Biblical Literalists Can't Have It Both Ways

Game Literacy

Hc_longtail What is the distinction between a Hardcore gamer and a Casual gamer? Are these distinctions still useful to us? Is it valuable to define a third state in between? And what, if anything, can we learn from this terminology?

For many years now, and with origins cloaked in mystery, the crudest audience model has persisted as the one most commonly used – namely the split of players into Hardcore gamers and Casual gamers. It is probably the simple nature of this dichotomy that has allowed it to spread, as humans take to ‘us and them’ distinctions rather too easily. Marcus of Verse Studios suggests that the focus on these terms is entirely misleading, and we should just concentrate on making games that are fun. I admire the sentiment – as long as we remember that one person’s fun can be another person’s horror.

When my company began the research into the gaming audience that produced the DGD1 model, we were investigating a particular hypothesis: that those people who constituted the majority of so-called Hardcore gamers belonged to a particular psychological mindset, denoted in Myers-Briggs typology by I_TJ –Introverted, Thinking and Judging. In effect, we expected Hardcore gamers to show to be people who kept themselves to themselves, favoured pragmatism over affiliation, and who displayed obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

To conduct the research, we had to decide how to determine if someone could be considered a Hardcore gamer, and to do this we used to methods: firstly self-selection. Players were asked to answer if they considered themselves a Hardcore player, a Casual player or didn’t know. Secondly, we enquired after how much time was spent playing games, and how many different games were purchased and played. As it happened, all of these methods proved to be broadly equivalent: there is significant statistical overlap between players who self-identify as Hardcore (sometimes reluctantly!), players who spend a lot of time each week playing games, and players who buy and play a lot of games. We shouldn’t be entirely surprised! 

The hypothesis behind our research was largely disproved. Although it was validated that Hardcore players were more Introverted (in Myers-Briggs terms) than non-Hardcore players, the presumed Thinking and Judging preferences turned out to be indicative of a pattern of play independent of Hardcore status, however determined. In fact, Intuitive bias (i.e. preference for abstract thinking) turned out to be a better indicator of Hardcore status. This discovery completely changed the way I thought about the gaming audience, and lead to the development of our research into the many different play styles that exist as an entirely separate issue to Hardcore or Casual status.

(More on the subject of this research can be found in our book 21st Century Game Design).

It is important to understand that while this research showed that Hardcore players (both in terms of self-identification, and commitment of time) were predominantly Introverted and Intuitive (in Myers-Briggs terms), neither of these factors are necessarily reliable indicators of a Hardcore player. In particular, there are people who express both traits but have no interest in videogames at all!

So what do we mean when we talk about a “Hardcore player?” Putting aside the subtle and confusing shades that this term has acquired, at heart we mean a player who spends a lot of time playing videogames. I have suggested a better term for such a player is a gamer hobbyist, someone who pursues videogames in the manner of a hobby, rather than as a distraction and diversion. This term is more descriptive than “Hardcore”, and comes without the baggage the old term has acquired. 

Is a “Casual player” then someone who doesn’t spend much time playing videogames? Well, as it happens there are many players who do not self-identify as “Hardcore players” and who do not buy and play many games who still rack up a lot of hours playing games. They play the same games over and over again (especially games such as Tetris and Solitaire).

I therefore suggest that if we are to rescue the crude “Hardcore versus Casual” partition and make something more worthwhile of it, we should consider the underlying distinction to be game literacy. By this, I mean the individual’s familiarity with the conventions of videogames, and thus by extension their ability to pick up and play new games with little or no instruction. 

It will probably not have escaped notice that videogames evolve along quite channelled lines – that is, genres within videogames show many marked similarities. The potential deviation between one first person shooter and another is vast, yet most have a lot in common. Similarly for real time strategy or for almost any well-established genre. This is inevitable: the audience likes to buy games that are similar to the games they have enjoyed in the past (and the games industry, as an employer of gamer hobbyists, likes to make games similar to the games they enjoyed in the past). The inevitable consequence of this dependency is “genre conventions”. They may be bent, twisted and and eventually superseded, but each game genre has it’s own habitual tenets, and game literacy represents in part a player’s ability to interpret a new game in the context of their prior experience of these conventions.

The “Hardcore gamer” or gamer hobbyist therefore represents a player with high videogame literacy. Such a player can play any and all games they choose – they have the requisite knowledge to do so although the actual games they enjoy will vary from person to person. They require little or no tutorial for a game that fits into their existing experience comfortably – perhaps just an explanation of how the conventions of the new game differ from their expectations. A typical gamer hobbyist will have acquired between 15 and 50 man months of experience playing games, and will also have played 20 to 100 different games in that time. (Note that when I say ‘man month’, I mean a month of continuous play time totalled up). 

The “Casual gamer” therefore becomes the player with low or limited gamer literacy. This is an explanation for the simplicity of successful Casual games like Zuma, Bejewelled, Bookworm and Solitaire – to succeed in an audience with low gamer literacy, one must make games that do not require this domain-specific knowledge. Thus a successful Casual game draws from experiences familiar to people from outside of videogames – accuracy (for Zuma), logic puzzles (for Bejewelled), word puzzles (for Bookworm) and card games (for Solitaire). Equally, a successful Casual game requires the player to learn only two or three rules. Thus, the barrier to entry is lowered.

I prefer to term the Casual gamers as the mass market, in keeping with the usual terms used in business. After all, that’s what we’re talking about here: the largest group of consumers, those who lie under the long tail of a particular industry – that’s the mass market, and that’s what I believe we are usually talking about when we talk about Casual gamers.

But of course, what we are talking about here is a continuum: from the spike of the gamer hobbyists, the most game literate, to the tail of the mass market, the least game literate. “Hardcore”, as previously used, refers to that spike, and “Casual” refers to the tail.  (See the diagram above for a visualisation of the distinction between the 'head' of the market the gamer hobbyists and the 'long tail' the mass market players.)

Of course, being a continuum we can break it up in many different ways. We could split it into three, as Jenova Chen and That Game Company did by defining “Core” as a midpoint or intersection between the two extremes, or we could split it into any other number of segments – say, a sevenfold division into (say) hardcore, hobbyist, experienced, core, inexperienced, casual, mass market – but what would be the point in doing so? We know we are dealing with a continuum, the clearest way to denote such a phenomena is to label the poles (hobbyist and mass market, or Hardcore and Casual) and remember that the majority of people fall between the extremes. That said, render whatever models help you make your games – a model is just a model, after all.

As my company gets ready to launch its new research into the gaming audience (the long delayed DGD2 survey), the issue of Hardcore versus Casual has slipped into obscurity for us. We will be exploring issues of game literacy instead – although we are still including the self-assessment question from DGD1 so that we can compare game literacy to self-assessment. But even this is a tangential element of the research we are conducting this time. The survey will go live in two weeks time, just in time for me to promote it at the Austin Game Developer’s Conference.

Thinking of the issue of “Hardcore and Casual” games in terms of gamer literacy adds clarity to the nature of the situation, and allows us to reason about how to proceed. Those games that used to be the centre of the marketplace are increasingly becoming niche markets for gamer hobbyists, while some – sometimes against all odds – have transitioned to the edge of the mass market (World of Warcraft and GTA being only the two most well known examples). 

This gives game designers a choice in how they approach their games: they can target the gamer hobbyist side of the audience, in which case the game either needs to be developed on a prudent budget or be lucky enough to be supported by a platform licensor (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo) as a possible driver for early adoption or brand loyalty, as the audience will primarily be a minority (albeit a minority currently responsible for a significant share of expenditure on videogames). Or, they can target the “long tail” with simple games that do not require much if any gamer literacy to play. Or they can work in the space with the greatest potential for both profit and failure – the elusive middle ground between the two extremes. There is success to be found here, but it requires careful consideration of how the games will support players with low game literacy, intelligent structuring, and more than a modicum of luck.

It's possible (even probable) that the genres beloved by hobbyists can support commercially viable niche markets, and we will see a widening of the gap between such players and the mass market. It is perhaps more likely that the mainstream videogames of the future will need to learn how to balance the needs of the game literate player against the mass market players with little prior gaming experience in order to maintain commercial viability.  But the problems to solve in this journey – riddles of difficulty and related issues in game modes to name just two – ensure that the field of game design still has much to learn about how to take videogames forward into the twenty first century.


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Excellent post, Chris. Simply excellent.

Corvus is right, this is a wonderful summary of your current thoughts on the matter. I'll be pointing people to this post as an entry point to the world of OAG :)

Nice post. I've written a bit on the subject as well (second post has more content, first is an introduction):

Hardcore vs. Casual
More on Gamer Literacy

I think that, if I use your (excellent) terminology, my entire round table post can be summed up in one sentence:

Bridging the gap between "hardcore" and "casual" gamers means designing a game that makes genre conventions readily available to gamers who are not "game literate."

Oh, how my thoughts seem small. Great post.

Hi Chris

Some very good points.

I wonder if those who fit into the game literate category are the same ones who when you go down to the beach they say "Hey, why don't we see if we can... " and they create games out of thin air. Or the people who are playing games and say "Why don't we make it that you can't..." and their suggestion makes the game much cooler. People who just have a very intuitive feel for the way games should go.

Does being game literate better enable you to find games in any situation?

And thanks for posting over at the Kryptonite Cafe.


Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I didn't feel I was doing much in this post, but it's always nice to write something that's appreciated. :)

Darius: thanks for the links! The first of those is incredibly short! I never manage to get my posts so short... what's your secret?

Jason: why should your thoughts feel small because they can be delivered concisely? I will take concise over verbose given the chance! ;)

James: I don't believe game literacy correlates with game design skills, which is what you are alluding to here. The inveterate game designer, such as myself, can make a game out of anything. Such people in my experience have a very specific psychological make up - principally INTP or INTJ in Myers-Briggs (Rational temperament in general), although not all INTP's and INTJ's are game designers. There's something else required - possibly some childhood event that awakens the mind to the possibilities of play.

Best wishes!

Really good post, indeed. The best thing I found about it is that it puts videogame market analysis on much more similar terms with other art / entertainment fields. And that is quite a big deal, actually.

Nice post. Very clear. And optimistic.

I'm not sure, though, if I agree with your mapping of hobbyist-mass market onto the Long Tail graph. As far as I understand it, the Long Tail represents the opposite: the mass market is situated in the slim peak (where the hits are made) and the hobbyists are scattered over the long tail (each with his or her own little fetish or preference).

Perhaps you are predicting the seemingly inevitable future where hardcore FPS and RPG games become niche products that only appeal a small groups of dedicated players. But at the moment with blockbusters like Gears/God of War and the like, hardcore still seems to equal mass market when it comes to games.

"Thus a successful Casual game draws from experiences familiar to people from outside of videogames"

I must note a point I haven't seen you (or other developer/designers) bring up - though this likely bespeaks my insufficient reading. The quote above is so true - people need a degree of familiarity in their experiences in order connect with a new experience. The cognitive (and neurologically proven) reasons abound, and are quite clear intuitively.
So here's the point - games can transcend their genre conventions within the marketplace by speaking to socially relevant experience. This is GTA. Not many people of my acquaintance have carjacked anyone (tho I do live in Norn Ireland, so I can't be certain) - but as we toured San Francisco last June, everyone was constantly saying - "OMG, we're in San Andreas!". I drove on to Death Valley, and even there I saw bit of that game in the landscape. Its uncanny how much that connects you with the rather non-visceral experience of playing a computer game.
So maybe more games should be set in our backyards? (to use the americanism). Toy shops are full of plastic cows and tractors. Maybe the games industry could use less fantasy?

Michael: you bring attention to something that I hoped to brush under the carpet, but since it's out here's the commentary... :)

In other industries, the mass market channel makes the centre spike, and the niche markets cascade from this central channel. In videogames at the moment, this isn't quite what happens.

The central channel of the games industry is a bizarre crossover between game hobbyists and part of the mass market (predominantly male and young) - it's games primarily concerned with cars, guns and sports, frankly. But we're still dealing with a relatively narrow audience in terms of their numbers. 5 million units seems to be the cap for a game targeting the centre of the channel, and 3 million is more common - games just like the two you mention Gears/God of War. (The audience as a whole is perhaps closer to 100 million, so we're talking about a small number of people buying these games we claim are "big hits").

Ah, but then you step outside of this paradigm and you find the big sellers... The Sims with its 10 million plus; GTA San Andreas with its 16 million; or even Tetris with its 33 million... These sales come slowly, not rapidly like the head of the retail channel - but they come and they come steadily. They belong in the tail, but in a tail that by its sheer size and volume can outstrip the sales at the head of the market.

(Like other industries, the sales from the head happen quite rapidly; gamer hobbyist games that sell quickly may chart highly for 1-2 weeks. Mass market games like, for instance, Simpsons Hit & Run, sell steadily and are in the charts for the better part of a year!)

In other words, the videogames industry is not quite like other industries, as the hobbyists still control the head of the market. This is not surprising, as the people who make games - the game developers and publishers - are also gamer hobbyists. So they develop a market that serves them.

I think I'm correct in saying the head of the market for videogames is primarily composed of gamer hobbyists and those Casual players with sufficient game literacy to tag along for the ride (and make up the numbers). But out in that tail lie untold markets with great potential.

Perhaps in the future the mass market can move in and take over the spike, and then we will become like other industries. This, perhaps, is what the hardcore players fear is happening now. But for now, the sheer expenditure of the hobbyist is what allows all those obvious games to thrive - because they buy many games a year, and they buy all the big and obvious titles.

The mass market player, on the other hand, waits for just the right game to come along.

There's more I could say on this - like how certain genres (say, Adventure Games) used to be the head of the market, but as 3D came in they lost the head to the FPS games, and therefore fell back into the long tail.

So there are niche markets in the long tail - they are the remnants of previous markets that once lived at the head of the market.

We are still a young industry. We have a long way to go.

Thanks for forcing this into the open, and best wishes!

zenBen: "Maybe the games industry could use less fantasy"

Certainly, if your target is the mass market, less fantasy is the way to go. I mentioned in this piece how Intuitive by Myers-Briggs was a trait that correlated with Hardcore self-identification; well those with an Intuitive bias are those who enjoy sci fi and fantasy settings. Those with the converse Sensing bias may watch the odd sci fi and fantasy film, say, but they have little interest in it. Real life is where it's at for such people.

So if we are going to transition to a mature industry, we need to be making less fantastical games.

This is unfortunate for me personally, as I have a strong Intuitive bias and love sci fi and fantasy. But then, I am not in doubt that games of this kind will always be made, as the makers of games are also the players of games. But in terms of new games targeting a wider audience, we do indeed need to look to the more familiar.

Best wishes!

Chris, as usual, your post for the BotRT is fantastic. I love the idea of conceptualizing the market space in terms of literacy. One of the big beef's I have with Hardcore/Casual is that the definitions don't allow any room to bring people over the line. Looking at it as a literacy, or education/understanding, issue opens up doors for educating the market place and expanding that long tail you mentioned.

On a completely side note: the more I think about it, the more I find the idea of complex games being less fun. Game Hobbiests love complex games, as do developers. We seem to have trapped ourselves in a headspace that equates complexity with fun...

Anyhow, random though, awesome post.

Marcus: thanks for the comment! Complexity in games leads to a certain kind of enjoyment for those who enjoy working out how to optimally employ complex systems. In terms of Temperament theory, this is the application of Strategic skills - not coincidentally, the skills essential to the job of game designer. Small wonder the industry has been hung up on complex games!

These kind of games will always be made by some people, but if we want the games industry to grow up, we have to be willing to acknowledge a need for games which generate play from simple elements. I believe this is already happening. It helps that as gamer hobbyists grow up, they find they have neither the time nor the inclination for the complex games that used to rivet them in their use. This, perhaps, is the backdoor to more playful games.

Best wishes!

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