Re-post: Metagaming: Casual vs Hardcore

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Nov 21, 2009.

I teach first year computer game development at my university, and one of the questions we sometimes use as a way to start some discussion within class is, “What is the difference between hardcore and casual gamers?”

Theory: “Hardcore gamers are the ones who spend hours and hours mastering a game.”

But my Mom spent hours and hours mastering Lemmings. She saved so many little green-haired dudes that those lemmings should have been building shrines to her as their hero. Is my mother a hardcore gamer?

Theory: “Hardcore gamers play games that require excellent hand eye coordination, like first person shooters”

World of Goo requires coordination. Slinging goo balls takes skill — ask any kid with an especially large booger attached to a finger and ready to flick. But I don’t hear many people saying that they’re hardcore because they got the Obsessive Completion Distinction (OCD) flags in World of Goo.

I had this great conversation with a student the other day. I asked him what he felt defined hardcore gamers:

Him: “Oh, people who play lots of different types of games”
Me: “Oh, I play a bunch of different genres.”
Him: “Yeah, but a hardcore gamer has to spend hours mastering them.”
Me: “Do you *know* how many hours I logged on WoW?”
Him: “But WoW isn’t a game for hardcore gamers…”

I find it fascinating that as we drill down further to the definition of a hardcore gamer, it feels a little like the core answer is “not you.”

I don’t really consider myself a hardcore gamer, so I’m hardly offended. Those hardcore folk are crazy go far beyond what is considered normal by most of society, after all. Maybe that’s my definition? I’m happy to play what I want. I pretty much consider it a win if people think of me as a gamer, ’cause that means they’re more likely to invite me to play new stuff with them.

But the question has made me think, is “hardcore gamer” one of those moving targets where women are just somehow not allowed to fit the definition?

Or maybe it doesn’t matter: Would you like to play a game?

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

30 thoughts on “Re-post: Metagaming: Casual vs Hardcore

  1. Kimadactyl

    As someone who’s been a competitive gamer, I think it’s actually simpler than that, and probably for ethnographic reasons. There’s certain approved games – Starcraft, Warcraft, Counterstrike, TF2, DotA, HoN for instance that fit into a certain canon of being “games that tr00/1337 gamers play”. I think the definition of these games is probably quite arbitrary, but generally it’s games that are singly set up over competitive play. Surprise – they’re also games with massively male, macho cultures that seem hell bent on defending this status.

    To summerise, while there are certain factors in common with what’s considered “hardcore” games, it’s mostly historical and sociological reasons.

    Funnily enough though there’s huge cash money WoW tournaments I thought? If that doens’t make it “hardcore” I don’t know what does!

    1. Terri

      This is actually among my favourite definitions… perhaps because it’s also one that very clearly includes my mother as a hardcore gamer (She really thrives on puzzle games that others think are nigh impossible!) as long as you’re willing to include games that are easier to start but hard to master.

  2. Laughingrat

    Interesting. Is there an overall sense, in the broader gaming community, that some kinds of games are inherently un-hardcore? (Like the WoW reference here.) If so, is it gendered? Despite gaming for a significant portion of my day, I don’t participate in a lot of “gaming culture,” because what I’ve seen on various message boards reads as the kind of adversarial leg-humping that I am 100% not interested in. On the other hand, I’ve wound up participating in a small community of (mostly) female gamers who spend a lot of time exploring, documenting, and discussing the games we play, and I enjoy that quite a bit.

  3. Blarmb

    I beg your forgiveness if this comment is somehow incoherent. I found this subject a bit tricky to articulate myself on.

    It’s funny to hear WoW brought up as “Not for hardcore gamers” given one of the most common debates I’ve seen in that community are what seperate “Hardcore” from “Casual” players.

    At first it was Raiding, and when that became more accessible Raiding “Relevant” content, and so on that fashion.

    However across the board Hardcore both in WoW and outside seems to be defined as something roughly along the lines of “Inaccessible to the mainstream by virtue of being too difficult,demanding,dangerous and/or confusing” to put it crudely.

    This isn’t a definition that inherently excludes women (on an individual level) but tends do so overwhelmingly anyway if only because of the association of females with that safe/domestic/weak sort of normalcy. That is, if something has a majority female participation, or heck even anything approaching a,n even representation obviously it can’t be “Hardcore” it’s far too safe and mundane, otherwise women wouldn’t be there. This doesn’t mean you can’t an individual “Hardcore” female gamer, or even small groups of them just that widespread female participation is one of the things that can “Kill” something hardcore by virtue of getting rid of the sort of edgy frontier image the participants have of it.

    Other things can do this too. Sheer Numbers, Mainstream media presence (is this what made WoW non-hardcore?), Young Children, Older Adults (40+), etc.. So women aren’t uniquely excluded, not that I’m saying anyone was making that claim – I’m just making it clear I’m not. They are certainly excluded however.

  4. Logoskaieros

    I think there is an “image” of a hardcore gamer that involves age, gender, and personality (ambitious, ruthless, kinda like an ancient Greek hero, actually [i.e. narcissistic with an inflated sense of glory]).

    But I also think this definition depends on what type of gaming you do. There is still a PC vs. console rivalry. There’s an FPS vs. strategy (Starcraft, etc) rivalry, too.

    The more I think about the concept, the more I realize I have2 ideas: the idea of a “hardcore” gamer, who plays a lot and enjoys gaming in general–like myself, and a “Hardcore” gamer who’s basically an 18-35 year old male jerk who thinks he is gaming at a ‘level’ above the rabble. I think I have this split idea because I receive mixed messages from gaming culture about whether I (woman) count as a gamer.

  5. A.Y. Siu

    I think the fact that you answer any definition with “But…” means you already know what is not hardcore gaming, and you’re playing a semantics game because it is difficult for your students to accurately articulate a definition.

    It becomes the old porn “I know it when I see it,” which doesn’t mean nothing is porn, just that porn is hard to define.

    Certainly there is sexism in gaming culture. That doesn’t mean—at least based on your examples—women cannot be hardcore gamers.

    1. Terri

      I do know what I consider to be hardcore gaming, but I don’t think it’s fair to claim that I’m only playing a semantics game. For one, I don’t expect students to share my definition, or those of their peers!

      The point of the exercise for class is to get people to think seriously about whether the distinction between casual and hardcore has meaning, and how these meanings will affect the game designs they make later in the term. It’s to get people to gain a deeper understanding about what stereotypes they have about gamers and play styles, and maybe even to get them starting to think outside of the unstated boxes larger companies place around their gaming markets. Anyone can learn to make a game: the point of doing this at the university level is to think deeper. We get some very creative concepts from the students, generally more so than I used to see from students before this course was introduced, so I’m hoping it’s helping!

  6. Daniel

    I don’t believe gender does/should play a role in evaluating if a person is a gamer or a hardcore gamer, or a casual gamer, or any of the numerous characteristics a person may have. My definitions, rather, are based on the level of effort and success that are put into gaming.

    Some people enjoy games, therefore they play games.

    A “gamer” is then someone who enjoys -playing- games.

    A hardcore gamer is defined by the high level of effort required in order to fully master a game.

    Some questions to ask yourself:

    1) If given a game and asked to choose a difficulty, what do you pick?
    2) If given a game with a reasonably linear plot that allows for massive side-tracking or replayability, is your “goal” when playing to reach the end of the story, or to experience everything that is available?
    3) Are you likely to seek out information online to help you make decisions about playing a game? If so, what type? (commercial walkthrough/guide vs community thinktank)

    1. Terri

      I’ve always found the completionist argument to be a little bit awkward. Game reviewers rarely get a chance to complete games, and many big fans will simply be overwhelmed by the number of new titles and not have time for such things within an adult life. I suspect completionist tendencies are a decent way to find hardcore gamers at, say, a public school level, but as a way to evaluate adults, especially those who’ve come to gaming later in life? It seems to be a problematic rule that focuses on people who well-off enough to afford that kind of time.

      But maybe being a “hardcore” gamer to you implies a willingness and ability to invest massive amounts of time into a game? I think that is part of the definition for many folk, just remember that by adding this criterion you are making it much less likely that you’ll find hardcore gamers who are female, have disabilities, need to work second jobs, are adults with family responsibilties, etc.

      1. Daniel

        I agree completely with your note about completionism: it isn’t THE metric for hardcore, but it is a component. The answers to the questions I posed aren’t black and white “hardcore vs casual”, but are rather things to have a reader think about what they want/expect from a game they play.

        To your second point, I’d rather say “willingness and ability to invest massive amounts of effort into a game”. The amount of time needed for this effort to payoff in mastery will vary by individual, but I think dedication and wish to improve is more important than simply time spent. While I will admit to knowing fewer females that self-identify as “hardcore gamer”, I know and frequently game with a large group of people with various family/work responsibilities, etc.

        How’s this then: “A Hardcore gamer is one who is dedicated to mastering the game they play”

  7. Kaonashi

    Interesting. Based on my personal experience, one defining part of being hardcore is the sacrifices you make. I guess you could say it’s about how far you take your investment of time, energy and money. Yes, you spend hours playing your games, but would you sacrifice vacation time to go to a gaming expo? Yes, you have a computer to play on, but do you sacrifice other big purchases to buy a new gaming rig? Yes, you have a console under the TV, but it is the centerpiece of your living room around which everything else is built? Etc, etc.

    Of course none of these definitions should exclude women. I’m sure they apply to a lot of casual gamers as well.

    1. Terri

      For those, like me, who weren’t familiar with this phrase, here’s the wikipedia link:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

      It seems that this refers to the potential logical fallacy where when confronted with examples that break the initial assertion, people refine the conditions/definition rather than re-evaluate to make a better rule.

      And yes, I do think this is exactly what happens. A few rule adjustments are sometimes a useful way to refine, but sometimes you have to accept that maybe the rule you started with isn’t really what you meant it to be.

  8. Laura

    Interesting question. I think of hardcore gamers as those who think about the game outside of the game. A lot. When most people think about hardcore gamers, I suspect there are certain gender/racial categories that come to mind. But I’ve seen many examples across lots of different categories, so while the stereotype may play out much of the time, it doesn’t hold true in enough cases that I think it should be thrown out as part of the definition. It seems to me, though, that there needs to be something between hardcore and casual. Casual implies more infrequent gaming than say, someone like your mother might participate in.

    While I’ve reduced my WoW hours considerably, over the winter break, I suspect there will be much gaming, but it wouldn’t fit into the hardcore definition I have in my own mind.

  9. the15th

    “Hardcore gamer” isn’t really a high-status designator, even in much of geek culture, so at first this kind of goalpost-moving flies under a lot of people’s radar. But it makes a lot of sense when you think about what a hardcore gamer is and how the category relates to other areas that people would like to keep male-only. A hardcore gamer is obsessive about a pursuit that other people don’t always get, that isn’t known for its social aspects (although they certainly exist), and that’s not particularly practical. Establish that “women are too smart to obsess over” whatever “silly” pursuit you like, and then it’s only a short jump from video games or model railroads or baseball stats to computer programming or abstract math or even politics.

  10. Jayn

    I think it’s really about attitude. You may spend hours on WoW, but do you obsessively min/max your character? Belong to a guild with strict attendance policies for raids? Build spreadsheets to figure out the best gear for classes that aren’t even in game yet? (My husband did this for DKs. I wish I was joking). It’s not just about time played, but how you spend it.

    A casual gamer will spend a bit of time poking around looking for secrets. A hardcore gamer feels like they HAVE to find all the secrets–see people who feel like they haven’t ‘finished’ a Final Fantasy game until they’ve done EVERYTHING.

    1. Ajh

      I actually QUIT Wrath of the Lich King because I was tired of making a spreadsheet to tell what gear for my hunter was an upgrade, WHEN I should focus on armor penetration instead of other stats and so on. I decided I had better things to do.

      The new expansion has me wandering around exploring neat stuff, and ignoring the idea that I’ll raid, or caring what my gear is beyond Appropriate for my class.

      So I downgraded from halfhearted hardcore to casual with a grain of salt. I still KNOW a lot, I just don’t care to spend a lot of out of game time with any of it.

    2. Mislav Marohnić

      I agree with Jayn. Before they dismiss you as “not hardcore”, in my experience, gamers don’t look at your gender, but at your obsession with games. Hardcore gamers don’t just spend hours mastering a game; we already mentioned our parents do the same with Solitaire, Minesweeper, or similar. The difference is our parents won’t go out and in excitement tell their friends all about these games, join forums to discuss them, have Minesweeper artwork on their desktop, spend their free time researching new tactics and so on.

      Hardcore games also have to be challenging. There have to be achievements which are difficult to reach, and some method of comparing them. People may be excited and talk with their friends about The Sims, but that doesn’t make the game hardcore; some games are just methods of passing time entertaining yourself.

      Hardcore gamers are competitive. They don’t just play themselves for their amusement; they also want to show off. They want to gain achievements, leaderboard positions (either global or in a smaller group of people, like friendly LAN competitions) and, ultimately, recognition among their peers.

      I do admit I’ve met significantly less females which I consider “hardcore”, but I don’t think it’s sexism in this case, just a cultural difference.

  11. Jon Bristow

    My understanding of the Hardcore/Casual divide has been muddy at best.

    It’s easier to quantify “Hardcore” as “Not-Casual”. Casual being a definition of a game that has a simple premise and simple strategy. The difference between checkers and go… I guess… but then you run into the “Genre Exceptions.” FPS games are never “Casual”, and neither are RTS games. Software toys (games without explicit goals) are always “Casual”.

    Then you have the development snobbery angle: Flash games are casual, C/C++ games are HardCore. Most Java games are casual. “Indie” games tend to defy classification.

    Motion based games are casual. Rhythm based games are hardcore. Console games are casual, PC games are Hardcore (And vice versa).

    It’s all bullshit, but it really depends on what context you’re basing your discussion on to nail down what “hardcore” means.

    1. Terri

      Rhythm based games are hardcore? I find this hard to believe, given the party cooperative aspect of rock band has made it more accessible to people, and the fact that karaoke games also fall into this category. But I played rhythm games before we really had a term for the genre (circa frequency and amplitude), so I’ve got a different perspective than many folk.

      But that said, you’re definitely right that there are definitely genre expectations and snobbery abounds. I just suspect that which genres fit which category would be quite hotly contested depending on what group of people was involved in the discussion. My students certainly didn’t agree on genre-based classifications (with the possible exception of first person shooters, which seem to be mostly agreed upon as hardcore).

  12. Xecklothxayyquou Gilchrist

    Kaonashi and the15th hit on a couple of points – the sacrifices someone makes to play games, and being obsessive about a pursuit that other people don’t always get.

    To me, the “hardcore gamer” status has nothing to do with genre and not necessarily much to do with how much time you spend playing games; it’s about how much of your identity comes from being a gamer. You can still be a casual gamer with bouts of playing games 20 hours a day for a couple weeks as long as “gamer” isn’t what you are.

  13. Azz

    Hmm! I consider myself hardcore about Bejeweled and Zuma (both available on the internet from Popcap Games), because I will monofocus on them and lose time, do health-neglecting things like not refilling my water bottle even though I’m aware I’m thirsty while playing (just one more round! it’s only a minute!), and play them to the point of injury (fucking up my wrist from mousing). I wouldn’t consider myself a hardcore gamer in general, though, because I don’t play a broad spectrum of games (I only play puzzle, card, and arcade type games, and can’t play anything that sets off my vertigo), and I particularly do not play the MMORPG and combat games that are typically associated with the stereotype of hardcore gamers.

  14. K00kyKelly

    My definition includes three key elements:
    – make sacrifices to become more competitive in the game (time, social outings, money, etc)
    – obsess about optimizing (player leveling, finding all the shinys, exploring the map, etc)
    – consider it part of their identity (chat outside the game, consider it serious business)

    Symptoms of the above (think about these in a hardcore gamers meet 8 of 10 kind of way)
    – schedule their lives around games in a socially unacceptable way (ie. they forgo a trip to a movie with friends because it is schedule at the same time as their raid)
    – bought a new computer even though they were just complaining about how they couldn’t pay their cell phone bill last time you saw them
    – don’t clean so they have more time to game
    – neglect their health so they have more time to game (eating, sleeping, exercise)
    – seek a steep learning curve
    – time spent (sheer quantity)
    – join a guild, team, or club within their game.
    – must discuss the game with other gamers outside of the game
    – talk in game code (only makes sense to other players of that game)
    – consider themselves to be a hardcore gamer

    Interesting to think about this from a game design point of view. At what point is this side plot too irritating to finish? How steep is the learning curve? How many cues and unspoken gaming rules can I rely on to move things forward? How much of the world is on the direct story line? How are the characters controlled? Do the characters learn new moves?

  15. nobodythatmatters

    The definition of “hardcore gamer” implies a concentration on games that are exclusively multi – player competitive. For example, many “hardcore” gamers do not consider WoW to be a “hardcore” game because it is possible to achieve things without battling another human player. Yes a PvP (or player vs player) element’s exist, but the primary concept of the game is to battle AI controlled (instances) generated by the computer as a solitary player or in a group (i.e. raiding), the idea of playing against other people is a tertiary adjunct. The same is true of puzzle or other “time trial” games. A person who spends lots of time playing puzzle games or games that are “hard” but are against a computerized appointment, is often considered not a “hardcore” gamer.

    1. Terri

      I find this comment very interesting, because it’s such a sign of our times. For my students, this is indubitably true, but competitive online play as a marker of hardcore-ness is a relatively recent phenomenon as far as games go. That’s not to say it’s a bad measure to use. Human players are generally capable of being more difficult than their artificial counterparts (although typically artificial intelligences in the game world are allowed to “cheat” in order to give them a competitive advantage, so this is not always true.) Just that it’s an interesting measure because if you’d asked in, say, 1991, I’ll bet it wouldn’t have ranked in the definition at all.

  16. Latoya Bridges

    My understanding of the Hardcore/Casual divide has been muddy at best. It’s easier to quantify “Hardcore” as “Not-Casual”. Casual being a definition of a game that has a simple premise and simple strategy. The difference between checkers and go… I guess… but then you run into the “Genre Exceptions.” FPS games are never “Casual”, and neither are RTS games. Software toys (games without explicit goals) are always “Casual”. Then you have the development snobbery angle: Flash games are casual, C/C++ games are HardCore. Most Java games are casual. “Indie” games tend to defy classification. Motion based games are casual. Rhythm based games are hardcore. Console games are casual, PC games are Hardcore (And vice versa). It’s all bullshit, but it really depends on what context you’re basing your discussion on to nail down what “hardcore” means.

  17. Sophie Ortega

    Kaonashi and the15th hit on a couple of points – the sacrifices someone makes to play games, and being obsessive about a pursuit that other people don’t always get. To me, the “hardcore gamer” status has nothing to do with genre and not necessarily much to do with how much time you spend playing games; it’s about how much of your identity comes from being a gamer. You can still be a casual gamer with bouts of playing games 20 hours a day for a couple weeks as long as “gamer” isn’t what you are.

  18. Briten

    If I were to answer the question “What is the difference between hardcore and casual gamers?” I would say that a hardcore gamer is a person who; (1) Researches how to play a game in the mathematically optimal manner and plays a game in this manner or in a method they believe is close to this manner, (2) Reads what has been written by other people about the game and strategies therein and attempts to use said strategies, (3) Uses outside tools to assist playing the game if they exist and are legal to use. (4) practices playing the game even when the playing for that practice is not particularly enjoyable.
    The last point is the most important point, Casual players might analyze their game from a mathematical game analyzing standpoint, and read strategy guides produced for the game, and use play enhancing programs and equipment. However, they feel no need to play the game to get better at the game if they are not enjoying themselves.

    As for if a game can be hardcore. I would say yes. A game is hardcore if being more knowledgeable at the game typically helps you beat someone who is less knowledgeable, and if the game is hard to solve.

    Shoots and Ladders is not hardcore because there is no way that skill can affect the outcome of the game
    Tic Tac Toe is not hardcore because Tic Tac Toe is a solved game, and the solution is easily memorized by elementary school students.

    Checkers is hardcore Because a more skilled player is more likely to win than a less skilled player. Although checkers is a solved game, the solution is not easy for a human to memorize or use, and the starting positions for the pieces can be scrambled slightly to prevent checkers champions from using the regular optimal solution.

    1. Terri

      This is a very interesting definition because it doesn’t use the word obsession and instead concentrates on things that other people would find obsessive. However, it’s also a moderately modern definition: when my mom was playing lemmings, we were still on dial-up and research was a non-trivial affair, rarely done. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that people were less hardcore at that time, just that they had to do more thinking and exploration themselves.

      I’m also interested in the idea that hardcore gamers are those who will play a game even when it’s un-fun. When I first saw the comment, I agreed, but having just played an epic game of munchkin tonight… I think even a non-hardcore player will play to the un-fun point when it comes to finishing a game of chess, bridge, munchkin, trivial pursuit, monopoly, etc. now and again when playing socially. Mind you, I guess we weren’t playing to get better at munchkin, so maybe it doesn’t apply? It’s hard line to find, I suspect.

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