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Why casual gaming is hardcore gaming’s best friend

January 5, 2011

Typically, I don’t like to play so-called casual games. I had my honeymoon with the Wii, but I haven’t turned it on in months. But I’m glad they’re around, and I think more than anything else in recent memory, they are crucial to all kinds of gaming, especially hardcore. Here’s why.

Casual at full speed

It’s important to recognize that Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft are all now in agreement that casual gaming is–and must be–a significant chunk of the entertainment landscape they are willing to invest in. Whatever you think about the Wiimote, Move, or Kinect, these megacorporations are staking an enormous amount of capital and R&D to continue the “populist” movement in games pioneered by Guitar Hero and the Wii. They are saying with their money and products that they are behind its continuation, and rather like Blu-Ray or HDTV (and, in all likelihood, 3D), technological advances have become mainstream because the supply-side wills it as so, succeeding by convincing consumers that their particular type of advance is inevitable. Such appears to be the case with casual gaming. This would be shocking and sad to the majority of core gamers, except for a key point in the rollout of these new devices: I call it “supplementality.”

Casual gaming, as we know it now, is always supplemental in nature. As an enterprise it is designed to exist alongside core gaming (at least with the iterations now and soon to be available for PS3 and Xbox). Paraphrasing Kevin Butler’s E3 speech: if you and your friend each have a hot girlfriend, everyone wins. Fanboys are quick to deride Move and Kinect because they supposedly detract from the core gaming experience. The simple rejoinder is that you don’t have to play them, and core games with motion-sensing functionality can have the feature ignored entirely. It is supplemental. The more advanced response is that you should support such wand-waving nonsense because it is good for games–even your bloodthirsty FPS’s–to have as large and as diverse an audience as possible.

Worlds colliding, or a brave new world?

Not long ago, it was possible for people to claim they didn’t like video games. This made sense, and was understood implicitly. There was a general consensus about what video games were, even among their most strident supporters. Video games were loud, violent, or stupid, and often required a lot of hard-earned controller skill to play well. Now things are different, and the claim of not liking video games requires further explanation because there is no longer an understood idea of what video games are. Having poor hand-eye control is no longer an excuse, because some games (Wii Fit) don’t use your hands to play at all. Same with violence, graphics, noise, content, etc. 3-year olds play skateboard games on their mom’s iPhone. I may not have talked to someone from my high school class for a decade, but I know they’re busy gunning down thugs in Mafia Wars. A lot of people seem to be enjoying all types of games now. Games may no longer be a strictly (and almost entirely negatively) defined category, which has made them more difficult to dismiss outright. That’s the first step.

It’s our responsibility as gamers to get as many people into gaming as possible, as much as we may personally hate what they play. Think about it this way. Even now some people say they don’t like games. But who, even the most cold-hearted jerk you’ve ever met, would say they don’t like movies? Movies and games are not the same, I know, but the idea is that there is enough variety in the medium of film (genres, intended audiences, budgets, artistic aims, nudity/explosions) that it is near impossible to not like some kinds of movies. And if you like some kinds of movies, then you like “movies.” The same could and should be said about games. If you like Reach, you like games. If you like Kinectimals, you like games. If we can all say we like games in the same way we can all say we like movies, then video games–again, including the hardcore ones–have become a recognized and accepted aspect of pop culture. The Godfather and Mulan may be two very different movies, but viewers of either wouldn’t deny the other the status of being a real film. You may prefer The Godfather, or you may prefer Mulan, or your age may preclude you from watching one before the other, but either way you understand movies as all being under a big tent and your viewing based on personal preference, taste, experience, etc. Games and gaming should be the same. Once gaming gets wider recognition and interest from the pioneering advances of casual gaming, there will be enormous economic (and dare I say artistic?) incentive for developers to make all kinds of great games for all kinds of audiences, including hardcore ones.

Gaming, eat your vegetables. It’s good for you.

So spread the gospel of gaming if you ever want your favorite hobby to meet the kind of mass acceptance and mainstream cultural understanding that can really drive the medium foreward (and sideways, and anywhere else weird and interesting). This is starting to happen now, but games are not yet a recognized part of everyone’s life in the way movies are. Do your part as an ambassador for our beloved country. Scratch behind the ears of your EyePet with a niece, have a couple of beers and go Wii Bowling with your uncle, and even roll up your sleeves to help your girlriend plant crops in FarmVille. Gaming, like that virtual sorghum, can only grow from here.

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