Do you ever use a word despite without fully understanding what it means? I have a friend like that. He uses the word "frumpy", but I'm fairly sure he's never opened the dictionary to find out just what it means. In his mind, "frumpy" means "bloated" or "bored" or whatever he needs it to mean in his present case of misappropriation.
For many of you (myself included), I'm sure the same is true when it comes to the phrase "casual gaming". I used to go by a purely intuitive definition, a notion that I should have learned through my computer science courses is never a good idea. I used to just call out in my mind whether a game or gamer was of the casual or hardcore sort without thinking about what I was doing — until this year's QuakeCon when I was finally challenged with articulating what those two terms mean.
I was flustered at first. How was the schism between the two not clear enough for people to immediately understand? Almost instantly, though, it became apparent I was flustered because I'd never thought about it before. I wasn't mad, though. I finally had the impetus to think about why this gaming dichotomy existed. It really came down to determining what truly and discretely defines both casual and hardcore gaming, if there is any overlap between the two, and if using either label is appropriate or derogatory.
In general, there are some characteristics that might separate the two categories. Price point, requisite skill level, complexity of game mechanics, production value, length, and required time to play can all both individually and collectively place a game into either camp. For instance, cheaper games, such as the dollar releases on the App Store, are usually considered to be of the casual sort. They also usually are very simple to play, either by being very easy or forgiving or only requiring a single button input from the player. These games are almost always produced by one or two-man teams for very little money and made to be played for only a few minutes at a time.
Donkey Kong is comprised entirely of running, jumping, and climbing, but does that mean it's also a casual game for having simple mechanics?
The problem is some games don't fit into the commonly accepted list of casual attributes. For instance, matches in Street Fighter IV can take less than a minute to play, but does this mean that it's a casual game for being quick to finish? Donkey Kong is comprised entirely of running, jumping, and climbing, but does that mean it's also a casual game for having simple mechanics? I Wanna Be The Guy is a pretty dowdy looking game with its purely 2D graphics and was made by a single man, but it's definitely not for the casual gamer.
Perhaps much like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, there is no intelligible definition of a casual or hardcore game, but "I know it when I see it."
This, however, leads me to wondering whether there is overlap or if casual and hardcore are mutually exclusive. Whether or not there is a better instinctual or explicit definition for the differences between the two, this leads to the inclination that a game cannot be both casual and hardcore. Perhaps why there is an unfortunate twinge of disdain to whenever a gamer discusses a product of the opposing camp.
The lack of respect given from the hardcore to the casual gamers can be traced back to the commonly accepted definition of the two categories of games. Hardcore gamers generally find casual games too simplistic and not true video games, and for that reason, they find it inappropriate and possibly offensive that the casual players dare file themselves under the same banner as the "true" gamers have taken so much pride in.
For those that identify themselves as hardcore, they believe that the casual gamers had to overcome such a small barrier of entry to get into games that they didn't earn the right to call themselves a gamer. The lack of nuance in casual games has allowed a swath of gaming simpletons entry into a higher pantheon of people capable of reaching past the primitiveness of Angry Birds or Wii Sports.
This conflict, however, can potentially be boiled down to a misunderstanding. Just because the intuitive notion of casual and hardcore gaming lends the two divisions to be mutually exclusive doesn't mean that they are. Fighting games, for instance, can be played on an incredibly varying number of levels of depth. I actually enjoy playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 just because I enjoy the stupefying visual overload and seeing how ridiculous I can make the teams. Many, in fact, would I say I play it casually. However, you can get into something a little more rough-and-tumble, such as regularly (and seriously) competing online, learning all the combos, and mastering specials. Step even deeper and you enter the realm of people who find frame-counting entrancing. Who is to say that you can't play a game like MvC3 in both a casual and a hardcore fashion?
This sentiment can also go the other direction, though. Bejeweled, perhaps the most prevalent and widely accept casual game of recent times, can be played in a wholeheartedly fanatical way. I've seen people play it in 30-second bursts without finishing the session, but I've also seen people who blow my mind with how quick and machine-like they can analyse and execute a screen of jewels.
For those that identify themselves as hardcore, they believe that the casual gamers had to overcome such a small barrier of entry to get into games that they didn't earn the right to call themselves a gamer.
Pac-Man is another fine example. Some people would call it casual while a similar amount might call it hardcore. It's simple in that you only move one of four directions and eat dots. It's cheap in that each game will only cost you 20 cents in an arcade. Given the lack of a story, sessions with the game can last barely a minute. A fair amount of interest, though, can reveal some deeper strategy. Taking advantage of the AI behind the ghosts to maximise every screen and aim for perfect game. Perfect Pac-Man runs can actually run for over six hours (the world record is actually just under four hours) where every corner and pellet is scrutinized to reach the split-screen stage.
Either casual or hardcore games can be wholly contained as a subset within the other. In this case, given the usual slate of casual game hallmarks, the hardcore would be the superset, and considering that both casual and hardcore games can encompass the entire spectrum of video game genres, is it even worth differentiating between the two?
There is a place for both types of games, much like there is a time and a place for trashy summer comedies as well as serious Oscar contenders and how both recreational basketball players and high school phenoms with aspirations of playing in the NBA can exist in the realm of sports. Everyone has to start somewhere, and just because the person sitting next to you on the bus is still bumbling his way through the first level of Cut the Rope doesn't mean that he won't someday be the next sponsored MLG player.
The divide between casual and hardcore is not immediately indicative of the quality of the game or the gamer. It's important to remember that both the product and the player are also not entirely disjointed, as any game can be played in any number of ways. The labels, however, are a handy way to facilitate video game discussions between both the casual and the hardcore, gamers and non-gamers, and QuakeCon attendees and those that question writers who think they have it all figured out.