Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Casually Excluded: Are casual games really video games?

Explaining video games to non-gamers can, at times, be a difficult task. While the notion of escapism is present in many other forms of entertainment, I think that games are less relatable than other mediums in that many people have had only minimum exposure to them. Unlike, for example, reading, which many people engage in on a daily basis even if not for pleasure, games generally only serve as entertainment and are only accessed as such. Exacerbating this is that, for many non-gamers, the limited contact they do have with video games is limited to so-called 'casual games'. A common utterance in gaming circles is that 'casual games aren't games' and today I aim to unpack this statement.

Just a taste...
Before exploring this statement, I think it might be useful to briefly frame what most people mean by 'casual game'. As the discussion below will hopefully make clear, I think the easiest way to do this is to provide general examples as opposed to any strict definition. When speaking of casual games we are usually speaking of browser-games such as Farmville and Candy Crush Saga. Beyond this, casual games often encompass cell-phone games such as Angry Birds or Fun With Words. Generally speaking, casual games are designed to be played in short play sessions, with minimal hardware, and feature simple mechanics.

What is a 'video game'?
In order to determine if casual games actually deserve to be classified as video games it will probably be helpful to understand what is actually meant by the term 'video game'. Most standard dictionary definitions play out similar to this poetic gem of a Google result: "A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or display". I think few would disagree with this definition but it comes off as awfully cold. Most gamers are barely even cognizant that they are 'manipulating images' in the same way that most readers are unaware of the individual letters making up words. Indeed, when one is reading for pleasure the images and thoughts in their head are not literally of the words they are reading just as a gamer is not thinking about the electronic signals being sent from controller being translated on the screen. To further this point, consider the dictionary definition of art: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination". One cannot help but feel that, while technically correct, this definition is leaving something out about the emotional and cultural import that art conveys. Along these lines, I think the dictionary definition of video games, while serviceable, leaves out the element of connection that the player feels with a game as they are playing.

My (non)definition
So what does it mean to actually qualify as a video game? Unfortunately, I cannot produce a clear black and white definition and I ultimately consider it to be a subjective matter. I think another comparison to art can serve well here. Some works are universally regarded as masterpieces and unequivocally 'count' as art. But for every Mona Lisa there is also someone taking a picture of their nail clippings and demanding it to be considered art. Not to belabour the point on the standard of taste, a topic for a philosophical discussion on aesthetics, I will take it for granted that, at a given point on the gradation between the Mona Lisa and nail clippings, that the work has ceased to be art and where that line is drawn is a subjective matter. As such, I think that the statement that 'casual games aren't games' is invalid against the dictionary definition of games but may hold up to a more encompassing/realistic definition based on individual tastes.

But why exclude casual games?
Nonetheless, I still find myself puzzled by people suggesting that casual games ought not be considered video games. What triggers a subjective judgement to draw the line at this point? Certainly, casual games are almost universally 'bad' games in that they generally boast sub par graphics, basic controls, and offer a minimum of escapism. (While I recognize that these are all further subjective qualities, I think that few gamers would argue these points and I feel that I am in the overwhelming majority with these judgments.) But, a 'bad' game is still a game all the same. There are plenty of examples of terrible games that don't fit the casual moniker but aren't seriously discounted as video games. Along similar lines, I think you can reject numerous other potential reasons to not consider casual games as video games: there are plenty of games that are confined to mobile platforms and Facebook; there are plenty of games that fail to create robust worlds; and, there are plenty of games that simply aren't fun. I don't think that any of these reasons provide adequate justification to remove casual games from the broader category of video games. Perhaps, there isn't a single valid reason which makes sense to reject casual games as video games in the same way that explaining taste in music and art can be nigh impossible to explain. As such, it is just accepted that some people don't agree on matters of taste which includes the discussion on what counts as a video game.

Why include casual games?
While it might be the case that considering casual games as not belonging to the broader spectrum of video games is fully a matter of taste, I offer my justification for why I think they do belong. For me, the massive appeal of casual games means that they must be hitting on something. I think the generally simplistic nature of casual titles is tapping into the building blocks of great video games; casual games manage to distill complex games into their primal elements. A game like Farmville, for example, taps into the human desire to apply organization and order. This is a common feature of much more complex titles ranging from Civilization to World of Warcraft. Further, consider a game like Angry Birds, the player has minimal control with a disproportionately high amount of action unfolding on the screen. In this case, I think it is tapping into a desire to experience wonderment without exerting considerable mental effort. This feature crops up as set piece explosions and quick-time-events in many 'fully-fledged' games. As such, I consider casual games to be the purest distillation of gaming. Complex titles may find innovative ways to put the pieces together and may exhibit a synergy that surpasses the sum of the parts, but this doesn't mean that the simple parts should be discounted (quite the contrary, they should be celebrated). I think it is important to recognize that the simplistic element I am referring to is not the most base block to the makeup of a game; casual games are more akin to a bodily organ than an individual strand of DNA (perhaps an individual graphic or sound effect could be considered a piece of DNA...). Obviously this analogy breaks down in that I feel that casual games are capable of functioning alone where an organ is not. Ultimately, my point is that casual games provide the essential experiences of gaming and are thus warranted consideration as games themselves.

In the end, I must concede that whether one considers a particular piece of software to be a video game or not is ultimately a subjective matter. I have no doubt that my justification to include casual games as video games will fail to convince those who staunchly hold the opposite view. That said, I think the attempt to explore and justify our subjective views is a valuable exercise if for no other reason than to prompt introspection into the beliefs we hold.

  • As an aside, I am quite conscious that the above post came tantalizingly close to a discussion on 'games as art'. This will certainly be a topic to be covered in the near future.