Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 8

The Factions of Gaming

by L.B. Jeffries

26 May 2008


I once attended an art lecture that took on the very unpopular topic of criticizing a well-liked work of art. The pieces consisted of a series of photographs, all taken from a medical journal depicting slaves that had just arrived in America. Lines of poetry were inscribed in each photo as the artist decried the anonymity and inhuman appearance depicted by the journal’s photography. The criticism that the lecturer was offering was that historically the poetry was all utter fiction. The journal hadn’t made these people anonymous at all. Their names, tribes, and even the history of those tribes were listed and often seriously conflicted with the poems themselves. Needless to say, people tended to get pretty pissed at this lecture. Why criticize a work of art because of history? It’s beautiful and evocative, why criticize it for something like accuracy? What was the point of looking at art with a historical mindset?

That kind of discussion is relevant these days in video games because people are becoming very conscious of the demographics and factions within the medium. The casual audience, hardcore gamers, and ex-core players are all becoming distinct opinions that get thrown around video game forums. Yet not everyone is happy about these labels. Jim Sterling at Destructoid posted an interesting column that bemoaned the artificial labels of ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. He points out that people certainly play both kinds of games and it does a huge disservice to label a game as meant for one particular audience or another. And he’s right, it’s dumb to call these things audience labels because they aren’t. We all play a huge variety of games and those games often borrow liberally from countless others. What the terms casual or hardcore really signify isn’t an identity, they’re a philosophy. They are ways of thinking about the purpose of video games and what we expect from them.

How, then, do we define these philosophies if not by their consumers?

Well, by identifying their chief values. Casualism (I was going to call it Hedonism but I don’t think that would fly with the soccer moms) is the belief that a game is first and foremost about fun. Probably the most famous proponent of this mindset is The Escapist‘s critic Yahtzee. He makes the point in several reviews that when a game decides game design or plot should be more important than the player having fun, it is wrong for doing so. Games shouldn’t become chores, they should be pleasant breaks from the constant toil of the day. They shouldn’t take a long time to learn or bore the player either. The difficulty arises when we try to identify what fun is in a game. Losing isn’t particularly fun, so should games always be simple and easy to start playing? Where does that leave online play, since you’re bound to lose eventually? Casualism is essentially a reviewer’s philosophy, founded on the logic of gauging how much the average person is going to enjoy a game. As a consequence, games based in this area never seem to move beyond providing strictly fun experiences.
The hardcore philosophy is best represented by the team at Destructoid. They are, without a doubt, the most honest and brutal gaming people on the web. Their review policy can best be summarized as an individualized gauge of game play engagement and innovation. Their infamous 4.5 review of Twilight Princess was founded on the fact that the game was essentially just more of the same. What makes that a hardcore view is that you’re gauging a game’s quality by how it engages you rather than solely on how fun it is. The depth and polish of the game design is what’s important to the hardcore values. A game that’s fun but not entertaining over a long period of time suffers in this view along with anything doesn’t induce massive replay. The confinement of this philosophy is that not all great games need to be played over and over. Where does this leave You Have to Burn the Rope or exploration-based games like Metroid? Countless interactive fictions or Third-Person experiences suffer from a similar lack of replay value or ease of use, yet they still contain great stories. Are we really going to start saying these are bad games just because you don’t feel the compulsion to play them constantly?
A third philosophy is one that’s just coming into existence but is the only term that best describes my own policy on video games: the ex-core. As some gamers get older they are finding that a lot of these game design innovations tend to be superficial. I’m as impressed with the Forge features of Halo 3 as any hardcore enthusiast, but game veterans have already seen user-created maps long ago and the new depth added is a thin one. Once you play video games long enough you tend to quit expecting novelty constantly because genuinely new game designs are few and far between. Yet the blinking lights of casualism’s “fun, fun, fun” attitude don’t exactly do it either. I still expect to be engaged and actually enjoy the game experience. Thus, playing games that offer a good experience by whatever means necessary is the gauge of the ex-core. It doesn’t matter if you do this by fun or competition, innovation or replayability. And the enormous flaw of this is that it’s judged on a game-by-game basis. What works in one game may completely flop in another for totally different reasons. There’s no scale, no set of requirements, just your capacity for explaining why the experience does or does not work.

The reason it’s important to stop using these terms as labels and refer to them as philosophies is because countless games contain elements of all these beliefs. Super Mario Galaxy is a very fun, casually easy game. Yet it offers a lot of challenges that will satisfy the hardcorist’s need for replayability and innovation. At the same time, it provides the accessibility of a fun experience for an ex-core player. A video game doesn’t contain just one type of philosophy, it’s filled with countless layers of ideas and principles. Going back to the example of the art history lecture, the professor had a general response to people who were furious about his attack on the artwork. He said this was just another way of looking at art, and doing so generated questions. Those questions get back to the artist, the audience, and the subject itself. What else is art supposed to do except create that kind of discussion? By having multiple philosophies and not just labeling everything as good or bad, we can generate deeper conversations about video games themselves.

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