Thursday, May 8, 2008

Let's end the hardcore vs. casual "conflict"

If you follow video game journalism at all, you're familiar with the term hardcore (or core) gamer. Generally, it's used in some sort of debate about hardcore vs. casual games or gamers. Now, don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with hardcore as a term by itself, but rather, the baggage it has accumulated. It symbolizes a fundamentally bifurcated and antagonistic relationship between so-called hardcore and casual video (or perhaps more accurately electronic) games. This division is wrong.

It is wrong because it is a gross oversimplification, and a bad model for viewing video gamer players. There aren't two separate groups of players. In developed countries today, everyone is a player. Everyone has played some electronic game in some form whether it be Pong, Windows Solitare, or Super Mario Bros. It's time we started really comparing playing electronic games with books, film, and other media. The model, for readers, for example, is that virtually everyone is a reader. Certain people read a lot, whom we refer to as bibliophiles or book lovers. Just like almost everyone watches movies to some extent, but a certain subset are film buffs. The model is that a certain elite group make up a subset of a much larger population. This is the direction that video games are going in.

The model commonly used of hard core vs. casual is one of conflict that need not and should not exist. It is out of touch with reality. The hard core gamer should in reality be defined as someone with a particular passion and elite view of the medium. Just as a serious film buff would set him or herself apart from the masses who only see shallow blockbusters. Or how a bibliophile who reads multiple books per week looks down on Harry Potter and Dan Brown. Self-described hardcore gamers, on the other hand, hold the general public (or casuals as they refer derisively) in contempt. This conflict is particularly common on video game blogs (see for one representative example).

My overall point, is that there's a false dichotomy here. As video games have become mainstream, it is the subset model that we need to use to describe different game players. Particularly since the term casual is even less helpful than hardcore. A casual gamer is someone who doesn't play video games seriously? formally? Who sees them as games rather than serious art?

Again, in developed countries, virtually everyone (with the possible exception of the elderly) plays video games. For most people, this happens to different degrees on a continuum, and then there is a small subset of particularly passionate elites for whom games are not a hobby or a form of entertainment, but rather their primary form of entertainment. Geometrically, therefore, it is more accurate to think of video game players as a pyramid. The more you play, the further toward the tip (elite) that you are.

So, what does this mean?
It means in our discussion of video game players we should stop using the false dichotomy of hardcore and casual gamers. But, more than that, hardcore gamers need to accept and embrace that they are an elite. And while this entails feelings of self-superiority, it also entails accepting that they will never have common cause with the masses. That said, it also means encouraging those that want to become elite (disciples if you will). And it means that, just like film buffs, you can decry the idiot public, but generally, you have to accept that they will never truly appreciate the medium that you love. You can be condescending, but not outraged. You can see party games as mindless entertainment, but you can't see them as a threat to elite games. Just as J.K. Rowling doesn't threaten Kurt Vonnegut. And in fact, if you want to be particularly mature, you can be happy about anything that gets more people enjoying your medium. My final point is that a mass medium means that most of it appeals to the masses, and that there will always be a small set of the passionate elite. So, if you consider yourself a hardcore gamer, embrace your elitism, but don't be threatened by the masses. Welcome to the world of mass market video games!