...nothing pisses a person off more than being shoved into the wrong pigeonhole. -- Pam Davis, House M.D., "It's A Wonderful Lie"
The terms the gaming media uses for everyone who isn't a multi-player FPS gamer leave a lot to be desired. I know it's a hard thing to figure out, but we have got to come up with a taxonomy of gaming that doesn't imply a hierarchy of experience and motivation.
Gamers and the game media all over use the term "casual" to describe just about anything that's not an online FPS. Puzzle games on every platform, platformers, and most lower-ESRB-rating adventure games all get tarred with that same brush. It riddles every discussion of kid's games. It's a real misnomer on every level; there's nothing casual about a kid playing games. He just has a different set of parameters than you do, and within those parameters he's just as picky and obsessed as the very 'leet-est. And if you want to experience some laser-pointed intensity, try Wii Bowling with the little old ladies in the assisted living complex down my street.
I know that part of the reason this rankles so much is because of my own play style. Take a favorite whipping boy for an example: Halo. Unlike many players, I'm not there to count some sort of digital coup on an aetherial representation of a friend/acquaintance/pubtard smack-monkey. I'm not there to shoot my fellow Spartans. It really bugs me in the multiplayer modes; especially when they're representations of my children or my friends.
So why do I play the game? I'm there to thrash my way through the trash until I get to the Prophets themselves and then beat them bloody until they go back on their self-genocidal pilgrimage to oblivion and leave my people the frak alone with their planets and the various other things that the Progenitors put on a high shelf so they couldn't touch them. Then their various subject races can make their own way and we'll deal with them on an individual basis.
Cooperative mode is where it's at for me; I love working with my peeps to achieve the goals. But even then, odds are it'll be offline because I've got hot-and-cold running wingmen at my house. I'll be very frank and admit that my first play-through of a new game is always an Easy run to unlock all the cinematics and see the story. Because of my approach to the game, I'm not considered "hardcore."
Getting beyond the hardcore/casual dichotomy isn't as much help as one would hope. Mitch Krpata, for example, has sorted gamers into several categories. If you read the whole series, he has some interesting ideas here. I really like the underpinnings of how he broke it out. But by his taxonomy's definition my gaming style is referred to as "tourist", and that's where the terms start to grate on my nerves.
The word "tourist" implies a lack of seriousness and carries connotations that the story-driven experience is more superficial than the min-maxing skill player or completionist types he sets it against. Ask anyone who ever grew up in a place where tourists are known to gather how they feel about it. In the town I grew up in, everyone referred to them as "tourons" (an awkward but usually accurate portmanteau of tourist and moron).
There are about as many definitions of "hardcore" gamers as there are people speaking, but no matter where you look it boils down to kill-counts in online multiplayer FPS in whatever the latest M-rated, Super Blood-soaked Smashum that's sloshing around in the foam at the top of the hype-ocean. But if you analyze the common markers that are used to discuss how "hardcore" a gamer is, you'll see that they are not the sole purview of "hardcore" titles:
- Cash on the Barrel-head: Those matchlist players haven't spent any more than I have. I am deadly earnest when I say I want the Prophets to die in a fire, and I have invested over $250 dollars in this effort over the years. I will be investing more next year when Halo: Reach comes out. I have just as much cash investment in their simulated deaths as any pubtard smack-monkey "perfectionist" has in humping my digital carcass.
- Focused Resources: It's not just any particular game. If you want to count pound-for-pound all the gaming paraphernalia in my house, I come in way above the average soi disant hardcore gamer. If you play games my way, you have to have this much stuff. There's no fanboy allegiance to limit my appetite for game hardware; I have to have all the platforms and all the dreck to support them to play the wide range of games I enjoy. And this comes with attendant investments in living space focused on them. But even a single-genre type will often surprise you with the amount of attention they pay it. I bet your niece with the Wii saves her allowance just as avidly as her FPS-focused brother. There are a bunch of someones out there somewhere who bought those cheerleader pom-pom 'Mote attachments used to play Wii Cheer and it damned skippy ain't me.
- Time: All gamers invest the time they have to the degree they're willing/able to work their life around it. Your hardcore FPS gamer invests their gaming time online blowing up their college buddies punctuated by 10-hour single-player chunks. Great. I spent all the gaming time I have for the last month or so working on being able to sing and play bass at the same time on Expert difficulty in The Beatles: Rock Band. A game of Bookworm Adventures literally takes me hours even on the free online version, due to the fact that I'm more than a bit over-educated. And don't even get me started on how many hours my JRPG fetish has cost me over the years.
- Game Type: Just because a game does not involve directly killing folk doesn't mean it's not intensely contested. Just because there's no kill count to measure by doesn't mean the effort isn't there. You count it in things like the missed homework assignments and lowered grades that accompanied my daughters on their all-consuming, three week long quest to take out Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts II. (At least it did until I found out about it and put some limits on it.)
- Demographics: Every year the age-range of gamers gets wider as the original gamers grow older but don't lay down the hobby and their children and grandchildren join in. And everyone gets into their game, whatever it is. Just watch a kid who is whacking away at a digital representation of his best friend in a hotly contested Wii Sports Resort Kendo match, or his mother who just got the word "euclidean" in Bookworm Adventures II and called her best friend to crow about it. Or for that matter, my daughter smashing her newly-minted husband out of the ring in Soul Caliber IV.
- Powering Through to the Goal: Again, kill-counts aren't the only way to measure skills. When he was younger, my son invested I-don't-even-want-to-think-about-how-many hours in tuning his cars in Need For Speed: Carbon to the point that several of them have enough torque to do a standing kick-flip. This requires a Lifeless Goob level of knowledge of the game and it's metaphors for car configuration, hours and hours of racing and completing missions to get the in-game cash for the upgrades, and way way WAY too many hours playing Tony Hawk Pro-Skater to provide the initial motivation.
As someone who almost never plays online FPS (and if I do I never play with strangers), who has spent more time in Bejeweled than in Half Life, who revels in turgid JRPG's and adventure/platform gaming in between my sneaking and shooting and bouts of stomping around the landscape in a giant robot, I usually fit some other category--the one that always seems to end up being referred to by a dismissive term.
Games matter to me just as much as they do any frothing forum-dweller or pubtard. I'm not casual about it. I'm not a tourist just dancing around. And I don't think we're going to get the gaming digeratti to truly take alternative approaches to gaming seriously in their decision-making until we come up with a nomenclature that doesn't imply that we're less important.