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High commitment and long total time investment seem to contradict the very idea of casual games. The IGDA whitepaper authors even admit that “casual” is a somewhat inappropriate appelation: “Without a doubt, the term ‘casual games’ is sometimes an awkward and ill-fitting term... the term ‘casual’ doesn’t accurately depict that these games can be quite addictive, often delivering hours of entertainment similar to that provided by more traditional console games.” What, then, is the true meaning of casual in casual games?
I’d suggest that the genre’s current conception of “casualness” suggests informality. If core or hardcore games are “formal” in the sense that they require adherence to complex gameplay and social conventions, then casual games are “informal” in the sense that they do not require such strict adherence. Informality is a kind of “dressing down” of an otherwise more “proper” gaming practice. But informality also underscores the likelihood of regular, repetitive engagement with that practice. This is the casual of casual dress or casual Friday, both of which articulate a respite from the formality of business or social attire and mannerisms. Casual Friday is a repetitive, habitual casualness: come as you are, but expect to do it every week.
Applied to games, casual as informality characterizes the notions of pick-up play common in casual games while still calling for repetition and mastery. This is why casual games can value both short session duration and high replayability or addictiveness. Casual games may allow short session play time, but they demand high total playtime, and therefore high total time commitment on the part of the player. Low commitment represents the primary unexplored design space in the casual games market.
To understand what other design opportunities might exist for casual games, or what other kinds of games this sector of the industry may have ignored, it is worth asking what other meanings the term casual possesses in ordinary parlance, outside the domain of videogames.
Casual as Indifferent
We sometimes casual to refer to a lack of concern, or even a feeling of indifference. In this sense, casual conjures notions of apathy, insouciance, and nonchalance.
Casual as Spontaneous
We also use casual to refer to spontaneity or offhandedness. In this sense, casual raises notions of unpremeditated action, doing something off-the-cuff.
Casual as Fleeting
We also sometimes use casual to refer to something short-lived and momentary, something superficial, like a temporary or part-time commitment, or an irregular activity.
These senses of casual all contain properties of freedom, superficiality, and even flippancy. Such properties correspond well with the notion of low commitment left unexplored in casual games. If Casual Friday is the metaphor that drives casual games as we know them now, then Casual Sex might offer a metaphor to summarize the field’s unexplored territory. If casual games (as in Friday) focus on simplicity and short individual play sessions that contribute to long-term mastery and repetition, then casual games (as in sex) focus on simplicity and short play that might not ever be repeated—or even remembered.
Newsgames are one possible example of such games. Newsgames are videogames created in response to specific, real-world events that recount or comment upon them; they are the videogame equivalent of editorial cartoons. Gonzalo Frasca launched the concept on Newsgaming.com with an example, September 12: A Toy World, a commentary about Western retaliation, in particular the U.S. response to September 11, 2001.
September 12 was not necessarily intended to be played over and over again. The game’s mechanics reveal its commentary through revelation rather than mastery. Still, September 12 is not as fleeting as it might be; it is loosely coupled to the events it comments upon. The game was released in October 2003, so timeliness wasn’t its guiding design principle, and admittedly the game more attention and response as a political game than as a newsgame. The game refers to an entire era of U.S. foreign policy.
Other newsgames use the genre’s coupling to current events to create more specific, more disposable experiences.