There's a dirty word in the gaming community- "Casual." You know, those darned casual gamers. They're emasculating the hobby of 20something males everywhere. Soccer moms these days with their Bejeweled and their Farmville, and their kids playing Carnival Games and Guitar Hero... They're all making good developers sell out. I hear a lot of that, at least. But I see things a little differently. Whether you think video games need to become a legitimate art form, or you just wish the arcade era would last forever, casual games are doing our hobby a favor.
Before I get started, let's make sure we're all on the same page. "Casual games" are hard to define. Nobody uses the same definition. Just as late Supreme Court judge Potter Stewart said about porn, "I know it when I see it." Here's the criteria I use to define casual games:
1. Gameplay is easy to learn.
2. Lack of in-game objectives.
That's it. For a game to be casual, you need both. Casual games have the player in business less than 5 minutes from pressing Start. They also give the player little reason to play, other than for its own sake. This second point is important. Mario games are about as easy to pick up as a pencil, but they also foster a desire to make it to the end, to "beat" the game. You may play a lot of FPSes online just for sport, but I bet you had a bit of a learning curve before you could survive out there. Tetris, on the other hand, takes seconds to learn, and you're given no incentive other than a score and a neat sound whenever you clear a line.
So that's what I mean by "casual games." Let's get down to business. I'm not forcing you to like casual games. I have no interest in Zynga's fare, myself. But here's why casual games deserve a pat on the back:
They're a Link to the Past
You're probably already onto something, just by how I defined casual games. They have a bit in common with games from a simpler time. Let's be honest: when you went to an arcade, you weren't planning to reach the last level. Not unless you had kung fu skills and a good chunk of change, at least. Nonetheless, not one of us could resist that flashing kiosk next to the hotel swimming pool. It was a blast, no matter how quickly you died.
Rastan killed my father. How about you?
The fit isn't perfect, but casual games have some of the same DNA as the arcade classics. I've never played it, but I'd guess Mafia Wars isn't any harder to pick up than Raiden Fighters. We all played coin-op games for the sheer joy of it. We were hypnotized by the glaring arcade tables. Casual gamers are experiencing much of the same thing when they go on Pogo or are playing Mario Party with their family or what have you. Just like their ancestors, the casual game is straightforward, and played for its own sake. You don't have to like them. But they carry on the arcade era's legacy.
Now, it sounds like I'm getting at a new generation of gamers, one of different beginnings. That brings me to my next point:
They're taking us to the year 20XX (maybe)
I don't know. I needed a pretty picture.
There are 2 kinds of gamers: those that are happy just as games are, and those that want them to be something more. Problem is, nobody will take video games seriously, as long as we insist they're only for us. The larger public would have no reason to change its perception. Video games would forever remain just another stupid thing that one demographic wastes its time with.
Luckily, games aren't just for one demographic. It's not just 20something males that have grown up on the NES. There's always a new round of kids that gets sucked in. Anybody with a computer is only a few clicks away from our world, as well. Besides that, casual games are expanding the market for games. Look at the explosion of "social games." And Ubisoft's "Imagine" line gets some flak, but you're not their target audience. Games like that wouldn't exist if somebody didn't think there was money to be made in it.
The paradigm is shifting. This isn't a bad thing. It means that "gamer" is no longer a synonym for nerd. Casual games have expanded the gaming audience. Simple, accessible gameplay can be found in places like Guitar Hero, while veterans move onto new frontiers. This expanded audience is good for developers. They don't have to cater to one group. (Quite a picky one at that. Follow-ups suffer in reviews when they don't change enough, and when they don't change too much. It's no wonder IPs go stale, then developers imitate those stale IPs that sell well. ) Developers aren't bound to an endless chain of sequels and imitations of each other. Developers can try something different and know that somebody is open to the idea.
Will this lead to something that will do for video games what Watchmen did for comics? Or what Citizen Kane did for film? Only time will tell. But an expanded market can only help it along. Because casual games have recruited more people in the army against the high score, all of us can game without shame. Because there are so many gamers open for something new, developers can safely try something different.
You may not like casual games. But that doesn't mean there's something wrong with them, or the people playing them. Next time you scorn the "casuals," remember how you felt the first time you put a quarter in that arcade machine. Think of the first time you turned on your Sega Genesis. Those nontraditional gamers are likely having the same experience. If you wish the whole game industry would go back to its roots, be grateful for casual games. They show that simple, arcade-style gameplay is still in demand. If you wish video games could be something more than just "fun," be grateful for casual games. They show that developers can break the chain of stagnant IPs.
I'm not touching Farmville. But Facebook users have every right to play it. read