It has become increasingly obvious over the last couple of years that some gamers are convinced that after Obama satisfies his deep-seated yearning to take away our guns he is going to send in the UN black helicopters and take away our hardcore videogames. In the past I’ve written about how the irrational fear that casual games are “taking over” has produced pathological troglodyte behavior directed against women who have dared simply to voice an opinion about games. Recently I came across an instance that has at its root the same pathology (oh no! Games are being played by everyone!) but adopted a refreshingly different approach: denial.
Throw an Apple hard enough and it can really sting
In a recent opinion piece for Polygon, Shawn Foust, currently VP of Design at Quark Games argued that “In two years mobile and tablet games will be predominantly hardcore.” Admittedly this pronouncement could be seen as a little self-serving given that Foust’s company is dedicated to producing hardcore games for mobile platforms. But let’s give Foust the benefit of the doubt and assume that his work has followed his passions and beliefs. What justifies the confidence behind his statement? Simple. “Every media platform optimized for games eventually ends up going hardcore. Mobile will not be different.” The PC, the Internet, consoles, all started out as oriented toward casual games and moved inevitably toward hardcore. The reason, he argues, lies in the desires of gamers themselves: “For all of our faults as customers (we’re very torch- and pitchfork-oriented), we gamers — and I’m speaking of the hardcore variety — are loyal and dedicated. . . .For us, games aren’t an idle pastime. They are a commitment. We can’t be distracted.” Casual games, he makes clear, are all about simple distraction, passing the time.
Sadly, this piece simply confirms why people should not be in a rush to invest in Foust’s company. In the first place he’s exhibiting the classic circular reasoning evident among so many game developers. Notice the nifty little rhetorical sidestep? I’m going to talk about all gamers. . .by which I mean hardcore gamers. But this is typical of the industry more broadly (indeed, in a former age it virtually defined the industry): all we make are hardcore games which people are buying therefore all gamers are hardcore gamers which means that we need to keep making nothing but hardcore games. It is a completely fallacious argument to believe that your intended audience thinks exactly like you do and in the game industry it has led to some of the most problematic industry practices: the widespread hypersexualism (we like big boobs so of course everyone does) and racism (we like plucky black sidekicks, doesn’t everyone?).
Yet that all pales before the major problem here which is simply that Foust is wrong. He’s wrong about the past and he’s wrong about the future. But it is the reason why he is wrong that interests me.
It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore
A while back I published an article that looked at a core problem with the game industry which is that conversations between the industry and academic institutions are minimal to nonexistent. This is not just my perspective; some within the game industry have made the same argument and pointed out why this state of affairs is a problem, most notably respected game designer Ernest Adams. All stereotypes about academic eggheads aside, this lack of connection makes game design something of an oddity in comparison with other professional fields. Practicing engineers draw regularly on research conducted at academic institutions and the same goes for medical, legal, and business professionals. Obviously not all members of those various fields spend their coffee breaks poring over academic journals, but the research at universities makes its way into the field by a variety of channels and helps to influence practice (and the channel works the other way, with professional practices and experiences informing academic research). Not so much in the world of game design. If there is interest in academic research it seldom rises above engineering and programming innovations.
The problem in part has to do with the fact that individual academics and academic disciplines as a whole (with very few exceptions) do not do a very good job communicating with anyone outside their own narrow specializations (and, to be honest, sometimes they aren’t even very good at communicating within those specializations). Much of the blame for the lack of communication can, however, be laid at the door of game developers. For there to be real communication both parties need to be interested in a frank exchange of views and by and large the world of game development isn’t. After all, for quite some time it has been proceeding happily on the assumption that because I, the game designer, have played a lot of games, that I know what makes great games in general and how to make a particular great game for a specific audience. Well, I bet the management team at McDonald’s have also eaten a lot of hamburgers but that isn’t going to stop them from launching a new menu item without a lot of market research. The management at Ford have probably all driven a lot of cars but they aren’t going to launch a new car while content to merely sell it to those who already like other Ford cars.
Hasn’t this approach to game design been working? Well, yes. . .if you believe that we are awash in creative, or failing that, well-designed, or, failing that, marginally tested games. Yes, if you believe that the overall industry is financially healthy and reasonably stable, and that all its members are fairly compensated for the hours they are required to put in. If you believe that the kind of stereotyping that would get a movie slaughtered by critics and panned by moviegoers is not still endemic in the gaming industry (I’m increasingly convinced that either programmers and artists now simply lack the skills (or maybe their software tools make it practically impossible?) to produce female characters with a cup size of less than 40H).
But the practical effect of this is that you end up with perspectives like those of Foust, an opinion on which he seems, unfortunately, to have bet the farm. Had he been remotely interested in looking into some of the research being undertaken into the phenomenon of casual gaming he would have come across work like that of renowned game theorist Jesper Juul. In his book A Casual Revolution Juul argues, quite convincingly, that far from being the natural way that gaming is supposed to be, hardcore gaming may end up being simply an interesting detour on the broader development path of games (both digital and non-digital) which has in general been marked by a casual focus and an interest in accessibility (as opposed to the 133t focus of hardcore gaming). Now this might all be simply an interesting hypothesis, on a par with Foust’s own, except that Juul backs his hypothesis up not with flimsy and selective examples but with this little thing called actual research. His book is based on hundreds of interviews with players, designers, and developers of casual games.
The book is not without its faults, but those are generally in the execution rather than the conception (the last half of the book is superfluous repetition of the first, and it includes waaaaaay too many unnecessary screenshots as filler). What Juul’s research does, however, is bust some of the stereotypes and distinctions about which Foust seems so certain. Our platforms have not been defined exclusively by their hardcore focus. Describing the PC as having evolved inevitably toward a hardcore mode requires that we forget all about all those people playing Solitaire, or Minesweeper or Tetris, or. . . Defining the Internet as a hardcore platform requires that we forget all about those people playing browser games, and Bejeweled, and the legion of Farmville-type games. And defining consoles as a hardcore platform requires that we (breathtakingly) forget all about the Wii and Gameboy (and certainly many self-professed hardcore gamers would love to do so). But, the hardcore chorus goes, none of those are real games. There we are, back at the problem of circular logic again. If you only define certain kinds of games as real games or particular categories of gamers as real gamers then you are always going to be in a position of only seeing what you want to see. . .and you risk being blindsided by the juggernaut of reality. That in fact is one of the major reasons why we as human beings have research and investigation skills: to broaden our understanding and stop us taking our own necessarily narrow slice of world experience as evidence of all there is.
Another reason is that you start to realize that many of the distinctions we take to be “natural” and “obvious” don’t hold up when we subject experience to scrutiny. So perhaps the most useful aspect of Juul’s research is that he shows how the stereotypes of casual and hardcore break down in practice. If, for example, we define a hardcore gamer as someone who plays their game of choice for long sessions, researches aspects of the game, discusses the game with fellow players, even collaborates with them on creating ancillary materials (walk throughs and the like). . .then it turns out many players of so-called casual games also do this. Foust gives voice to the common sense understanding of casual games as diversions, played amid the breaks in “real life.” But a surprising number of the casual players he interviewed reported playing for periods of time that in terms of individual session length and also cumulatively would put many hardcore gamers to shame.
But this mysterious entity, research, can help you not only understand the way things are now, but where they are going. As I pointed out when discussing hardcore rage in “Angry Nerds” demographics are simply against those betting on a hardcore future. Juul’s book demonstrates that a significant number of players of casual games describe themselves as “ex-hardcore” gamers. One of the key differences between hardcore and casual games is not what most people think of as difficulty. Difficulty is both relative and variable and as a result there are some frighteningly difficult casual games out there. Rather, it is the question of time. Hardcore games are predicated upon an audience capable of setting aside vast chunks of uninterrupted time. This is why it is has favored a younger demographic: those who are unemployed, underemployed, or who can gainfully neglect their college studies to become a Level 80 Guardian. It also helps to be mooching off your parents’ internet access or to be getting it “free” (in exchanging for a future mortgaged to the student loan gods). But the average age of gamers is steadily rising as those who grew up when modern commercial videogames were in their infancy now advance toward Depends dependency. As you get older and acquire more responsibilities, one of the scarcest resources at your disposal is time, both in an absolute sense and in terms of the uninterrupted blocks necessary for many hardcore activities. Diaper changes won’t wait for you to finish off that final raid boss.
Lack of interest in research also creates a particular problem for interests that intersect with the world of information technology, producing a kind of magical thinking that places all the power for change either in the technology or the people who use it. Foust is no exception to this pattern, arguing that it is gamers that drive the evolution of platforms. “A lot of mobile developers are beginning to realize that the casual audience isn’t a particularly reliable place to build a business”, he notes. “Midcore is the current solution. It’s an effort to try and offer an experience that appeals to gamers without alienating the broader group that were previously the bread and butter of the platforms.” Notice the breathtaking ease with which “casual” users, the “broader group” are excluded from the category of “gamers.” Because gamers, as every hardcore gamer knows, are only made up of hardcore gamers. The larger point however is that technology adaptation is not shaped by the device capabilities or by users themselves but by complex interactions between those things and larger cultural patterns of usage, precedent and expectation. Therefore, flushed with youthful enthusiasm, Foust asks: “Gamers are just waiting for games worthy of their attention. If we build it, they will come. It’s insane to think that a platform as powerful and as widely adopted as a smartphone is going to be ignored by the gaming audience.” Well, the difference between the phone and a console (purpose-built gaming platform) or PC (not purpose built for gaming but associated in our everyday practices with long stints of work) is that the phone is the quintessential diversionary device. People use it for every single conceivable activity. . .as long as that activity doesn’t typically involve a sustained time investment. Sure, Juul shows that some casual games, some of which are accessed via smartphone, are played in ways that hardcore gamers would recognize. But the social usage patterns surrounding phones work against it emerging as a hardcore platform just as surely as does the aging gamer demographic. And tablets, well, to be honest it isn’t really clear yet what they are for. They don’t seem to be capable of doing a lot to enhance work productivity except in very specific instances. And once you’ve impressed all your friends with its caressability, I suspect the major use of most tablets is to check box scores or watch Shallow Hal in the bath. Tablets and phones may well play useful ancillary roles in existing hardcore games for other platforms (a development I was eagerly awaiting with Guild Wars 2) but which has since been shelved). But I suspect the only way the iPad will ever emerge as a dedicated hardcore gaming option is if we start hitting one another with them.
Will there be hardcore games for the phone and tablet? Certainly, but not many and they will likely remain a niche market at best. Consoles, PCs, and the Internet were all socially constructed as clusters of activities involving hardcore-level time commitments. Even there, however, they didn’t preclude the development of strong casual games. How much less likely is it that platforms that are now thoroughly established as casual and–in contrast to the basic requirement for hardcore engagement–are deliberately engineered to promote unfocused and inattentive habits of mind. . .how likely is it really that those will be the hardcore gaming platforms of the future?
If you haven’t done your research, that future looks very likely.