obviously, we need a better way of talking about the differences in the audiences, subject matter, controls and content of the modern video game. Flower developers thatgamecompany attempt to solve the problem of classifying their own games, designed to appeal to any group of people, by calling them simply “core games.” If we accept this as more than a marketing ploy, this raises our classification options to three: casual, core, and hardcore. I’d like to take this just one step further. I present to you the Bullard-Bates Scale:

While this is by no means a solution to the complexities of classifying the wide spectrum of game types released in a given year, it does solve a few of the major issues. With the Bullard-Bates Scale, we can attempt to navigate the differences between BioShock, a fairly well-written, complex shooter with philosophical underpinnings, and games like Halo 3, which present entertaining but less profound experiences and an almost competitive-sport-like online experience. We’ll place BioShock at about a 5, and Halo 3 at a 3. Super Mario Bros. lands at around a 2, for being more on the accessible side and light on plot (both traditionally casual attributes), while Braid might end up at a 5 for having more complicated mechanics and themes at work. Peggle is a 0. Plants vs. Zombies is a 2. Wii Sports Resort is a 1. And so on.

Obviously this system is far from ideal. Any system is, in fact: as soon as we attempt to quantify an experience, to reduce it to its component parts and judge them numerically instead of experientially and intellectually, we infantilize it. The Kinsey Scale, which dealt with heterosexual and homosexual self-identification and activity on a scale much like this one, is also a gross simplification of a very complicated issue. But while it does oversimplify, it also illustrates that there is more complexity to the situation than a mere binary state.

So let’s blur the lines and mix things up a bit. There isn’t just one big group of hardcore gamers whose interests are pitted against a huge group of casual ones. There are just people, who like different things and are attracted to different themes and styles of play.

So if casual and hardcore are insufficient terms, if even the Bullard-Bates Scale doesn’t quite cut the mustard, what’s the solution? Simply put, video game reviewers and journalists should be clearer about the qualities of the games they are covering. Instead of reviewing a game as either casual or hardcore, elaborate on the accessible elements and the complicated systems. Instead of assigning a numerical score to a game, tell the viewers and readers how well it succeeds both intellectually and mechanically. As the Joker famously said: “This [industry] deserves a better class of [reviewer]. And [who’s] gonna give it to [us?]”


  1. I think you have a good point about talking about the accessible elements of games because I find that sometimes games can have very intuitive and seemingly basic gameplay, however it evolves into something that is much more complicated. Also, I think it's good to note if a game has different difficulties in the beginning of the game. If a game does have gameplay that becomes complicated it can still be played by someone who is inexperienced with games if the difficulty is low because they don't necessarily have to trouble themselves with those complicated areas of the gameplay. They can just stick with the easy and basic stuff and get through easy mode just fine. While those who look for a challenge and a more "hardcore" experience, can play the game on a harder difficulty and try to master the games advanced gameplay mechanics.

  2. I think the best way in terms of advancing the medium to approach reviewing a game is to simply relate your experience with it. Discontinue the farce of reviewer objectivity and write critically with an openly subjctive voice. Let readers know how an experience you, and teach them through your journalistic voice to know that what they're reading is an imparted experience. Doing so gives them a range of experiences with which to relate and figure where they themselves fit in the spectrum - this will give us all a way to understand games better.

    A game is a creative work, not a product to be marred by an objective eye.

  3. I like where you're going with this, Parker. It's sort of odd, ultimately, that so few reviews are written in the first person. The interactivity of video games make them such a personal experience that no individual can possibly have exactly the same reaction to a game as someone else. Why not just tell the story of your time with the game?

    I find that as I read reviewers, I discover whose opinions are most in line with my own. Certain magazines and websites begin to lose relevance to me, while other individual reviewers clearly have gaming preferences more in line with my own. Obviously, there are some things that can be objectively commented on, such as bugs and framerate issues. But reviews are ultimately opinions, so why not just fess up and tell the world your experience, without trying to make personal opinions and preferences sound like facts?

  4. I couldn't agree more. We experience games with vastly different backgrounds and reference points, so why pretend we don't? I don't read a movie review to see a bullet-point list of technical specifications behind the experience, I read to empathize or to see how I might feel during an experience, and thus if it's worth engaging. I want the same from game reviews, but few reviewers are willing to oblige.

    This shift in game reviewing is slowly coming, I think, and it's one of the biggest obstacles to viewing games as art. There's a disconnect between what we want games to be and the way we openly talk about them - we say they are and can be art, but we treat them like products.


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