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Game Changers - the significance of casual games

6/24/12 9:30pm
tl;dr

Regardless of whether or not you've ever even touched an iPhone game or the Wii, I can guarantee that the casual gaming movement of the last 6 years has had a positive impact on your personal gaming experience. Don't believe me? Well, lets talk about it...

Editor's Note: I always knew there was an upside to "casual gaming." Thanks for proving me right beyondthestars!

Even if you're an an old-school gamer who remembers cartridges and password saves, I am certain that you've benefited from the explosion of casual games onto the market.

Before I go too far though, I should make clear what I consider to be casual games. They are games that are either meant for quick and painless consumption or games that target a demographic that is traditionally outside of the gaming community.

This means that whether you're someone who only ever touches Bejeweld (but undoubtedly plays it religiously), an 18 year-old CoD and Madden fanatic, or one of those few people out there that actually uses your Wii Fit - if that's the crux of your gaming lifestyle - you're a casual gamer.

We are currently experiencing a shift in the cultural perception of video games. This is very important and very, VERY good for all of us gamers. If we just rewind the clock about 10 years and take a peek into what the climate looked like back then, we'll see a drastic difference in the way that video games are perceived and accepted by the general public. Back then, if you played video games then it was assumed that you were probably some adolescent or angst-ridden teenage boy. If you weren't then you were an anomaly... no doubt a lazy man-child. Then, if you were a girl, well... people's heads would explode because that was something that just wouldn't compute at all. People, not understanding video games, would look on at them from a distance and only see someone sitting in front of a screen for hours on end. To them, video games were the ultimate time and life wasters. Now, don't get me wrong. video games CAN be a colossal waste of time and completely devour a person's life if not kept in check. But you can say that about almost anything. What needed to change was the way that people looked at games and the way that video game culture was perceived by the general public. The only way to really do that was to trick everyone into experiencing the joy of gaming for themselves. How does one accomplish this mighty task? With casual gaming of course!

If you don't know, Nintendo was a huge forerunner for the casual gaming trend back when they first decided to experiment with their blue ocean strategy. The DS and the Wii are fine examples of this. The hook was that these video-game systems were specifically targeted toward non-gamers; a revolutionary idea for its time. When Nintendo first started talking about the Wii, I remember being shocked by something that Shigeru Miyamoto said. He claimed that they didn't consider Nintendo to be in competition with the other hardware developers this time around and (here's the kicker) if people wanted a traditional core gaming experience then he suggested that they should either buy Sony or Microsoft's systems instead.

What?! ...Nintendo was actually suggesting that some people pick up an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3?! Unheard of!

The concept of a blue ocean strategy is the idea that one creates a market around a type of product or service that is currently not in existence. Instead of fighting for market share, you create a new demand in an area that is completely free of activity.

 

But before you go getting your pitchforks and torches and screaming about how Nintendo knowingly and willingly abandoned its loyal fan-base, let me continue to have the floor for just a little bit longer so I can state my case. Nintendo wasn't trying to alienate the gaming community with its push for casual games, it was trying to move the boundaries of what it means to be a video game to a more accessible frontier. They have always been trying to let an industry of interactivity evolve in creative ways and just because they make games that appeal to the casual gamer doesn't mean that they aren't "hardcore" anymore. In fact, this casual gaming idea is as hardcore as it gets. Nintendo's goal was to change the stigma associated towards video games so that the industry could be taken seriously by the general public and truly bloom as a culturally viable and respectable form of entertainment (despite whatever Roger Ebert thinks).

As I have already pointed out, before the Wii, gamers were largely made out to be outcasts and they were presumed to be deserving of that fate. Many were ostracized and ridiculed for playing video games but now, just six years later, there is virtually no longer any negative stigma associated with playing video games any more (relatively speaking). Plus, not only can gamers get dates, I actually know as many girls that play deep and engaging video games as boys. Wii Sports and the like weren't the goal that Nintendo was aiming at but the stepping stone towards a shift in the cultural paradigm. That's one of the reasons that they brought back the 2D Mario games with the New Super Mario Bros. franchise. Those games are ones that a more casual market can get behind. Don't believe me? How many of you have friends who aren't real gamers yet still pull out Super Mario Bros .Wii  while at parties? But, as I said, that was never the end game. Next on the list for Nintendo's clever strategy of non-gamer acclimation was Super Mario 3D Land, a game designed to be a bridge between the Mario games (2D and 3D) and get casual gamers more comfortable (and attracted to) the more hardcore experience of the 3D ones. This is a wise choice since even though Mario 64 is considered a classic, it didn't sell nearly as well as the previous Mario games.

In a recent speech, Shigeru Miyamoto stated that he always uses his wife as a meter of success. As someone who doesn't care for video games at all, the more interest that she shows in a product, the more successful he considers the product to be. Although at first blush that might not mean anything to us gaming enthusiasts, we can't deny the impact that strategy has had on the games that we love to play. He used it for basically every classic game he's ever worked on... Mario, Zelda, the Mario Kart franchise... you name it.

Look at that happy gaming couple! Brings a tear to my eye.

This kind of strategy has spilled over to our everyday lives in significant ways but Nintendo isn't the only one who's been expanding the market. My brothers dropped video games a long time ago and it's been interesting to see how things have changed over time. A few years ago, I would feel like a black sheep in the family whenever the topic of video games came up. If I expressed excitement over a new release, I would often receive condescending looks of embarrassment. Admittedly at best, everything would become very awkward and I had learned to hide that part of me to at least some extent. But something changed and every year they began to act and talk more and more like hardcore gamers themselves. My brothers, like most guys, are largely competitive and they started to partake in the occasional Smash Bros bout or play quick competitive matches of Halo. They loved it for the sense of competition and because matches only lasted a few minutes at a time. Games like those were short and refreshing – the perfect gaming gateway drug. Time would go by and they consumed these short matches like potato chips, one right after the other. But those games started to become stale and feel repetitive. They needed something else. They needed to go online.

It's undeniable that online competition has been a foundation for what we call “gramer” culture. With online gaming finally extending it's reach to consoles in a significant way (sorry Dreamcast), gramers like my brothers were introduced to an exciting world of competition that in many ways felt endless with its opportunities and potential for variety, change, and, above all, interactivity. The way that Microsoft specifically has been able to tame the internet has brought growth to the market in ways that arguably rivals Nintendo's own casual expansion. Although my brothers still didn't feel like they were that “loser” across the hall throwing away hundreds of hours on RPGs and MMOs, they themselves were spending hours upon hours building their stats and climbing arbitrary leader-boards.

Then my brothers both purchased iPhones. Apple's genius marketing tactics had convinced them to dive in and soon they were filling their time with apps... and not the practical ones, mind you... those that were in fact full fledged games hiding once again behind the mask of quick and casual consumption. A year ago, I watched in awe as they spent more time playing games then me and , in fact, it felt like they wouldn't shut up about them. Most recently, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had both purchased and played through Skyrim almost immediately after the game had come out. I haven't even gotten that game yet!

Grame on man! Grame on!

Do you see this transition that's happening? It's not just my brothers, too. It's the entire culture all around us. Movies like Scott Pilgrim and TV episodes like Community's “Digital Estate Planning” are examples of the shift from the gaming community in shows being represented as pizza-faced, pale, undatable shut-ins to a respected emerging subculture. Even Jimmy Fallon openly expresses his love for video games.

There's no denying that the blue ocean strategy as well as Apple's gaming dollar menu and the internet's ability to finally keep up with video games have all made a significant impact on the gaming ecosystem. Just look at the statistics...

As a gamer, whether or not you personally partook in the casual gaming boom that we've seen over these past 6 years, I believe that we should all be gracious and thankful for this blessing that we've received.

We all owe a lot to our casual friends.

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