Retrospectacles: Casual Gaming (a.k.a. The jeans and shirt combo of video games)

With the Wii comfortably leading the current generation of consoles in sales and Microsoft and Sony making their own forays into the niche market with Kinect and Move respectively, casual gaming has certainly taken a massive leap forward since the Wii’s release in 2006. Accessibility to the general public has become a necessity for new gaming platforms with the ability to drop in and out of playing with next to no prior experience becoming the most marketable feature of new games. One only has to look at the old Wii adverts with ‘Grandpa’ giving his best shot at the golf to see where the money is at. And besides being the leading cause of hip replacements in the elderly it has certainly improved the image of ‘gamers’ from acne-ridden hermits living in the constant artificial glow of a monitor to friendly, relatively sociable people who kick ass at plastic guitars with multicoloured buttons. So what brought about this drastic change of opinion? Why have games without any real objective other than to kill time become so popular?

Well, rather than jumping straight into my usual long and slightly tedious rant about the history of gaming I thought I’d enlighten you as to why I’ve chosen this topic first. About a week ago (and according to the rest of MMGaming, several weeks late) I finally purchased Minecraft. Up until now I have been used to games where there is a finish line to pass, a frag count to meet or a Roman world to conquer. Suddenly I am thrown into a game where there is literally no point of completion. You can survive hordes of enemies with each passing night, you can mine for valuable ores to craft into new and exciting objects or you can do what I did and you can mod the game up to its eyeballs and draw a friggin 50 foot Metapod with blocks.

Yes this is Minecraft. Yes that is a Metapod. Yes I have no life.

I have no idea what compelled me to do it. I have no idea why I chose Metapod out of all the things to draw. All I know is that after I had spent close to an hour doing this I felt a combination of pride and a general ‘WTF did I just do’ emotion. So I asked myself what on Earth drives us to sit down and perform such meaningless tasks as this in our spare time? Why do we play Tetris while waiting on the train? Why do we continue to play Wii sports after we’ve worked out that ‘shaking a carton of orange juice’ (or similar tasks) expend the same amount of energy as flicking your wrist at a TV screen? And when will  I actually start this article?? Now!

What began the casual gaming market really depends on what is defined as a casual game. PONG from 1972 could be considered as casual since it was played on a drop in drop out basis with the only limitation to scoring being an agreement between players. However it was the only video game at the time so cannot be considered as uniquely casual. The market really kicked off in 1984 with a little bit of help from Soviet Russia in the form of Tetris. Developed by Alexey Pajitnov for IBM PCs, he did not receive any royalties for his creation as he was working for the Soviet Government. Communism at its best. While the game was quite successful on this platform, it really got going when it was released as a pack-in title for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. To this day that specific version of the game is the third best selling game of all time behind Super Mario Bros. and the equally casual Wii Sports. If you include the millions of copies released on mobile phones, online flash games and hidden content on other games and even graphical calculators (good times) then it wipes the floor with everything else. Impressive for what is effectively a glorified version of those colourful shape and hole things that toddlers play with.

About the same time as the Game Boy release of Tetris came Solitaire for Microsoft Windows 3.0. Originally intended to help users adapt to the new fangled graphical user interface of Windows by dragging and dropping cards with a mouse, it soon became the most appealing feature of the system packaged ever since then alongside variants: FreeCell and Spider Solitaire. It’s developer Wes Cherry was only an intern at the time and so did not receive any royalties. Capitalism at its best. Solitaire has since been credited with decreasing production in office environments even resulting in employees being fired. Casual games are not supposed to be played in suits apparently.

One of the most important advancements in the casual gaming market came with a new file format. This sounds as boring as a very dull shit but hey, if you’ve made it this far in the article you must literally have nothing better to do so… ShockWave Flash or ‘.swf’ files were originally created in 1996 by Macromedia. Though the company has since been acquired by Adobe the product continues to be developed to this day. The reason that it is so important to the history of casual games is that it allowed short and simple games to be easily created and played through a web browser. Perhaps the most succesful Flash game is ‘Bejeweled’ released in 2000 by PopCap games. It propelled flash-based games into the market showing that in addition to being immensely popular they could also be immensely profitable. Proving that the format is still as powerful as it was 10 years ago, ‘Farmville’ released on Facebook in 2009 has become both the most played game on the site and also the most highly blocked application on news feeds (“no I do not want to hear about how you saved a bloody pixellated sheep, bugger off”).

That’s all very good for PC users but what about those of us that want a little bit of casual gaming while walking down the street, on public transport or even the not-so-public porcelain bus to shitsville? Well lucky for you Nokia understands your concerns. I am proud to say that in my younger years as a hip and cool kid in line with the trends I owned one of the first mobile phones to come with ‘Snake’ installed. It’s a pity that by that point everyone else had colour screens… Released in 1997 for the Nokia 6110 Snake had actually existed in arcades since the late 70s. However it only achieved mass recognition with its release on Nokia mobile phone. This not only helped the casual gamers but also the more ‘serious gamers’ like myself who could pretend they were texting friends (and had a life) when they were actually just perpetuating their social exclusion. Muahaha. With the release of the iPhone and Android OS mobile gaming is expanding by the second with the most recognisable games being ‘Angry Birds’ and ‘Fruit Ninja’.

And so we reach the modern age! As mentioned at the start of this article Nintendo currently dominates the casual games market not only with the Wii but also the portable Nintendo DS. Initially expected to withdraw from the market much like Sega after the market failure of the Dreamcast, the Wii proved hugely successful amongst families and others that would not traditionally be considered as target markets for video games. Whether it is simply the appeal of lying to yourself that Wii Sports (best selling console game of all time) will make you fit or that ‘Brain Training’ for the DS will give you a sense of cognitive superiority over those dastardly PSP players, Nintendo has certainly struck a chord with the general public. All of the ‘Big Three’ are now heading down the path of motion gaming so there must be a pretty good reason why.

Music and rhythm games too require some recognition in this article if only because they are probably the only video games that are socially acceptable to have at a party. Although Dance Dance Revolution had existed in arcades since 1999 and SingStar was released in 2004 to the home market, the genre really kicked off with Guitar Hero in 2005 and its completely realistic guitar playing experience. Followed by titles such as Rock Band and DJ Hero, music-rhythm games have become a staple of the industry often receiving their own category at awards presentations.

And then there was Minecraft. Where the world is your oyster (if you’re prepared to spend the time building it like a mollusc at least). Purchased by over 3 million people I am wondering why the hell I am one of them!? Ah yes… to build a floating castle.

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