The Ryan Lambie column: the casual gaming menace

Ryan worries that casual gaming might erode the games industry... and, worse, that he himself might be a casual gamer!

Wii

I met an old friend this week, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We chatted about this and that, until eventually the topic of conversation turned to videogames, and I mentioned in passing that I had a Nintendo Wii.

‘Pah,’ my friend said with a grimace. ‘Casual gamer.’

As a lifelong videogame fan who wears his geeky obsessions as a badge of honour, I was a bit rather taken aback by this statement – it’s like calling Ray Mears a Spanish resort package-holiday tourist.

It was only when I got home and started thinking a little more deeply about the term that it occurred to me that I had no idea exactly what the definition of a casual gamer was. Perhaps slightly fearful that my old friend might be right, that some how I’d unwittingly allowed myself to slide into gaming casualness, I decided to do some Internet research.

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Wikipedia, the ultimate weapon for any lazy writer, suggests ‘that the typical casual gamer is older and more predominantly female’. While the site doesn’t define exactly how old ‘older’ is, I was immediately relieved that, at the very least, I’m the wrong gender to fit the casual gaming demographic.

Delving a little deeper, I learned that there’s actually a Casual Games Association, and they suggest, in a report published last year, that most casual gamers are over thirty-five and, more than likely, female. Apparently, their favourite games are Microsoft Solitaire, Tetris, Diner Dash and Mystery Case Files.

Another statistic reveals that the most popular casual game of 2006 was Cake Mania, with 55 million downloads. I’d never heard of Cake Mania before – let alone played it – but I’ve since found out that it’s some sort of free-to-download thing to do with cakes and mania or something.

My initial elation that I’m not a casual gamer as my friend suggested gradually gave way to a slight feeling of unease as I read the rest of the report. It says that the market for cake-based games is worth $2.25 billion a year, and is growing 20% annually.

Hardcore enthusiasts, the report continues, enjoy ‘Sci-fi, edgy violence, suspense, war’ – all the things I like in gaming. By contrast, casual gamers like ‘family friendly scenarios’.

Hardcore gamers’ favourite films are A’liens, Silence of the Lambs, Reservoir Dogs. Casual gamers prefer Sex and the City, Friends, ER.

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Suddenly, I’m faced with a horrifying, dystopian vision of the future. A future of nothing but colour-matching puzzles, shops filled from floor to ceiling with games that are a bit like Tapper or Cooking Mama and covered in pastel-pink graphics. A future where games are about brushing horses’ manes and tickling kittens.

I begin to wonder whether all the scare-stories I’d read in the past were actually true – that hardcore gaming could be eroded by a casual invasion.

I’d read one theory for example, that implied that the rise of the casual gamer was somehow responsible for Assassin’s Creed’s rather simplistic control-system – that it had been deliberately dumbed down to appeal to a broader demographic. This phenomenon has been termed ‘noobification’; the simplification of games to appeal to the widest possible audience – Elder Scrolls sequel Oblivion has been cited as another casualty of the casual menace.

Could this trend continue? Will the likes of Halo 3 or Half Life be swept away by a Sex and the City puzzle game, or yet another Tetris clone, with all the blocks replaced by furry animals?

The flipside of the argument, of course, is that the casual gaming threat is simply elitist paranoia – and it’s certainly fair to say that the ‘hardcore’ gamer is just as hard to define as the casual kind.

I, for example, can no longer spare the hours on gaming I once did as a teenager. Other factors – work, shopping, painting fences – eat up my time. Although I love gaming, I probably don’t spend a great percentage of my time (certainly not as much as I’d like) playing videogames anymore. Is a hardcore gamer defined by how many hours he/she spends in front of their console?

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The reality is that, whether we like it or not, the videogame market is opening up to an increasingly broad audience – and it’s only natural that developers will want to create games that appeal to that audience. And while a future comprised solely of twinkly jewel-based puzzle games is a disturbing thought, it’s unlikely to become a reality.

After all, even Hollywood – the biggest money-chasers on the planet – release films that cater to different demographics rather than just the lowest common denominator. Don’t they?

Ryan Lambie will be back next Thursday with a new column, and you can read his last one here.