Good Idea, Bad Idea: Casual gaming

[Editor’s note: Cowzilla takes a look at the Casual gaming scene as part of the Monthly Musings theme. — CTZ]

Casual gaming, which I will define as gaming that you don’t have to invest too much time into to understand and can enjoy without becoming enthralled in it, has pretty much taken the world of gaming by storm since the Wii’s launch. Though it has been around since the dawn of gaming, it hasn’t really been recognized and sanctioned off from hardcore gaming until surprisingly recently. With the Wii’s launch and the focus of brining in gamers with more casual style games, we now have great debates raging on the benefits and down sides to this newly recognized section of gaming.

From an objective standpoint, it’s hard to argue that casual gaming is good or bad. Plenty of casual games are truly fantastic, but others are truly horrible. The influx and popularity of casual gaming has also greatly influenced the gaming industry itself, for better or for worse. So is this new style of gaming something we should all fear? Is it something we should all love? Or, as with most things, is it a mixed bag of good and bad ideas? Hit the jump to find out. To start, I’m going approach this a bit differently than the other Good Idea, Bad Idea blogs where an example of a game that does casual gaming well would be given and then an example of a game that does casual gaming poorly is given. Instead I want to look at casual gaming as a whole and see if its influences and ideas are good or bad ones. Sure there will be examples of games but this will read far less like a Good Idea, Bad Idea comparison and more like a discussion on where we are with casual gaming. Also I am using the terms casual and hardcore because they are the best words we have for this and the ones everyone uses. It just makes it simpler.

So let’s begin. But where to start? I guess the beginning is always the best place to start. How did we get into this situation where there is such a strong divide between hardcore gaming and casual gaming? First we have to admit there is a divide, even if we all admit it is stupid. There are casual games out that don’t play like hardcore games. As I said before, these games have always been around but they are now in the forefront and the division between the people who only play casual games and the people who are more hardcore is all the more visible.

I point this out not to argue if this line, newly brought to the forefront, in gaming culture is a good idea or a bad idea but to simply express that this line does exist. What I do want to argue is whether or not this emphasis on the divide makes the new emphasis on casual gaming itself a good idea or a bad idea. I wish I could stand up and shout “Gamers unite, lay down your hardcore and casual ideals and realize we are one!” But I’d sound stupid and this divide has always been here, we’re just looking at it now and it is this scrutiny that has widened the divide. So we can’t really blame the influx of casual gaming on the divide between casual gamers and hardcore gamers since both have always been around. The idea that casual games are bad because they divide the gaming world is false. The gaming world divides itself, casual gamers want to be just that and hardcore gamers want to be hardcore.

However, we can comment on casual game being a good idea or a bad idea by looking at the effects casual gaming has on the gaming population. The main effect of this new focus on casual gaming, which is not just from Nintendo anymore, is that more people are playing videogames. This is a simple and true fact. We’ve all experienced our grandparents or parents playing a game on the Wii. Casual gaming has increased gaming’s base which is unarguably a good thing. From this stand point casual gaming is a very good idea; it brings in more gamers which sell more games which makes a stronger gaming market.

But are these new players actually becoming gamers and moving into deeper gaming? If we take a look at at the benefits of the emphasis on casual gaming in the industry with this question in mind then those benefits become a bit more suspect. As these new gamers come into the medium, they don’t migrate to different and more in depth games, they simply stay casual gamers. The casual population increases and developers start pumping out more and more casual games, some good and some bad. What we lose in the hardcore market is a focus on in depth, intelligent and thought provoking games. From this point of view, casual gaming and the new gamers it brings in are almost a blight on games in general creating a medium that is defined by how easy and quick the fun is delivered instead of how intelligently and creatively it is delivered. Does the casual gaming trend then defeat its own purpose? Instead of brining more and more new gamers in, it actually shoves all gamers out by delivering less and less truly meaningful games. So while the new focus and influx of casual games in the market is good idea for bringing in new gamers, it seems like a bad idea for game creativity as a whole, especially if the new gamers don’t become interested in the more in depth games.

Looking past the gamers to the people making the games and the industry itself, we can find some other factors that come into play when deciding whether the new focus on all this casual gaming is a good idea or a bad idea. What is the effect on casual games on the industry itself as a whole? If we take the aforementioned theory that casual games are creating a bigger market it is easy to say that they are a good thing for the industry. As we speak casual style games are selling like preverbal hot cakes and lining more and more game developer’s pockets. Casual games also are cheaper and easier to produce meaning that independent developers can produce a game quickly and easily and make a profit off the new audience that has arisen. More money for the industry and more money for independent games sounds like a good idea to me and since the focus on casual games seems to lead to this casual gaming must be a good idea.

But this is looking at a small picture and not the long run. What happens when casual gaming floods the market? Let me put the last paragraph a different way and see if it still sounds like a good idea. Cheap, easy to produce games that can be popped out with little effort or thought. It starts to sound a little depressing. Given that most major companies are about making money and, guess what, so are indie companies (despite the pedestal we want to put them on), it is far more likely that in the long run this deluge of casual gaming will not only hurt the industry but also start to be the reason all those new casual gamers start to leave gaming once again.

I say once again because this has all happened before. It was called the Atari and it almost destroyed videogames. Almost every game on the Atari was a more or less a casual game considering they usually had about as much depth as the kiddy pool. The games sold well though because at first they were fun and new. Then everyone started making them, pushing out games because it was the thing to do and quality started to slip. Really, really slip. Soon games became synonymous with suck and all those casual gamers who weren’t seriously into gaming (most of the population) dropped them quickly. The focus on casual gaming now, though there are obvious differences in the state of the industry and it would never lead to its collapse now, can lead to actually scaring away gamers from becoming hardcore.

With far to many low budget casual games coming out and relatively loose restrictions on the quality of the games (on all three systems, let us not just jump down Nintendo’s throat) the situation almost parallels that of Atari’s back in the day. Too many cheap bad games and not enough good ones. With this in mind, an emphasis on quick and dirty casual gaming becomes a very bad idea not just for gamers but for the very people who are pumping out those games right now. Though casual games are beneficial for the industry now, it is easy to see how they could become its bane.

It might seem that I am coming down harshly on casual games as I’ve pretty much pointed to ways that they can be bad ideas. In reality though I love me some casual gaming if for no other reason then I really don’t have the time in my life to sit down and play through a 40 hour RPG anymore. Getting deeply involved in anything is more and more difficult as my life get’s busier and casual games allow me to do something I love in a quick an easy dose. The ones that are good even produce hints of depth themselves despite their ease to get into.

What I’m trying to say is that casual gaming is not the enemy; it is in fact a very good idea. The bad idea is how the industry is handling casual gaming; the overemphasis on this new casual trend is the bad idea not the games themselves (well, the good games that is). So to wrap this up in one easy sentence, since I’m sure most of you just scrolled down here after reading the first paragraph: casual gaming itself is not a bad idea but it can easily spiral into one, especially on the path the industry and gamers are on right now.