Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: A Casual Revolution by Jesper Juul

“It was important for me to finish the game—I believe that it is important in life, to finish things, no matter what. I like competing with myself, to see development and progress. 'No matter what,' is really the point for me. I googled for solutions and found a cheat code to make Zuma slower. It worked!!! For me, that was even more satisfying than beating the game on its own terms: to modify the game to fit my own limitations and capacities.” --50 year old woman, on discovering the casual game Zuma. Interviewed in A Casual Revolution.
“Look at chess. Why shouldn't video games aspire to [the] same kind of status? Why shouldn't the very best of them aspire to have that kind of impact on the world? A game could be something that is worth devoting your life to, for a player to grow up playing it, to spend their whole life playing it... to make it the centerpiece of their entire life.
“Is that casual? No, but that's what golf is, that's what baseball is, that's what poker is, and those are the games that appeal to a broad audience. So to me, it's foolish to not look at this larger audience. I think wwe should think about this larger audience in historical terms. It's not just about reaching a million soccer moms, it's about making a game that can stand the test of time.” --Frank Lutz, part of the development team of the Facebook game Parking Wars, and a former director at gamelab, interviewed in Casual Revolution.

Right. It's 11:30 pm, I'm still in my office, and time's a-wasting. So let's minimize the amusing anecdotal portion. I am a hardcore gamer. Here, for example, is a short list of games off the top of my head that I know I have spent over a hundred hours on: Mass Effect, Mass Effect II, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Disgaea, and Dragon Warrior VII. I am a casual gamer. I am (or was) a frequent player of casual games such as FreeCell, Minesweeper, Farmville, Mafia Wars, and online Scrabble. So what's the difference between these two identites? Or, alternatively, what's the difference between these two sets of games? Jesper Juul, veteran videogame scholar, aims to find out, in his book A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players.

The book is rather breezy, to the point of being quite short: it runs at 218 pages, but the last 73 pages are appendices detailing the resulting of Juul's interviews. The real meat is the first 152 pages, wherein he outlines his discussion of casual games. The first chapter outlines the basic theory. Videogames are becoming normalized through the proliferation of popular games, which make a point of appealing to a wider audience. In particular, the casual games function through two main means: mimetic games, that focus on approximating controls with real-life equivalents (think the Wii, the Kinect) and downloadable games that focus on flat screen interfaces over fancy 3D graphics. Juul argues that hardcore and casual don't present two choices or even a spectrum, but different stances on a variety of factors that change over time.

Chapter 2 defines what it means to be casual under five categories: type of fiction (happy or disturbing), usability (ease of learning and mastering the interface), interruptibility (how easy it is to put the game down if need be), difficulty, and juiciness (how immediately the game rewards success). Game studies, he argues, needs to pay attention to how the game addresses these elements, but also on the type of players at work (or rather, play). Chapter 3 examines the history of casual games, with a focus on the development of Solitaire, from the 19th century on. Games, Juul argues, have to be considered in terms of four time frames of experience: historic time (history of the game and genre), design time (the background of the designers), player time (the game conventions the player is familiar with) and game-playing time, the time of actually playing the game. Personally, I would have gone with something like "context" over "time," as the latter places a distracting focus on temporality, but it's still a nice consideration.

Chapter 4 looks at downloadable games, with a focus on the 3-tile swap game's evolution. Again, I would have handled this somewhat differently; in my mind, if you want to talk about the history of the downloadable game, you need to start much earlier, with not just Doom and shareware, but also with the original distribution style of the mainframe game. Yes, these games are about as far from casual as you can get, which is why I imagine Juul didn't go there, but that's the point--what changes alter the use of this medium of distribution to change it from a hardcore channel to a casual one? (Easy answer: the Internet, but I suspect there may be more to it.) Anyway, using early tile-based games Tetris and Chain Shot, he identifies four traits for the games: time (whether the game is hectically paced or turn-based strategic); manipulation (whether you manipulate pieces as they fall or after they are in place); completion criteria (matching three or filling a row), and obligatory matches, whether the game lets you make nonmatching moves or not.

The next chapter is on mimetic gaming, with an emphasis on the Wii and the Guitar Hero-type games. He focuses on the Wii, as the first console to use a simplified controller as its main peripheral, and the arcade games, which had a heavy mimetic bent (think racing games shaped like race cars). Chapter 6 is on social meanings and social goals. Essentially, Juul states that gamers in a social setting keep in mind their desire to win, their desire to create an interesting game, and their desire to keep the esteem and goodwill of the other players. (Note that in an online multiplayer game, anonymity makes the last element less of a concern.) Chapter 7 studies Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and The Sims 2, stating that the success of these games is their flexibility in offering goals, but not forcing players to meet them, enabling hardcore and casual play.

Chapter 8 concludes things, suggesting that the casual shift is occurring because of rising costs in game production, the proliferation of PCs, and the aging demographic of players. He also briefly mentions browser-based games, like the facebook apps, and concludes that games becoming normal is good for hardcore and casual folk alike. Three appendices follow: the first show number crunches for who's casual gaming (most interesting part: the people at that particular site tested 93% female, and average age of 41); interviews with players over what brought them to casual games; and interviews with casual game developers.

As you may have guessed by my dissatisfied, almost snide remarks, I wasn't too enamored of this book. A lot of that, to be fair, must be chalked up to my own personal prejudices. As a scholar, I like studying both casual and hardcore games, though the former my focus is more on player discourses than the games themselves, per se. But as a player, I far prefer the hardcore. And I think that may be because of my single player RPG background. I *do* prefer a good story with my game, even if that story presents itself mainly in terms of ambiance, as in Oblivion. As one of the casual designers, Margaret Wallace, admits, the interruptibility of the casual game means it's not really suitable for sustaining a long term narrative, and I find that inherently less interesting. So I have a vested interest in supporting the hardcore (but not the multiplayer FPSes, or the MMOs. See, even in "hardcore," there's distinctions).

And I should say that the interviews are really quite fascinating. Juul sticks to a pretty typical set of questions for the interview subjects, and those questions really illuminate his discussion points for the book proper: whether casual refers to players or games, whether all video games were originally casual games in the 70s, but drifted away from this form, whether there's a distinction between developing games for themselves and developing for a casual audience. The first question question is significant, because it asks designers to choose a side: focus on the game, or focus on the players. Most designers, like Juul himself, answer somewhere in between. The second question is significant, because if the answer is yes, then suddenly you have a different narrative happening. It's not about casual games suddenly appearing now, but a return to the originary form. My favorite answer to this one was also a yes and no; yes, some games were very simple, like Pac-Man, but others were so punishing--and designed to be punishing, to get the maximum quarter drain--that they can't be really defined as casual. And finally, the third question is significant, because it deals with the image of the designer. If the designer designs for themselves, they are still, in some way, auteurs, creating works of art they themselves appreciate. Or, alternatively, they are selfish jerks, ignoring a wide segment of the population. If they design games they wouldn't play themselves, they are more akin to business suits, catering to demographics. Or, alternatively, they are widening games to more than their immediate narrow circle.

I quite liked the interviews; I liked them more, in fact, than the conclusions Juul drew from them in the book proper. I suppose my main problem with the book is that just because its subject is casual gaming, it shouldn't feel like a casual encounter with the subject. And yet, it does. It's too short. 152 pages is almost nothing, especially when you consider the liberal use of large screenshots and diagrams. It's great to see such quality shots, but it doesn't help me shake the feeling that this book is artificially inflated at the cost of cheapening its subject. Take chapter 6, the chapter on social gaming in casual games. It's eight pages long. Eight pages (one of which is a page long cartoon strip Juul reprints) to describe the entirety of the social element of casual games. It seems like there should be more to say on the subject. (But while I remember, that cartoon strip does get points for being incredibly moving, and a great example of social aspects of gaming--see its original slideshow version here, Animal Crossing is Tragic.)

So to wrap up then: Excellent topic, excellent discussion. I'm just left with the feeling that something of greater substance is still waiting to be written on the subject.

Later Days.

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