Why am I such a sucker for these meaningless marks of pseudo-accomplishment? One could argue that MMOGs have altered my brain chemistry. I feel actual, emotional accomplishment when I fill in a bubble with experience points, when I hear noises denoting milestones, when a few pixels rearrange themselves over my virtual head to display a new number.

It turns out I'm a dilettante and a slacker, and a hardcore casual gamer would find my MMOG pretensions amusing. In the hardcore casual gamer's world, I waste valuable time on MMOGs, Neverwinter expansions and my job. Really, unless I'm part of the 1000 Badges Club, I'm just not hardcore at all. The club itself shares more with an MMOG uberguild than I think either group would like to admit. Reading the interviews with founding members, I flashback to my old raiding days.

Certainly the players are just as insular and clannish as any MMOG uberguild. For this article, I created several threads to collect anecdotes of why people play, from players not highlighted by the Microsoft web team. One of the most devoted members of the 1000 Badges Club, a man calling himself "Jashon," would mark my threads with the note "This is NOT a real or legitimate survey. Don't subject yourself to ridicule." Other Club members quickly closed ranks.

The main differences are in the demographics. There are stereotypes about casual games, and they are usually demeaning toward women. Middle-aged females are seen (by outsiders unfamiliar with the products) as the primary audience for casual games, without the interest in or capacity for anything complicated.

The reality isn't so simple. A study commissioned for AOL found women over 40 spent 41 percent of their online time playing casual games, and that most of their online gamers were female. A 2004 article about MSN Games said women were two-thirds of the casual audience, but today, their fact sheet says 52 percent of their players are female. PopCap (who arguably gave the casual niche its first professional sheen with early hits like Bejeweled) says more than 75 percent of casual gamers are between 35 and 60, 76 percent of their players are female, and half of all casual gamers are married with kids.

A middle-aged female majority seems borne out by the research, though not the overwhelming majority of legend. Where women still have a serious majority, 74 percent according to the Casual Games Association, are shelling out actual money for casual games. Twenty bucks here and there for the full-featured editions of popular casual games certainly adds up. Again, from the CGA: "By 2008, the North American online casual market is expected to reach 690 million dollars."

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In the dark ages of the 1990s, people who considered themselves gamers rarely wanted to extend the definition of "gaming" to include legions of Tetris fanatics. Skill, complexity, immersion and lifestyle choices were cited on message boards as a reason to draw lines between "us" and "them." The subtext, of course, was gender. Gaming was heavily male-dominated, and the women who had largely stayed away from shooters and RTS games were only beginning to assert themselves in the virtual worlds. Instead of seeing it as a preference issue arising from cultural expectations and training, many choose to interpret the lack of female presence in gaming as one of ability. Even as the industry has changed, young males are still startled when they get fragged by a girl.

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