by Benjamin Fitzgerald
Have you ever sat at your computer, bored into a stupor, only to find yourself engrossed in Minesweeper half an hour later? Or have you ever wandered into a nickel arcade, found an old Pac-Man machine and gone crazy? If you have, I hate to break it to you: you’re a casual gamer.
All right – that was a low blow. Playing a casual game here and there doesn’t make you a casual gamer. If it did, I’d have to stone myself for all the hours I’ve played Space Pinball on my old Windows Vista. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break from Silent Hill and catching a breather with some lighthearted fare, or indulging in some casual entertainment after a stressful day.
There are no sure-fire rules to define a casual game, as they come in a broad range of genres. However, there are certain things these games tend to have in common. Most casual games have simple gameplay, are easy to learn, are not encumbered with a lot of rules, frequently exist without a plot and are typically intended for quick playing.
Some of the best known games ever made are casual games, including the aforementioned Minesweeper as well as Pac-Man, Tetris, Snake, Space Invaders, Solitaire and the wildly successful Angry Birds, which in its many incarnations has racked up over 3,000,000,000 downloads.1 Pac-Man, one of the earliest arcade games, is the most-played video game in history. A 2005 article commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pac-Man explained that, according to research conducted in the late 1990s, the Pac-Man arcade machines been played an estimated 10,000,000,000 times. It was estimated that the arcade machines had generated $100,000,000 in revenue, not adjusted for inflation.2
That was a long time ago, of course. Technological advances have dramatically changed the world of video games since Pac-Man’s debut in 1980. However, the appeal of casual gaming has not diminished. In 2011, the casual gaming giant PopCap, best known for their Zuma, Peggle, Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies series of games, was purchased by Electronic Arts in a deal that was worth a whopping $1,300,000,000, including $650,000,000 in outright cash.3 Game developers don’t throw around that kind of money carelessly; this means that PopCap has been very successful. As just one example, the evergreen arcade game Peggle has been downloaded in demo form over 50,000,000 times.4 The total number of paid purchases is certainly much smaller, but even if only 1 in 50 people who downloaded the demo decided to unlock the full version, this would still amount to some $5,000,000 in sales. That’s pretty impressive.
Then there’s the Wii. The Wii was an entire next-gen console designed primarily with more casual, family-friendly fare in mind. While it’s certainly inaccurate to say that all the games released for this console have been casual games, the Wii definitely caters to family-friendly gameplay more than the Xbox or PlayStation consoles, where seemingly every new title has an M-rating. Wii Sports, Wii Play – what are those but casual gaming monoliths? Not only are they casual, they’re ridiculously fun.
Interestingly enough, there is some evidence to suggest that playing casual games can actually have moderate health benefits – namely, reduced stress and depression. A study conducted by the East Carolina University indicated that casual games made by PopCap and other companies can significantly reduce stress – by as much as 500% – and may even help to reduce depression.5 The case study only included 143 participants, so there is definitely a margin of error in the results, but this points to one of the reasons so many people play casual games: stress relief. I know that I feel a lot better after a couple hours of Peggle. When you consider that the primary demographic for casual games – nearly 75% – are women, many of whom are working mothers, the appeal becomes even clearer.6
Casual gaming is huge, it has an enormous market and it accounts for some of the greatest games of all time, from Pac-Man to Space Invaders. There are an insane number of casual games in the market. The development of Java- and Flash-based web games in the 1990s led to a surge of casual gaming, and the industry continues to skyrocket into the 21st century.
But…does the world really need more casual games? Well, unless it’s Peggle 2, I’m inclined to say no. I mean, for every really good casual game out there – and there are some that are really good – there are a dozen casual games that are not that good.7 There are a lot of very mediocre, uninspired and simply uninteresting titles. Many of these are time management games. I had to play some time management games to write guides for a particular company. There’s nothing wrong with the genre, but the game play is often too simplistic. The repetitive nature of the games can make an initially enjoyable experience tedious after a while.
The worst offenders in the world of casual games, however, are hidden object games. A hidden object game is a point-and-click adventure that has been stripped of everything but the pixel hunting; they are about as enjoyable as a root canal from a gleeful dentist. Boring and uninspired gameplay is buoyed by the awful pretense of a plot they try to choke down. Unfortunately, hidden object games are made by the bucketful – Steam has no less than 182 titles in this particularly woeful genre.8 Sounds like a great way to waste $1500 to me.
Casual games have their niche, to be sure. That brand new Xbox One isn’t going to be of much use to you on a car ride from Tucson to Tulsa, but having Tetris installed on your Android could sure come in handy. Casual games are also perfect for those times when you only have a few minutes and don’t want to get bogged down in a serious game. What you don’t get with casual games, on the other hand, are immersive characters, deep storylines or shocking plot twists. You will often not find a lot to truly challenge your skills either – Zuma’s Revenge was a lot of fun, but I beat the whole game in a single afternoon. Remember: you can be a serious gamer and still have the occasional time-waster in your Steam library, but if you own the PopCap Complete Pack, you might want to check your street cred at the door.
- As estimated by Professor Benjamin Fitzgerald, who currently teaches philosophy at the Peggle Institute