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The Beatnik Box

Examining the concepts behind "meaningful play."

Author: Beatnik59

A Re-Examination of Casual and Hardcore

Posted by Beatnik59 Monday April 26 2010 at 3:11PM
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MMOs are complicated things.  They are like a great unknown continent that explorers from all walks of life are attempting to explore.  We wouldn't have sites like Terra Nova if MMOs weren't worth analyzing from an intellectual perspective.

MMOs are also very powerful, expensive, and money making endevors.  Just like in politics where it is common practice to distort or at least blur the truth, there are enough reasons for the leaders in this industry to lie, or at least cover up the truth.

The way we sort through the lies to get to the truth--at least in terms of social thought--is to look at the language used when defining key concepts.  It often contains a greater truth, but one that can become distorted over time, especially when it is in the interest of an industry to distort the truth.

It doesn't take an expert to realize that there are two types of players recognized by this industry: casual players and hardcore players.  The fact that we on these boards use these terms with the frequency we do is evidence that we, too, have accepted this categorization.  But do we actually know what these categories mean?

We typically think of casual players as individuals who don't spend a lot of the time playing MMOs.  We see them as individuals who have careers, family obligations, and a fat wallet.  We have been told that this demographic is the one that the industry wants to serve.  The games they prefer are ones that allow them to accomplish a lot in a little amount of time.  These players are not against spending additional money on RMT, especially if it helps them accomplish things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to accomplish.

Then there is the hardcore player.  We have been told that the hardcore player devotes a large amount of time playing the game.  We are led to believe that they are against RMT, because it devalues the time they spend in the game.  We are told that they prefer virtual worlds and are against linear games.  We have been told that, unlike casuals, they are roleplayers, but are also achievement-oriented players who are obsessed with game success.

Ultimately, the difference between casual and hardcore has been reduced to the amount of time playing the game.  Casual players can only play for a limited time, while hardcore players devote a large amount of time to playing the game.  However, play time, I suspect, does not adequately explain the differences between casual and hardcore players.

For example, take a college student who receives City of Heroes for Christmas while he's between semesters.

He has nothing better to do, so he plays it constantly for a whole month, logging in 16 hour days on it.  He gets several characters to maximum level, earns several million influence, and has impressive enhancements.  When the new semester starts, he goes back to campus and leaves City of Heroes.

The typical definition would place this person in the hardcore category simply due to the amount of time he spends playing the game.  But this is not entirely accurate.

Yes, he plays a lot, but only because there's nothing better to do.  He plays City of Heroes to pass the time until something better comes along, like his semester at school.  He plays the game, but he isn't emotionally invested in what goes on there.  That's why simply looking at hours logged on a game can be deceiving.

Let's take another person, a banker, who receives City of Heroes for Christmas.

He plays it a couple hours every day after he gets home from work, but when he plays, he takes great care in making sure his time is well spent.  He checks out the forums to figure out the best build.  He researches and produces articles for Paragon Wiki while pretending to write out emails.  He arranges his teams in advance over Teamspeak or IM, so that when he gets home from work he can level up quickly and get the best gear.  He buys influence from brokers with his fat credit card so that he can pwn in Recluse's Victory.

The conventional definition would define this person as a casual gamer, simply because he only plays for an hour or two a day.  Yet can we really say that this person is approaching the game casually?  He is obsessed with the game.  Even when he's not playing the game, he's thinking about the game.  Playing, preparing to play, and all the things he does that are related to the game are not ways of passing the time, but are seen as investments of time.  That's because the person is emotionally invested in what he's doing: the true distinction between casual and hardcore.

See, the very language that we use to describe gamers says a lot about who they are.  The words "casual" and "hardcore" are words that we use to describe substance abusers, and this is where we need to start in order to understand the differences between the two.

While alcoholics often drink a lot of booze, they don't have to drink a lot  to be an alcoholic.  The reason someone is an alcoholic is dependent on why they drink alcohol.  If they need their regular alcohol "fix" everyday in order to function, or they build their lives around their alcohol use, that alone is indicative that they have an emotional attachment to alcohol that goes beyond typical use.

Similarly, just because someone drinks a lot of booze doesn't mean that he is an alcoholic.  He might be drinking a lot of booze because he has nothing better to do, but once he has something better to do, he stops.  While it might not be a good thing that he drinks a lot, he hasn't formed any emotional attachment to alcohol.  You can't categorize someone like this as an alcoholic like the one who can't get by without having booze.

See, I have a rather strong suspicion that the industry really doesn't want "casual gamers," and the games that have been developed really aren't designed to placate "casual gamers."  They want the hardcore--or better yet--they want to turn casual gamers into hardcore gamers.  But it is difficult to see where I'm coming from unless we start to unpack what casual and hardcore really mean, and the distinction between the two is more fundamental than the amount of time each spends in the game.