Jul 16 2008 1:52am

What Is Casual Gaming?

My very first comment-driven post! Courtsey of Alison Scott, who asks, very sensibly, "why do we call Bejewelled, Freecell and Tetris casual games, when so many people play them for hours on end?"

The basic reason for the term "casual" in this context is that it was coined by people who see themselves as serious gamers, don't like the other kind(s) of play, and wanted a way to separate themselves from all that icky other stuff. Cooties, really. In practice, a "serious" gamer is one who plays a game that calls for sustained effort, ideally both in overall play time and in the time you have to put in at a particular session to really get anywhere. If the game requires ten thousand hours total play time of successful effort and you really need three or four hours at a sitting to advance anything significant about your play status, by golly, that's mighty serious. A game that's actually done in ten or thirty minutes, why, that can't be serious at all. That's just...just...casual.

What the people who coined "casual" as a pejorative term didn't realize is that a fair number of those they targeted liked the idea of not being identified as failed hardcore players but as something else altogether. "Casual" came to be a term of self-approval for those wanting to distinguish gaming as an activity they may engage in a lot but that they can set aside when other things call from gaming as a lifestyle, a major source of self-identification. Alternative labels constantly float up out of the ongoing exchange of views in gaming forums, but so far nothing else seems close to sticking.

At its heart, then, "casual" play is any kind of play you can do a lot of (and very often the designers and publishers will be very happy if you actually do), but that you don't have to do a lot of in order to get a satisfactorily good time.

In tabletop play (whether roleplaying games, wargames, board games, or what have you), casual play is partly about ease of setup and partly about the time it takes in play to achieve neat results. In computer games, it's partly about the complexity of the challenges, partly about the precision required to complete them, and partly about the amount of repetition required once you can complete them to make overall progress. The dream design of those who love making "casual" games would require minutes or less to set up, and have both rewarding conclusions within a few minutes' play and the possibility of longer-term satisfactions from ongoing effort. I hear folks are still looking for the Holy Grail, El Dorado, and anything of value in the Oak Island money pit, too, of course.

 [Image credit: Carpenter/Library of Congress via pingnews.  Korea, circa 1910-1920.]


Jim Rion
1. JimR
I don't know, I never really got the sense of "casual" being perjorative in the general gamer community.  I mean, Tycho loves him some Bejewelled. 
Of course, for some values of "Hard Core Gamer"  anything NOT "Hard Core Gamer" is a perjorative, but we try not to let those guys out of the basement.
What I find interesting about casual gaming is the intersect with hard-core titles you get in the handheld games.  You have the epic titles like Final Fantasy, that require hours and hours of gameplay, but they have to be refitted to the handheld aesthetic and style, which is much more "casual".  Essentially, any handheld game worth the name must be playable in tiny little increments.  I see this being the reason that "Tactics" style games (Final Fantasy Tactics, Jeanne D'Arc, etc.) really found a niche with the handhelds.  You have long ranging, epic stories that can be played a single turn at a time; you can stop any time you want, without really disrupting the flow.
2. BruceB
JimR: Oh, yeah, there are a lot of ways to combine features widely considered "casual" with ones considered more "hardcore". I keep thinking I need to get one of the modern handheld consoles and give some of that stuff a try. (I would trade a reviewer's copy for a detailed review, just in case anyone has connections....) The weighting to give terminology's implications is a tricky question. I try to be clear, but it's always a balance between over-simplification and so many qualifiers that nothing gets said. It's certainly true that there are plenty of people of good will on all sides, who can say "This is what I like, and what I don't, but there's nothing wrong with that except it's not my fun." 
Alison Scott
3. AlisonScott
I think there's been a similar shift in board gaming. One of the reasons I stopped gaming socially was the length of time that so many of the games took. Games that take a weekend to play out properly are splendid if you have an essentially student lifestyle, but once you have a life it's a bit hard. I'm clearly not the only person with this problem, and a lot of the games that have sprung up are much, much shorter. Plenty of depth, plenty of strategy, and play out in an hour or two.  I used to be something of a hardcore gamer; although I have no time for the shooting/driving/sporting games that used to be the mainstay of consoles, I would happily lose myself for hours in RPGs or turn-by-turn strategy games. But I just can't do that now. I have a couple of games, Morrowind and Planescape:Torment, that I believe to be excellent. But the overhead of getting into them and playing is just far too great for anyone with a busy life.  
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4. heresiarch
Neopets is an interesting model: it's essentially a collection of hundreds of casual games, all of which win you points to spend on an accumulation-based meta-game (spiffing up your pet). In a way, it's exactly like WOW, except totally different: Combat=repetitive casual game, leveling=accumulative meta-game.
Jim Rion
5. JimR
I like the sound of that, Heresiarch.  Hmmm.  Do you actually play Neopets?  Tell me more!
AlisonScott--That whole "I have a life outside of my dormroom" thing is why I've got my PSP and DS (Well, HAD my DS...).  Pretty much the only time I have to play is on the Exercise bike or on the bus to work, so I takes them with me.  Of course, the fact that with a little attitude tweakment, the hardware also work as Ebook readers, video players, etc. doesn't hurt.
Which is another reason I heartily recommend them both for grups. 
Yeesh, I'm getting a bit Evangelical about this, I think.
Arachne Jericho
6. arachnejericho
Board gaming has definitely shifted to less intense games, but there are a few hardcore gamer gems that shine out. And take hours. However, Race for the Galaxy is probably part of the New Wave: it's got quite a lot of depth and plays in 30 minutes.

"Casual gamer" is a bit of a perjorative in some board gaming circles. I used to be a bit hardcore, but these days have fallen out to being casual. Sort of a descent from grace, but then again, it's easier to find people to play Ticket to Ride or Zooloretto than it it is to find folks to get into Arkham Horror or Agricola. The middle ground of Race for the Galaxy is inbetween.
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7. heresiarch
JimR - I don't play Neopets too much myself--mostly watching over the shoulder of friends. The one thing to know is that it's designed with 10-year olds in mind, and is reDONKulously cute. That can be a plus or a minus, depending on the user. Regardless, some of the games are terribly fun.

For the board gamer in need of board games, I've found the *Rails games to be pretty intuitive for new players, though still pretty long. The best, though, is Carcassone. Very easy to learn the rules (though not the strategies) and it rarely takes more than an hour even with five players. It's a quality game!
Arachne Jericho
8. arachnejericho
Carcassonne is very cool. And there are apparently 24 different ways to spell it! The Hunters & Gatherers one is pretty neat---everyone I know can grasp it easily. Hunter rules trump farmer rules every time and more scoring variety. Way less expansions though.

Oh, and Neopets---I used to play that. It's OK if you've got an email account you can sacrifice to the spam demons. It is ridiculously cute and addictive, and actually covers a lot of geek territory along with everything else. It's like a parallel universe where everyone is a little fantasy animal. Even George Bush.

... hmmm. Just thought of something. It's really hard to be a casual CCG player. But it can happen---more easily with dead CCGs (or, amusingly enough, game that follow the same pattern but are non-collectible).
Liz B
9. despotliz
I played World of Warcraft for about two years, on and off, and I probably played between 5 and 15 hours a week, most weeks. Most people would consider that to be a mighty serious and hardcore game, but that put me firmly at the casual end of the player base. The balance between making the game accessible to casual players and yet giving the hardcore players worthwhile rewards for their invested time and effort was a constant source of discussion on the game forums and with the developers.
Walter Moore
10. moorewr
MMOs define "serious game" in the sense that you must grind away to get your character leveled for the next section of content. Often you must group - so you need a guild or other means of joining a group, so you are on a schedule and suddenly it has taken your life over like the SCA.

(Speaking as a DDO player. moving on..)

I have noticed a long-term shift in 'serious' wargaming groups to casual (if complex) games like Wings of War & collector card-model games like the Pirates and Star Wars CSGs.. so for every bolt-counter game I play like Seekrieg V (my personal favorite game) our group will play a good number of WoW or quick skirmish games.
Jeffrey Richard
11. neutronjockey
There are a lot of blurry lines in the casual v serious gamer debate. I'd consider myself a serious game master --- but I'm also quick to ignore or toss out the rules for sake of the story or plot line or character development.

Some would see this as a version of casual gaming. Those people also haven't seen the 6-7 notebooks, digital and hand drawn maps etc or the 2-3 months in developing campaign material for a bi-monthly campaign (I used to be able to handle every weekend but you know...)

As far as MMOs I would consider myself a casual MMO player. While I have hi-level toons and have seen plenty of end-game content on WoW --- it took many months (a year) to get there and I can only handle about an hour, maybe two of playing at a time. (Go.Kill.10 Boars.)

My fiance is much more serious about her MMO time than I am, yet: I'd consider her a casual player as well. Now, the folks that calculate their PRoCs, AoEs, DoTs, MOB spawn and refresh rates...those dudes are dead serious.

Me...I'm just there for the visual eye-candy.
12. LarryM
in the MMO context, the term "casual" is often applied to people who aren't casual by any rational standard. They may play WOW say, 40 hours a week, but they don't raid ... so they are "casual."
Derek Bizier
13. tke.hijacker
I used to play Guild Wars a lot, up to 15 hours a week in a given week, but I graduated from College and now have a life to lead, When I had a free weekend I used to throw together a game of Axis and Allies with agroup of friends, WE had our once a week D&D or whatever Tabletop we were playing at the time. Occasionally here and there I would play a few hours of FF (whatever number I felt like) or some other video game.

Since college has passed I am finding it increasingly harder to get together with these old friends and play the games I used to love, "hey were stoking up a game of Axis and Allies tonight wanna come over?", "No Sorry guys gotta go to work tomorrow cant stay up til 4 in the morning and still make it to work..."

I will say I do miss the fun of playing those games with the guys, but a the same time I still manage to find an hour to play some FF from time to time or play a quick little game of Killer Bunnies or Setlers of Catan, and fortunately these games are available to me to socialize with my friends without having to dedicate 8 hours of time (or more) to play.

I'm not really sure what my point here was but there you have it.
Bruce Baugh
14. BruceB
And a good point it is, tke. :) Really, "casual" is basically a state of mind, that the game is subordinate to other stuff you're up to, I think.
Torie Atkinson
15. Torie
@ Bruce

Really, "casual" is basically a state of mind, that the game is subordinate to other stuff you're up to, I think.

I don't know about that. I lost days on Alchemy, back in 2001...
Arachne Jericho
16. arachnejericho
@Bruce re "casual" is basically a state of mind

Some games do not really lend themselves to casual play. As in, if you're playing them, there's no way to be casual about it.

I'm thinking of games like Age of Steam (especially with really mean and twisted maps), Through the Ages or any other long Civ game, and very definitely Agricola. Also, if you're inclined towards it, full 19x19 Go and Dai Shogi. Numerous other games. Heck, I'll also throw in both the old and new versions of Arkham Horror.

Simpler games can play loose, including games people usually think of as serious---chess is a great examples---and that's really the majority of the bucket. But then there are these really big games where you can't really take the edge off.

I imagine that other gaming classes have their equivalents of games that you can go easy on, and games that remain at the pointy end.
Andy Leighton
17. andyl
I'm sorry but I would have to disagree I think that Agricola (or at least the family game version) can be fairly casual. I certainly wouldn't put it in the same class as Age Of Steam, or Through The Ages or Arkham Horror. It is a bit more involved than Ticket To Ride or Settlers or Carcassonne but does not require a massive game-play length OR many games to master strategy. I class it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

I go along to a local board gaming group and we play all sorts - from casual to heavy. Today for example we started by playing Tsuro - a 15 minute game which would be ideal for the casual gamer. Rules easy enough to teach your granny, plays up to 8 players and if you lose you don't have to wait long for everyone else. It is also fairly forgiving - you don't have to make optimal moves right from the start.

On the computer side of gaming I fell out of them at the end of the home computer revolution. Partly because the games themselves started to be designed around a different paradigm - one that de-emphasized casual game play.
Scott Raun
18. sraun
I'm curious about something - I'm a somewhat older gamer, I was never really a serious gamer. But I do like both face-to-face RPGs and various board games, both long and short.

For those of you who are looking ahead to retirement - do you see a return to something closer to the gaming many of you did in your college years after you retire? Probably not the 25-30 hours straight sessions, but more of the 4-8 hour sessions, and maybe back to playing board games that would take several of those sessions? When you could potentially have multiple such sessions in a week?
Arachne Jericho
19. arachnejericho
@andyl - No need to be sorry at all.

Agricola---I've played enough games to know that the learning curve is pretty brutal for a casual game, family mode or not. Perhaps I'm simply stupid, but it's not something I would pull out for family members unless they were all gamers. It's kind of like how I wouldn't throw Settlers of Catan with multiple expansions at casual gamers, or Heroscape past base sets, unless for some reason they had gone past the "casual" mindset for those games.

And as for strategy---you get negative points in Agricola for about the first 10 games. That so doesn't fly in casual groups.

But then again, there are different levels of casual gamers. I'm used to folks who deal well with Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne but don't deal well with some of the expansions/sequel games. It's a different world. I do not particularly mind it, but it means I am painfully aware of what is and isn't too complicated for really, really casual folks.

Tsuro is a wonderful little game, I agree, for casual and hard-core gamers seeking a little downtime alike.

I remember a time when I truly did believe that Age of Steam (original) was in the reach of any gamer, if only they'd just try and not be so lazy! I was really stupid.

That's why I'm really fond of things like Hanging Gardens (which is around the upper limit) and some of the family Knizias and I heart so much the better of the Kosmos two-player series (especially Odin's Ravens). I don't go crazy. I'm actually pretty fond of low-intensity games these days, which makes me an idiot in the boardgaming hobby, but oh well....

But dang it, I just want to play Arkham Horror sometimes! Or Battlelore! *cries*

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