Split Perspective: What "Casual" Means to a Game Elitist and Game Newbie | Casual Game Revolution

Split Perspective: What "Casual" Means to a Game Elitist and Game Newbie

Split Perspective
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When I think about what “casual” means, I usually envision a T-shirt with some silly pop-culture phrase emblazoned on the front or a nice family restaurant where little geeks standing up on the chairs is considered standard practice. When we consider the term in the context of games, things start to get a little cloudy. The opposite of “casual” is “formal”, but this makes zero sense in the world of tabletop games. You don’t, for example, play games formally, in business attire, in a corporate jet. Although, that would be pretty cool.

Casual, as it is widely understood by the tabletop games industry, suggests a game playing experience where strategic and tactical thought is light, only takes about an hour of your time to complete, and can be taught to individuals with little to no prior game playing experience. But this is a rather academic view of the world of casual games and does not necessarily properly reflect the point-of-view of those who play them.

From my perspective, there are three distinct groups. These are the Gamer Geeks, the Parent Geeks, and the Child Geeks. Gamer Geeks are elitist and masters of game playing. They feel very comfortable sitting down with a new game and spending hours playing it. To them, playing games is an art form they intend to master. Parent Geeks can also be Gamer Geeks, but have since reduced their level of focus based on their lack of free time. They can also be adult non-gamers or individuals who have very little game experience. From their perspective, games are what you play in between the cracks of daily life that allow it. The last group, the Child Geeks, are the next generation of gamers who are learning the basics and still think Candy Land and Hungry, Hungry Hippos offer a challenging experience. They are just now grasping the basic skills to play games.

A game that is positioned to be casual is playable by all three groups with various degrees of success. Game designers purposely and thoughtfully create their games with specific audiences in mind. Designing a game that is very demanding (hardcore) or very light (a child’s game) is what I would consider easier than attempting to design a casual game because a casual game must appeal to a wide demographic full of various levels of skills and patience. In short, being “all things to all people” is exceedingly challenging and difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible.

From a Gamer Geek’s elitist perspective, a casual game must fulfill three specific needs. They hunger for depth, strategy, and tactics. A game’s depth describes the immersion experience required by the player, the level of attention that it demands, and the time to complete it. It is not uncommon for the most elitist of Gamer Geeks to sit down to play a game that could span a few days. A game’s strategy describes the different ways to win the game. There are often several paths to victory, requiring specific actions and different levels of focus with various degrees of success. A game’s tactics describes the specific steps on those paths to victory that can be employed to further the aim of the strategy. For Gamer Geeks, tactics should equate to meaningful actions and be flexible enough to change as needed when the game’s ever shifting conditions move in and out of their favor.

Parent Geek and Child Geek casual gamers also require these three needs to be fulfilled by the game, but with significantly less demanding requirements on how those needs are met. A game’s depth is based more on the theme and narrative supported by the game, which helps define the context in which the game is being played. For example, a game with spaceships will use science fiction elements throughout its design to help strengthen the experience the game is attempting to offer. The depth of a casual game is therefore connected to the visual representation and any written text that helps further the narrative. A game’s strategy for casual gamers is often reduced to one or two specific goals. This is done purposely and is intended to minimize overall game complexity as well as to provide the players a specific objective. Tactics used in a casual game are also reduced and tend to be confined to specific tasks required by the players. Often times, tactics are subtly presented to the players as choices. The player is not asked to think four moves ahead, but to simply complete the most meaningful action on their turn. These options seldom change, making it less difficult to connect actions to the endgame objective.

It would appear that games designed for gamer elitists and casual gamers are as different as Transformers and GoBots. Or, for those who completely missed the 80’s, as different as night and day. This is a true statement, but only to a point. Every game, regardless of its target audience, is looking to entertain and challenge. Knowing what is expected of the players from the game is the line in the sand that divides the elitist gamer from the casual gamer.

Lucky for everyone, the gaming industry has adopted an easy system that quickly provides clues regarding a game’s intended audience. On the majority of game boxes can be found a suggested minimum age, the average time necessary to complete the game from start to finish, and the number of players supported. The minimum age is very useful as it can be used to speculate what level of cognitive and social skills are necessary to compete at a reasonable level. For example, if the suggested age range for a game is “12+”, you can correctly assume that math, reading, and a level of strategy and tactics is necessary. The longer the game, the more depth of play is needed, as well as the level of focus. For example, Candy Land will take approximately less than 30 minutes to complete while Advanced Squad Leader could take up to 3 hours, and that’s before adding in any game expansions which might extend the game’s length to days. A short game does not mean an easier experience, however, only the amount of time the player needs to focus, which could be intense. Lastly, the number of players gives you an excellent indicator on the level of player interaction, but not necessarily directly between players. The more players allowed in the game, the more the game will change to reflect the individual player’s choices as well as how much influence any one player’s move might impact another player’s tactics and strategy.

If taken as a whole, these three measurements can be used to quickly determine if the game is appropriate for a particular audience, both in skill requirements and difficulty. As individuals continue to play and enjoy the tabletop gaming hobby, they will naturally gravitate towards games that provide depth, strategy, and tactics that suit their cravings and challenge them. The more they play, the more skilled they will become. This makes it clear that all gamers, regardless of skill level, just want to have fun.