If there are two words I could do without ever hearing again in relation to gaming, they be would “core” and “casual.” At some point, while I let my guard down, these terms not only snuck into our lexicon, they became seemingly the gaming question of our time, the future – and perhaps past – of our industry.
The fallout from the outreach program that was E3 continues, traveling as far as the pages of the New York Times, which termed the reaction of “core” gamers to Nintendo’s all-singing all-dancing keynote address “nerd rage.” After years of pining for the games industry to become mainstream, fans are now recoiling from the growth, jealously guarding their hobby from those foolish “casuals,” and feeling ignored by the companies to whom they have given so much of their free time.
History repeats. When the original PlayStation became popular, the same threat was raised – gamers from the SNES and Genesis days felt threatened by the rush of new “post pub” gamers as they were termed in the UK, who were only interested in having fun with their mates and didn’t understand the appeal of the games we thought of as highbrow.
That influx of new blood did indeed lead to a rush of sub-standard games and licensed garbage – but it also produced some damn fine games, series still enjoyed today, and ultimately led to the immense popularity of the PlayStation 2, a console that may never again be matched in terms of the depth of its library. Now many of these gamers who were accused of instigating the ruin of the games industry are the “core”, dictating the directions of the blockbuster titles and bemoaning the new uneducated gamer who don’t understand the complex depth and intricacies of the latest space marine title.
This is the same reaction that fed PC gamers’ insecurities as console gaming, with the original Xbox, began to dominate even the genres that the PC had so long led, the same feeling that had everybody sure the PSP was going to dominate the handheld market and condemn Nintendo’s handheld division to the same fate as the GameCube.
The reaction of the fanboys is predictable – what’s irritating about this is the industry’s willingness to buy into it, to split the industry in two and talk as if there are only two types of player out there, the “core” and the “casual.” The division between casual and core is more than merely unhelpful – it is inaccurate and damaging.
We want to divide gaming into “simple fluff” vs. “real games” because it’s convenient, allowing us to continue making the same games we’ve always made while making a few quick bucks from cheap party games for this mysterious new audience. This desire to cleave the industry in two was most evident in Microsoft’s clumsy attempts to dress up the Xbox 360 as the console for violence-soaked real burly gamers’ games in the first half of their E3 keynote, then rapidly switch to pastel-colored avatar-friendly quiz games in the last half.
The idea that mainstream customers shy away from depth, or only want things that are simplistic, is a fallacy that unfortunately crops up in every medium, not just gaming. But it is contradicted at every turn – by the success of movies like The Dark Knight, a true sensation that is on its way to breaking every record save Titanic‘s and is wrapped in myriad levels of complexity, or TV shows like Lost, watched religiously across the globe despite its head-twisting, occasionally nonsensical plot.
Products that appeal to as wide an audience as possible are not ones that simple or stupid. Products that are truly mainstream are ones that work on many levels, and can be enjoyed by different people for different reasons. Curiously, this is something that we should really have taken notice of by now, given that it is the core principle behind mega-successes like Super Mario Bros and Tetris, which anyone could understand in two minutes, but which had such layers of depth hidden within them that they are still fun to play today.
One of the real sources of the problem is that modern games are so inaccessible that you require a ten-year gaming education, or the curiosity of an 8-year-old, in order to take it all in. You need to be “core” just to understand what’s going on, and the game traditions that are so obvious to us, but baffling to outsiders. Games like Wii Sports or Guitar Hero are popular not because of their perceived lack of depth or simplicity, but because they can instantly be picked up and played by almost anyone, whereas most games utilize every button on a 360 or PS3 controller, often in several different ways.
But almost all we give the less-committed “casual” user are titles that are simple both in interface and in execution – no wonder these games are derided by the “core.” It is our inability or unwillingness to sell games to anyone out of the “core” audience that had led to the creation of “casual.” But while the division between “core” and “casual” is an inaccurate attempt to break down the massive range of experiences that we know as “video games,” an unhelpful “us vs. them” approach, some kind of division beyond our simple genres is becoming necessary. Our poor grasp of what games fundamentally are, with games occupying this strange space between art, toys and sports, is poor, and our genres of FPS, strategy, racer and fighter are really only sub-genres.
We have yet to properly define the true genres of this medium. Lost, the evening news, a documentary on Chinese migrant workers and American Idol have nothing more in common with one another besides being another way to waste an hour in front of the box. In the same way, we do not need to create competition where none exists within games, but accept that there is more than one thing that can be defined as a game. “Core” and “casual” games are clumsy, stuttering attempts to define our growing medium – but they are not the only two potential results in some zero-sum future.
Christian Ward works for a major games publisher, and would be curious to know if anyone has pinpointed exactly when “core” entered the gaming lexicon (and if we can go back in time to stop it from happening).