A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players
reviewed by Zhou Zhou - September 16, 2010
Video game design has been historically stereotyped by both game developers and consumers. A few years ago, the majority of the game industry was still producing games prioritizing extreme graphics, excessive time involvement, and sophisticated gaming skills. Video gamers were often viewed as a special population differing from others in terms of gender, age, social relations, cultural norms, and so on. Many people evaded playing games because in their minds hardcore gaming would compromise their healthy life styles. Most hardcore players, me formerly included, eventually gave up gaming because one just could not live that hardcore lifestyle forever.
This situation has been gradually changing in the past ten years and all of a sudden people realize they and their friends have been gaming in a different way than before. More casual games like Tetris and Bejeweled, from Dance Dance Revolution to Guitar Hero to the groundbreaking Nintendo Wii, have gradually transformed the gaming population and gaming experience. For many casual game fans, these newer games are more than merely games because they provide more of an engaging, entertaining, and beneficial experience than the older, more hardcore games ever could. Such a transformation in gaming experience had not even been thought of a few years ago.
Many are eager to learn how and why this casual game revolution has come into being, and where the game industry is heading now. This insightful book by Professor Jesper Juul is a successful attempt to answer these questions. For scholars and game researchers, the book is a significant resource for information about the history and latest movement of casual games. For novice game designers, the book helps dissect some top selling casual games and reveals the key elements leading to their success. For hardcore and non-gamers, this book overturns stereotypes about gaming by demystifying the pull of the childish casual games. For people who are skeptical about the healthiness of games, largely due to their general prejudice towards gaming as being dangerously difficult and time-wasting, this book clarifies the spirit of casual games: to fit into peoples lives, and to entertain instead of frustrate them.
This book presents a unique view on casual games blending the knowledge and experiences of a game scholar, developer, and player. The author is obviously an insider in game design and history as he successfully grasps the essence of casual games and the track of their evolution. From cover to cover the book urges game developers to stop making games for themselves and listen to what games most people actually want to play. The book urges hardcore and non-players to give up their prejudices toward casual games and understand the values of these games. The book does not attempt to argue that casual games are superior to hardcore games, since gameplay is determined by both the game and the player. Evidence and arguments on the popularity of casual games are convincingly presented in the book from surveys and interviews the author has conducted with hundreds of game players, developers, and scholars.
Another dimension of the book is the return to player space and the social play characteristics in casual games. In recent years, game developers and researchers have come to realize that social relations developed in and out of gameplay can motivate and benefit players (Steinkuehler, 2004). For many casual players, it is not the game per se but the connections with other players that engage them. Examples include Nintendo Wii games where families and friends hang out together, and many downloadable casual games in which players upload their scores to social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. These are recognized as unprecedented learning opportunities where learning occurs both within the game and, more importantly, among the players. Although the book does not explicitly discuss this theme, innovative educators and educational game designers should be aware of it and reconsider these additional ways of learning in games.
This book was once criticized for not delving more deeply into casual game design. To be fair, it is not (merely) a book on game design. As previously stated, the book covers a number of topics including the history, design, and play of casual games. While it provides an excellent overview, it does not allow for examination of each of these facets in much depth. For me, the best way to read the book is to take advantage of its unique viewpoint and relate this to ones own discipline through deep reflection. For example, as an educational game researcher and designer, I started to consider creating casual games that engage the social contexts and player interactions as the agents for learning.
One regret I have after reading the book is that it did not touch on mobile gaming. Although mobile games are identical to downloadable casual games in many aspects, they also possess some distinctive characteristics such as ubiquitous learning, equal learning opportunities, flexibility, user community, and personalization (Shuler, 2009). A chapter examining the evolution and design of mobile games would have been a welcomed addition to the book.
The game industry is ever changing. Another regret I have is the unforeseeable release by Apple of the iPad shortly after this book was completed. What iPad and its counterparts in other brands have brought to the industry is the combination of downloadable casual games and mimetic interfaces. Many popular downloadable casual games such as Bejeweled 2, PAC-MAN, and Tetris, as well as many mimetic interface games such as Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, and Monoply have been transplanted into iPad taking advantage of its multi-touch display and accelerometer. The debut of iPad is bringing mobile gaming as well as casual games in general to an unprecedented era. Unfortunately, this emergent theme is too recent to be included in the book.
In summary, Professor Juuls book successfully captures the revolution of casual games and delivers the message of developing games for a broader audience. I believe this book will inspire new ideas and findings in various disciplines.
Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of potential: Using mobile technologies to promote childrens learning. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.
Steinkuehler, C. (2004). Learning in massively multiplayer online games. The 6th International Conference on Learning Sciences, Santa Monica, CA.