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Casually Hardcore: Extending the olive branch to "casual gamers"

9:40 AM on 08.21.2008 // Qais Fulton

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take in a panel at one of the less reported gaming events, Casual Connect. The thing to understand about this kind of event is that it's more of a con in the conference sense than the convention sense, and as such not exactly made for gamers so much as the companies cranking out the games. But in perusing the list of presentations, panels, and previews one session seemingly demanded my critical eye: The Games Women Play.

Considering some of my previous tirades, it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume I had less than good intentions going in. Frankly, I expected to show up and listen to some executives glad-hand each other while demeaning women as a whole. I'd take it all in and spit it back out in a pleasantly self-righteous screed lashing out at the casual games industry for their blatantly sexist views. The scoundrels.

Thankfully, something far more interesting than a round of smug, intellectual sanctimony occurred, and I learned a few lessons for which I've long been overdue.

First lesson learned? Smarm, while amusing, does not equal insight. Yes, women are condescended to on an all too frequent basis by an industry that, by and large, is seen as predominantly male-driven. That is a very sad fact and it needs to change. But in the rush to condemn games that appear simplistic because of their target market something seems to have been overlooked.

The panel consisted of five women, between the ages of 35 and 75, all of whom were able to spend large portions of time at home for a number of different reasons, and all of whom just seemed like someone you'd see at a younger sibling's soccer game. The kind of person that typifies "Casual Gamer". Except they're not. They're hooked. They're people that spend hours upon hours of almost every, single day gaming because they love it.

But the popular opinion lately seems to be that because this group predominantly enjoys games that don't involve screaming obscenities at someone on the other side of the country while their heads become hamburger, they're indirectly contributing to the ruination of games as a whole. And it's that opinion (in conjunction with more stereotypical social pressure) which results in a number of these types of gamers being ashamed of their chosen respite. Keeping it their dirty, little secret from the other soccer-mom's rather than the spreading the fun around and maybe, just maybe, winning over a few of their friends.

Yet in spite of being essentially the same, "casual" gamers and "hardcore" gamers still require a bridge or two between them in order to cease the incessant squabbling that is "public outcry" met by vituperative editorial screeds.

While most of you will agree with what I'm about to say, what we really need to span this gap is more games like the oft-celebrated Braid. Games with simple mechanics, compelling storyline, beautiful art, incredible depth and best of all no stumbling blocks whatsoever on the path to enjoying it. The type of game anyone could pick up and enjoy, but that still provides a challenge to those of us that demand it. Naturally for every Braid that comes out we'll get a slew of less than impressive titles, but if you find yourself in fear for your past time just think of the desert pits in which hundreds of E.T. cartridges now lay, and how they didn't signify the end times.

The repetitive, competitive challenge provided by the types of games these women play is present, again, in Braid -- and many other titles that on their surface are appear "casual". As is the slight (rather than dramatic) learning curve and lack of graphic violence. We've got the groundwork covered so what are we missing? Why are we divisive rather than united? It all comes down to accessibility.

Sure, games such as Braid, that are simultaneously easy to play and inoffensive to a majority, are technically accessible to anyone with an Xbox 360. But to someone whose interaction with our kind of gaming is limited to what they've heard on the evening news, a console alone is -- most of the time -- a huge point of contention.

So it's up to us, the people that spend huge swaths of their time not only playing games, but pondering games from an abstract perspective, to build our casually hardcore bridge. We don't need to spend time teaching this new breed how to play the games or use the hardware, all the foundations have been laid in that regard by their own interest in gaming. All we need now is to be inviting rather than exclusive and antagonistic, as is so often the case. Because the constant parade of blatantly false mainstream media targeted at the demographic engaged in the very thing they're being told is wrong ultimately holds more water than a pack of angry proto-adults on the Internet. we need them a whole lot more than they need us.

Qais Fulton,
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