Freelance writer and tabletop game designer David A. Hill has recently expressed his feelings about the artificial divide between 'hardcore' and 'casual' game(r)s. I pretty much agree with every word in there, so this series of articles assumes you're both familiar with the concepts (however vague they are) and with David's point of view.
For those too lazy to follow the link, here's a quick summary: the gamer community – and even part of the gaming industry – has adopted the concept of 'hardcore' gamer in opposition to 'casual' ones and extended this whole division to games being produced… But in the end no one really knows what it means to be 'hardcore'. Is it about time spent playing, graphical violence, challenging gameplay or what? In practice, the concept is whatever someone wants it to be, and it's used pretty much as an excuse to bash any game geared towards children, women, older people etc. – in short, anyone who's not a male, young adult conforming to certain gamer stereotypes. It's an extremely elitist position that would seriously damage the video gaming hobby if followed to the letter by the whole of the industry.
That established, I wanted to add a few things to David's post, hence this series of articles. For starters, there are more indications to why this whole 'hardcore' idea is stupid, even if everyone could suddenly settle on one precise definition of what a 'hardcore' game(r) is. After that, we can consider the consequences of all this stupidity – he's mentioned how big releases made for a wider audience fuel more risky, niche projects, but is that all? Well, first things first. Today, we start the series with a simple proposition: all this isn't really new.
Wake-up Call #1: There's nothing new under the sun
If you hear/read someone ranting about how we need more 'hardcore' games nowadays, chances are someone's talking about the Wii console. This includes Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 owners dissing the less-powerful hardware from Nintendo and pointing out how it is 'for children and family games', and Wii owners themselves complaining that the console doesn't get enough 'hardcore' games for their tastes.
I could dispute the latter all day, but that's not the point right now. The really laughable part in these arguments is the notion that 'casual' gaming only entered the market (or became a major factor) four or five years ago with the Wii's introduction. Wake up: it's actually older than many gamers who insist on all this 'hardcore' talk. (Which actually adds up to David's point about how 'hardcore' actually stands to 'games aimed at a very specific demographic of young, white, nerdy men': most are too young to have seen things like the NES or old arcades about 25 years ago.)
While everyone looks to the Wii as the console that seemed to break into every household thanks to its 'social' games driven by motion controllers, the fact is that until very recently it still wasn't the biggest-selling home gaming console released by Nintendo, even after four years in the market. That honor was reserved to the NES, which was released in 1985. That's right, nineteen-Back-to-the-Future-eighty-five.
Now think about it for a second. We all know that the gaming industry these days is almost as big as Hollywood. That is, it's ten times (if not more) the industry it was 25 years ago. How come the NES sold so well at that era then? Anyone can answer that? You in the back, you can speak up. Oh, exactly: there are a lot of factors, but mostly, the NES achieved that feat because the console was marketed at everyone, not just those already addicted/used to gaming. (Here, have a cookie.) It even featured 'alternate' controllers, such as a lightgun - which, at the time, was aimed (pun intended) at new audiences, not only those crazy people who could speedrun Metroid in less than 30 minutes.
Some of you who did pay attention to game history are probably thinking... 'Of course it sold that well, it had no real competitors for about a couple of years'! And you'd be right. But still, this also means that at the time Nintendo basically was one of the very few companies which really believed in the potential of video games. No sign of Sony and Microsoft then. Why do you think that was so? Because they weren't sure there was profit to be made on it. Once the NES and its successors (and later competitors, especially from Sega) proved there was high money to be made on consoles, they jumped aboard.
That is, if you're in love with your PS3 and your Xbox, your 'hardcore gaming' is only possible today because Nintendo cared to bring video gaming to a bigger audience to begin with. Otherwise, you'd be playing 8-bit games to this very day. (This may sound cool, but let's be honest, it's better to have options.)
The notion that 'casual' gaming is a recent phenomenon would be amusing if it wasn't tragically dumb. The industry has always thrived on bringing new people to the world of staring-at-a-TV-while-smashing-buttons (or waving a remote, it doesn't really matter), and this hasn't changed a bit. Sure, there's some difference in scale - and even then, not by as much as one would think if one takes NES sales into consideration. The only thing that's really new is the arrogance of teenagers (in age or brain activity) who think they're special because they can kill your character 1,000 times per second in a multiplayer first-person shooter – not to mention the fact that now they have a worldwide board to boast their 'accomplishments' (you may have heard of it, it's called the Internet).
Other funny thing is that the kind of 'hardcore' gamer who measures his status in time spent playing (and equivalent 'accomplishments') used to thrive in the arcade era, not to complain about those 'other people'. Lots of people played arcades only occasionally (just check any 80's teenage/college movie), but most players were kids, and in that scenario those who mastered a certain game usually took the role of wise kings of sorts. They brought people into the hobby, showing the ropes to newcomers and making them spend more money on the whole thing.
How's that changed? Again, it didn't really change. Most people who play games often don't really care about how 'hardcore' they are. It just seems like so, and for a very simple reason: the Internet lets very vocal people seem more representative of something than they really are, and it makes spreading false assumptions all too easy. But that's a matter for the next article in the series: the so-called 'hardcore gaming' community is way smaller than it think it is. Save your game and wait for the next chapter!