It’s 1:45 a.m. My contacts are glued to my eyeballs, because I have not blinked in three hours. My left hand is twitching, my back is aching and my shoulders are cramping. My right hand is rock steady, however, and with the barest flick of a mouse, I send the ball arcing toward the never-ending snake of colored blocks. I only need 20,000 more points for my “Buster Badge,” and if I don’t get it tonight, I never will. I’m leaving on a business trip tomorrow morning – uh, this morning – and the badge opportunity expires at midnight tomorrow.

This is casual gaming.

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A casual game has small, incremental goals attainable in short play sessions without demanding more than basic problem-solving ability. Whether it’s five minutes or five hours, you can accomplish something in every play session. You already have all the skills you need to play from the moment you hit the start button, and refining those skills to the specific game takes minutes, not days. These games are almost always intended for a “mass market,” with “lowest common denominator” left unspoken. They’re considered “demographically neutral,” except in situations where companies like Lifetime commission casual games specifically to extend their brand

There are three basic strategies to lure players to casual gaming sites and make them “stick.” The first boils down to inventory – a lot of it, with new products coming all the time. Sites such as MSN Games, Green Apple Games, AOL Games, Yahoo! Games, Pogo and dozens of other smaller players are cornucopias of delectable time wasters. Admittedly, many of the free time wasters requiring no downloads are the same across the various sites (the games with trial downloads vary a bit more from site to site), but there are plenty of differences between AOL, partnered with EA’s Pogo, and Microsoft. The second strategy is making the rewards tangible. The third is to add a multiplayer dimension to the single-player experience.

Above all other types of games, I’m a whore for MMOGs. Being able to interact, to compare yourself with other people, is the great appeal of multiplayer gaming. So while other casual sites have more games, I only ignore the plaintive cries of “Honey, it’s practically dawn” from my better half for MSN Games, one of the largest casual portals. They claim 14 million unique visitors a month, and I generally find around 115,000 players, no matter when I log in. (In contrast, Xbox Live reportedly hit 7 million members in early July, and Club Pogo has 1.2 million paying subscribers.) There are message boards, live chat areas, a raft of games I can play with other people and, most importantly, I can save my high scores and earn badges (small, collectible token of accomplishment, like an Xbox Live Achievement). For free.

Microsoft must have actual gamers in their badge department who understand the dynamics of virtual attachment. Although the point scores have been wiped and reset several times in the last three years, none of the badges have ever disappeared from anyone’s album.

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.

But framing the condescension toward casual gaming as a matter of gender politics may have been off base. The first true generation of gamers, people who grew up with console systems and PCs in their bedrooms, is aging. Members of the MSN boards had this to say about why they play casual games:

“I still enjoy posting high scores, even if my days of spending hours online are over now that I’ve got two kids.”

“The shooters I loved tend to get [me] wound up, and these days I can only play in the late evening in the hour or two before bedtime.

“I just want to chill after a long day. A game should be a game, not a job.”

“The games take more skill than people realize. There’s twitch and strategy, but I don’t have to deal with a massive, complicated controller or spend four hours on a learning curve. I just settle in and play.”

“My kids took over the Wii and the PS3 takes too much effort these days.”

Nearly every anecdote was along those lines. Coincidence? Could it have been a measure of maturity, all along?

It’s probably not that simple, but a convergence of influences giving rise to the surge in casual gaming development. As budgets for heavily-promoted, male-dominated products continue to climb to dizzying, multimillion dollar heights, casual games can earn out their profit predictions with far fewer customers, without advertising or support costs. The need to grow the gaming consumer market meant that eventually, someone was going to look outside the “males 18-34” slice of the pie and notice a lot of money sitting on the table. But the aging of the first cohort to take gaming for granted as a natural part of life is an undeniable factor.

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But if you asked me, I’d say the main factor is fun. A casual game gives you a blast of accomplishment, pride, adrenaline (50 words from the letters GRSOLPE, two minutes, GO!) and total distraction from whatever you were thinking about before you started playing. By playing any particular game, you have gained a point of commonality with hundreds, even thousands, of other people. If you play enough, you can be part of an exclusive group set apart from mere mortals. And you can get all of this in less time than it takes to brush your teeth. But there’s enough solid design, incentive and complexity to keep you involved for hours. From a profit/loss analysis perspective, it’s all gain.

“Casual” has nothing to do with time, attitude, approach or the person behind the keys. Instead, casual is gaming in its purest form: Fun when it’s convenient for you.

Sanya Weathers is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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