Fixing the Terms ‘Casual’ and ‘Hardcore’

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Classical Game 

  1. See also, ‘Hardcore Game’
  2. (n) A game requiring a large time investment to complete once, usually made up of a detailed world which will be played by either a single or a group of players. 
  3. (n) A game played primarily by ‘Classical Gamers’ (See also: Hardcore Gamers)

Pop Game

  1. See also, ‘Casual Game’
  2. (n) A more basic game requiring less time to complete once. Will usually feature more simplistic graphics and mechanics leading to it being player by a far wider group of people. 
  3. (n) A game played primarily by ‘Pop Gamers’ (See also: Casual Gamers)

As a relatively unestablished medium, critics have struggled with finding the correct terminology to describe games. Some terms such as ‘gameplay’ have definitions that are so broad so as to be almost indescribable, and others such as ‘pacing’ and ‘arc’ have been taken wholesale from the dictionary’s of other mediums altogether. Most of these phrases work well in games journalism, but without a doubt there are two others that need to go: ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. 

There may have been a time when these terms fit what they were describing. The hardcore players may have fell into the gaming stereotype, spending hours upon hours playing enormously complex games which made up their only hobby. Casual gamers meanwhile, may have spent a dollar or two playing Pac-Man but would otherwise not consider themselves a ‘gamer’ in any sense of the word. 
Though it may be easy to claim that it’s only recently these categories have fallen apart, the fact is that the line between them has never been very distinct. Consider for example the game Tetris. Tetris has found a home on every platform ever conceived, from the first Gameboy right up until EA’s version released on PSP next year. Everyone has played at least one game of Tetris in their life, and as such initially it seems to be clearly a casual game. At the same time though there are many people who’ve spent hours with this simplistic puzzle game, to the extent that dreaming about Tetris is a recognised phenomenon. Farmville players may be technically classed as ‘casual’, but that won’t stop them from playing the game for far longer than the time it’ll take you to finish Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. 
The argument here is not that there isn’t a difference between Farmville and Modern Warfare – clearly these two games are in entirely separate leagues when it comes to the experiences they provide – but that calling one ‘casual’ and one ‘hardcore’ is incredibly misleading, not to mention patronising on both fronts.
As I’ve blogged previously, games are actually far closer to music as a medium than anything else. Could we thus take phrases from a vocabulary that suits our medium far better?
Could we say for example that ‘casual’ games are our medium’s version of pop music? 

Could we then go on to claim ‘hardcore’ games take the place of classical?
Before starting an argument as to whether these specific descriptions fit, let us first examine why exactly it is that games are like music. To this end we’ll look at two highly regarded works; Super Mario 64 and Bethoven’s 5th Symphony
Both works are based around a single motif or idea. Super Mario 64’s is Mario’s ability to run and jump, Bethoven’s 5th is it’s first four iconic notes. Both works start by introducing this core idea, the music plays the tune in its most basic form, and the game puts you in control of Mario, with no obstacles to overcome, and just his core abilities to play with.
As both works continue they take their respective core ideas and mix them up in new and exciting ways. The symphony plays the four notes at different tempos and at different points on the scale, Mario enters different worlds and is forced to use his abilities in different ways to progress. The works may at points deviate completely from their initial ideas – putting Mario on a slide for example – but both return to it regularly to give a sense of completeness.

So a good piece of music won’t just be based around a (for want of a better term) ‘catchy riff’, but will over the course of its run-time explore it in different exciting ways. A good game meanwhile needs to be both fun to control, as well as introducing new levels and abilities to you to keep it interesting throughout. No one wants to play the same Mario level over and over again, no matter how well he controls. 
The popularity of games and music are also both heavily influenced by outside factors. As an example fighting games could be considered to be the jazz music of gaming.
The success of fighting games was made in the arcades. Though they’re still enormously popular now, many believe their best memories of the genre to be outside of their own home, shared with other gamers in an arcade. The social aspect of these games is enormously important, best enjoyed with your opponent by your side and with nowhere to hide when you inevitably lose. 

Similarly jazz is best enjoyed live. Recorded music may technically provide you with the songs, but so much of the experience is tied up in improvisation that its hard to appreciate it as much when you’re hearing it after the fact. Jazz music is best enjoyed by listening to musicians play it, and as such it’s never been as popular as it was before the days of recorded music, though that’s not to say it doesn’t still have a huge amount of fans today. 
So what of the distinction between pop and classical music?
Pop music may be very different from classical music, but it’s still based (in general terms) upon the same theory. Pop music still uses scales, and keys, and even takes tunes directly from classical music in many cases. It is however simplified, it’s toned down, it’s taken by a smaller group of composers and made more accessible. As a result of this simplification it’s now far more popular than classical music, and to a certain extent is looked down upon by fans of classical music as being too simple. 

Pop games may be very different from classical games, but they’re still based (in general terms) upon the same theory. Pop games still use scoring, and levels, and even take gameplay ideas directly from classical games in many cases. They are however simplified, toned down, taken by a smaller group of developers and made more accessible. As a result of this simplification they’re now far more popular than classical games, and to a certain extent are looked down upon by fans of classical games as being too simple. 
The similarities here are hard to ignore. 
From doing this we can see that it would be very easy to replace these two archaic terms with something much more suitable, but can this revelation do more for us than simply provide terminology?
Could we look at the history of music for possible hints about the future of gaming?
We could for example look at the meteoric rise of pop music. We could examine how at first it was shunned by the generations that had grown up with ‘proper’ music, but is now the most listened to type of music on the planet. We could look at how classical music is still popular today, but remains far too inaccessible for many people to grasp. We could even call into question whether the population at large could ever enjoy classical games…
…but we won’t of course, because I fancy going to the pub for some crisps.
So, do you agree? If you do I suggest thinking about other similarities that exist, such as the shunning of bands who aren’t ‘Indie’ enough, or the choices composers make between telling a story through music (gameplay), or through lyrics (cutscenes). If you’re feeling super generous you could perhaps start referring to pop and classical games in your writing so we can get this revolution on the road. 
If you don’t agree I’d love to hear your responses as well, the more eloquent the better. Any uses of the word ‘Fail’ will of course be ignored.
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