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Consider Zidane Head-Butt, a very simple game created and released less than a day after Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt at the 2006 World Cup final. The game is crude at best, its gameplay little more than a modification of whack-a-mole, wherein the player controls Zidane and clicks the mouse to headbutt an endless barrage of Marco Materazzis.
The game’s sole, simple mechanic offers no novel experience. It’s yet another skinned Whack-a-Mole. The game even lacks a score tally. As such, Zidane Head Butt stands mostly as a curiosity, a media gimmick released quickly enough to capitalize on the hubbub surrounding the event itself.
But rather than reject the game’s significance based on its crude implementation or simplistic conception, we should celebrate Zidane Head Butt precisely for its fleeting nature. This is not a game one attempts to master -- indeed it is probably not even a game one plays a second time. By maximizing curiosity, the game successfully adheres to the casual game design value of very low time commitment. This is a game one plays once, then forgets about forever -- but that one forgets without gaining much meaningful insight about the event it recreates.
September 12 is too loosely coupled to the events it editorializes to become fleeting in the way a casual (as in sex) game might do, but it offers meaningful commentary on the events in question. Conversely, Zidane Head-Butt is too trivial to offer any commentary whatsoever, but it is highly disposable. Other newsgames have attempted to combine these two virtues.
Airport Security might be such a one, created by my studio Persuasive Games shortly after the fall 2006 ban on liquids in carry-ons. The gameplay is simple, like the other examples discussed above: the player takes the role of a U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent, who must work under satirically overstated conditions of constantly changing security rules. The player might be asked to remove every passenger’s pants, or to confiscate hummus or pressurized cheese.
With Airport Security, we tried to strike a convincing balance between political commentary and promiscuous play. When newspaper readers take in a traditional editorial cartoon, they may linger on it for a few minutes, enjoying its satire or disputing its biting commentary. But soon enough, they turn the page, the cartoon left to be forgotten forever. This type of casual experience corresponds much more strongly with low complexity time commitment first proposed above: the player not only plays the game for only a few minutes (the game seems designed coin-op style, to enforce a loss in three minutes time or less), but he also leaves the play experience having consumed a legitimate commentary on the relationship between arbitrary rule changes and airport security.
Newsgames are just one example of casual games (as in sex); surely there are more games that might rescue the very genre from its noisy doldrums.
Most game developers are “core gamers”, well versed in the complex logics of resource allocation. We tend to privilege simplicity and emergence in games, favoring sophisticated experiences that create new challenges each time we play. And perhaps one well-balanced, mastery-style casual game is less financially risky than many throwaway experiences. But such an attitude ignores the pleasures of the fleeting, the transitory, the impermanent. Casual games, perhaps, can do more by doing less.