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Counterpoint: Why you should fear casual gaming

9:05 AM on 07.30.2007 // Leigh Alexander

As you've probably seen, Lewzr's recent clogpost, much like a lucky crane game toy, was plucked from the crowd and deemed by the fickle whim of fate to be worthy of frontpage note, leaving the other two-dollar polyester toys to swelter in desperate loneliness under the garish carnival lights, their plastic eyes gazing in numb supplication as they await the cold touch of fortune's metal fingers that may never seize their scruffs.

And I'm glad it did, because it's quite on-point. Many of us have spent a good chunk of our lives lamenting our social ostracism, frustrated by our attempts to make others understand the allure of our beloved pastime -- or at the very least, to stop infantilizing and nerdifying us for it. As Lewzr points out, how stupid is it of us to excoriate the popularity of casual games' ever-broadening adoption when it brings the greater diversity, understanding and acceptance of game culture that we say we've wanted for so long?

For one thing, just because we say something doesn't mean we mean it. Most of us are no longer teenagers circa 1990, where in between headbanging to Rage Against the Machine and gripping our chests in paroxysms of torment to the Cranberries, we soulfully decried our oddball status while painting our fingernails black and marinating in the heady musk of the era's Teen Spirit. Our generation, along with normative society, has matured and diversified somewhat -- but while angst's a thing of the past, it doesn't mean we're truly over it. After all, we had to grow to embrace the angst of solitude, used it to define us, armed ourselves with a sort of twisted pride in order to survive, and I suspect we're not so ready to relinquish that pride as we often claim. It's admittedly offensive that, just when we're growing out of our resentment at alienation, "everyone else" abruptly about-faces and decides we're cool after all.

But the real reason we should quite rationally fear casual gaming is a lot less emo, and a lot more concrete. Read on for the awful truth, my brothers. 

When I'm not making love to you all with my keyboard here at Destructoid, I cover more biznessy news as the editor of a virtual worlds news portal, as well as in other arenas. It's true that a lot of my reporting has taught me that the increasing buzz around virtual worlds, MMOs and the recent flood of casual gaming news and business demonstrates that enterprise has finally realized that there's a broad (and broadening) market for gaming; in other words, that there's more to our industry than hardcore on the console. Which, again, is in and of itself a good thing.

But the other thing they realized is how much money they can make, primarily through advertising.

Lewzr's not the only one to have pointed out that the fact that our Moms all now love to play Peggle at work just leads to a greater acceptance of gaming as a more mainstream pastime; after all, just because people wanna play more browser quickies doesn't mean our console offerings are losing their richness.

But the cold green fact is, there's an entire burgeoning industry composed of business folk who have realized that engaging games can be effective packaging for very lucrative advertising, and they're designing gameplay around it -- whether that's creating games designed to generate repeat hits to the ad-supported portal, or designing in a way that forces users to pay attention to ads without disrupting their experience. I'm not referring to "advergaming" -- games that are themselves interactive ads, but to the fact that with so few people actually willing to pay for games online, designing for the advertising has become an essential.

Design that wants players to pay attention, stay engaged and keep returning -- not necessarily a bad thing. But my worry is that the ad money that can be made designing relatively simple games with mass appeal, fewer companies will be investing dollars -- or creativity -- in the much riskier (and much more expensive) epic gaming ventures we've all been raised on and love to death.

Gaming, something that once felt like a sort of secret handshake among an enclave of underground nerds, is now the hot device of the year; people are looking at games as their vehicles for doing anything and everything. This sometimes results in embarrassing ventures -- like when your Principal tries to talk in slang. Speaking of advergames, take Toyota's recent "Little Deviants" game, an ad for the Scion, shock for shock's sake and way too formulaic to be as hip as it thinks it is (Slate concurs with me -- anyone else played it?). Mass commercialization is part of any medium's growing-up, and I know it's immature, not to mention irrational, for me to feel a bit violated. Still, I do.

Away from the hot, salty emotion and back to the facts, though, this quote from the blog of Microsoft's Kim Pallister (via GameSetWatch) sums it up:

"At Casual Connect this year, there was a lot of talk about the big media companies (e.g. MTV/Viacom) coming into the space. What I don't think people grokked though, is that not only will they come in and compete for the same customers, but they may completely upset the apple cart in an effort to get those gamers interested in their IP (and thus watching the shows, buying the dolls, eating up all the Hollywood soup and washing it down with a sugary, fizzy dose of free-to-play branded MMO."

Free-to-play's the key. Most of the ventures on this newer trend don't charge subscription fees or download fees, opting instead to earn revenue from ads sold on portals, or via microtransactions (the purchase of small virtual goods). And that might mean a kick in the wallet for games like WoW, who charge for their experience.

I don't exactly believe that suddenly we'll inhabit a world where the PopCap Empire crushes the console RPG under its thumb, or where Webkinz or BarbieGirls bankrupt WoW and there's nothing left for us. But the concern that the evolving business models will change gaming is a legit one, I think. This year's E3 might perhaps be taken as evidence that it's already begun. What do you guys think about it? And, because they might be two different things, how do you feel about it?

Leigh Alexander,
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