The problems with the hardcore/casual distinction are evident. The terms may still be useful to us, but for now let's leave them there and explore some other top-level possibilities. In a recent news post, Penny Arcade's Tycho mused on a different dichotomy: "people who play games in order to excel at them, and those who play games as a conduit to fantasy." I'd been thinking of something similar for awhile, but had never written about it because I couldn't think of what to call those groups of people.
The solution hit me while reading Slate's Gaming Club. Seth Schiesel writes:
Couple that with the words of Gabe from Penny Arcade, who said:
Thinking about the twist in BioShock—and the huff that some folks have gotten into over it—brought to mind something Hilmar Petursson, chief executive of the Icelandic game company CCP, told me recently. He was referring specifically to online games, but it illuminates an important component of single-player games as well.
"There are basically two schools of thought for operating an online community," he said. "There is the theme-park approach and the sandbox approach. ... Most games are like Disneyland, for instance, which is a carefully constructed experience where you stand in line to be entertained. [My company focuses] on the sandbox approach where people can decide what they want to do in that particular sandbox, and we very much emphasize and support that kind of emergent behavior."
Tycho talked about the different reasons people play games in his post and I thought it was pretty interesting. It's a conversation we've had before and I think it's something a lot of gamers probably don't think about. I remember it came up while we were both playing Metroid Prime: Corruption. I was talking to him about how I was getting frustrated because some of the boss battles were really giving me a hard time. I realised I don't play games for the challenge. I don't need or want to be punished by a game for making mistakes. I play games for what Ron Gilbert calls "new art". I play to see the next level or cool animation. I don't play games to beat them I play games to see them. Coming to that realisation was actually sort of important for me.
There are two fundamental reasons people play games. They're not mutually exclusive, but they are separate. Some people play to master a game -- to perfect its mechanics, to explore every inch of the game world. Some play to "see the sights" -- to hit the high points and not get too caught up in the minutiae. Let's call these groups "Skill Players" and "Tourists."
"Skill Players" is a nice, literal designation that I think will make sense immediately. We're talking about people for whom the appeal of a video game is becoming an expert at it. People who hanker for high scores and unlockables. These are the guys who pursue achievement points long after beating the main campaign of a game, because, to them, completing the story isn't the real purpose of the game. Genre may be less important to these gamers than simply having a challenge to overcome.
"Tourists" is more euphemistic, but I think it carries the right connotations. Imagine somebody visiting France for the first time. They want to see the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, and the Louvre. They don't speak the language or know the streets, and they don't much care. As long as they can get where they're going, they're not interested in experiencing what a native might call the "real" Paris. And when the trip is done, they probably won't be heading back to France any time soon to find some hidden gem of a crêperie. Instead, the tourist wants to go to China to see the Great Wall. The Tourist gamer is the same way: "beating" a game is more about checking off the big moments than earning a 100% completion rate.
I like the sound of this. We've got a way to classify gamers not by the games they like, but why they like those games. But remember, the reason we're talking about this in the first place is to try to solve the problem of how to talk about games on common ground. We're still not there, not least because many successful games find a way to appeal to Skill Players and to Tourists. It may be useful to look more closely at a single game through this prism.
Next: Case Study: Guitar Hero