PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Games

Jesper Juul's New Book 'A Casual Revolution'

Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality.

Easily the biggest revolution in video games this past decade was the explosion of casual games. Between the success of the Wii, Rock Band, and cross-over titles like Puzzle Quest, two once distinct genres and communities are now beginning to find commonality. Jesper Juul’s latest book, The Casual Revolution, outlines the basic design principles of these games, corrects misconceptions about how they work, and makes the argument for designers to break out of their own perspectives. The last third of the book features interviews with casual game fans and the creative directors of some of the most successful games in the field.

Juul outlines two basic categories for a casual game: mimetic interfaces and downloadable casual games. In a mimetic interface, “the physical activity that the player performs mimics the game activity on the screen.” Bowling on the Wii or using a Guitar Hero controller are the prime example because the average person can look at the game and immediately grasp what they’re supposed to do. The other category is a "downloadable casual game", which “are purchased online, can be played in short time bursts, and generally do not require an intimate knowledge of video game history in order to play” (5). A game like Bejeweled or Zuma can be understood quickly, unlike a lot of console titles which consistently presume that the player understands tenets of video game logic like "Go towards the shiny object" or "All bad guys drop ammo." Common assumptions about the casual genre such as all gameplay must be short or that casual players don’t like challenge are untrue. Rather, it’s just that a casual game is very flexible about time commitments and difficulty. Juul writes, “a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment” (10). He uses the example of a game like Scramble, a coin-op game from the 80s. It’s an old game, but the simplicity of the design makes illustrating his point easier. You fly a ship around while bombing enemies, collecting fuel tanks, and seeing how far you can progress. The goals are explicit and only a narrow range of play styles (blow crap up, dodge bullets) will allow you to continue playing. Juul explains, “The problem with goals is that they may force us to optimize our strategy in order to win rather than do something else that we would prefer . . . games without goals or with optional goals are more flexible: they accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting you choose what kind of game you want to play” (138). Examples of this principle in casual games would be Rock Band’s no-fail mode or Bejeweled’s untimed mode for those who just like to play without feeling pressured.

Within these two categories are 5 basic components that make up the way that a person engages with a casual game. First you see the game’s fiction, the content and artwork that might attract you to the product. Then you actually try the game and see how difficult it is to learn to play. Once you learn this, you gauge how well it fits into your own life and its interruptibility. Is it going to be unplayable if you often need to turn the game off randomly? Then you will keep playing if the game has just the right difficulty. Finally, you continue playing if you like overall content, graphics, and juiciness (positive feedback) of the game (30). While all video games feature some form of positive feedback, sometimes to excess, the difference between a hardcore game and a casual game is traditionally that the feedback does not occur inside the game. Juul writes, “Juiciness in casual games generally addresses the player directly. In the Peggle example, the first bonus sign, the “EXTREME FEVER” sign, the rainbow, and the final score tally are all elements in screen space. In film terms, hardcore game design has diegetic juiciness, which is juiciness within the game world, but casual game design is characterized by nondiegetic juiciness, which is juiciness that takes place outside the game world. Hardcore juiciness takes place in the 3-D space of the game; casual juiciness takes place in screen space, but addresses the player in player space” (49).

This is where the necessity for understanding player behavior leads to understanding the appeal of a mimetic interface. Juul describes two ways to approach a game: the player-centric view, in which you interview players and see how they engage with a system and the game-centric view, in which you play yourself and state your own opinions about something. A mimetic interface inherently drags the player out of the game and into the living room. One of the basic tenants of this is that the game can be a lot simpler in terms of design and presentation because the game itself is occurring amongst the players. Mimetic games do four things: use pre-existing knowledge of the player, remain easy to grasp and begin playing, shift the focus to the player space in which game is played instead of the game world, and shift focus to existing social relations in that space (119). Juul writes, “Game designer Chaim Gingold has coined the term magic crayon to describe how taking away possibilities from the player can make it more likely that the player will produce something pleasing. Mimetic interface games are generally such magic crayons: they make it easy for players to experience competence – to play tennis well, to complete a rock song, to perform a choreographed dance” (114). Gestures on the Wiimote can be done sitting on a couch, for example, or by using a Guitar Hero controller, which only means that you can follow along with a song instead of introducing your own musical variations. The satisfaction from doing this comes from the satisfaction of the motions or being with friends, not necessarily the game’s feedback or the challenge alone. In the interviews at the end of the book, the creative director of Relentless Software (creator of Buzz!) puts it this way: “The chance of my video game being able to entertain you and make you laugh more than your friends sitting next to you is slim to none. I am not going to be able to do it because I am not there; I am just a fairly simple computer program that reacts to a set of statistics. But the person sitting next to you knows you, and likes to make fun of you. You’ve got a lot of history together” (178).

Juul follows this up with some data from a survey of 182 voluntary players at a casual gaming portal. The average age of respondents was 41. 93% were female, 2% played at work. 98% play them at home. 35% play several times a day for at least one hour. 14% play for more than 3 hours. 81% said it was very important that a game can be turned off or shut down at any time. 48% said they dislike games that are too hard, 29% said they hated games that were too easy. Only 56% considered casual games to be video games. Most defined video game as something you do on a console (154). There is also a section about the evolution of game design that is mostly recycled material from some of his other lectures and books. Apparently people still like to fight over who invented which game design first, but I never could figure out why anyone would care since game designers steal from each other all the time. Match 3 games phased out of popularity around 2008 to become a niche genre, management titles like Diner Dash stole their thunder, then came hidden object games like Mystery Case Files. Puzzle Quest eventually came along and reinvigorated the formula. Match games are also now considered traditional, meaning that they will appear on your cell phone and pre-installed on many machines (100). There’s also a nice big graph showing the evolution of controllers and how they have been getting more complex over the years and how casual games worked around that problem (106).

The book’s overall theme is that video games are simply learning the same lesson that board game developers learned a long time ago. Parker Brothers, as one of the original founders of board games, made plenty of complex games that took a long time to learn. But to keep sales coming, they had to adapt by making games more attractive with culturally relevant themes like Monopoly that can be understood by anyone within a matter of minutes. (75) Video games, with their increasingly complex controllers and reliance on 20 years of a specific branch of game design, inevitably just painted themselves into a corner. Juul concludes, “The casual revolution is the moment we realized that the primary barrier to playing video games was not technology, but design” (146).

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.