On a recent road trip to southern California, I brought along Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Having recently finished a chapter on farm games, I was curious to discover what this slim, vividly red tome had to offer (as far as I know it’s one of the first published academic takes on the casual game phenomenon).
Things I appreciated: Juul points to (admittedly limited) data to dispel the common industry perception that most casual gamers are older women. He historicizes the medium of video games, observing that its not just the games that are changing, but also the players themselves; the gamer equivalents of the baby boomers have aged into a new paradigm of work (work)/life (games) balance, and it’s amusing to read about a generation of “reformed” hardcore players now playing Bejeweled Deluxe… and liking it. Last but not least, Juul gathers opinions from both industry insiders and players through interviews and research surveys.
Things that could be better: Even in hardback, the book’s a flimsy volume, since the last 100 pages of the book are appendices, notes, and references, mostly transcripts of interviews. That leaves about 150 pages of actual writing, liberally peppered with screenshots and photos, divided into eight (8!) chapters. The book seems designed to appeal to both game designers and academics, so it is light on theory and heavy on examples. It is, in a word, casual.
(As an aside, I am not a fan of the phrase “diegetic juiciness,” though to be fair, the juiciness scale comes from designer Kyle Gabler, not Juul. Juiciness refers to the level of positive feedback that a game offers, so a casual game like Cake Mania that rewards players with sound effects, bright colors and shapes, and other sensory cues is extra juicy, while an old text game like Colossal Cave Adventure is dry as a stick by comparison. It’s hard not to titter at such a criterion, or at least not to find oneself imagining games as so many pieces of overripe fruit).
Where I’d like to add some thoughts: Though Juul has done much to debunk what we could call the “casual dame” stereotype (by showing that yes, many women play casual games, but men do as well, in nearly equal numbers, and that any kind of game can be played casually or intensively), not enough has been said about the origins of said stereotype and its continued influence on game development. On the one hand, it has led to the industry’s turn to serving populations other than the assumed adolescent male audience, and that seems a worthy goal. But the still persistent tendency to associate casual games with dumb or less challenging or social games, and then to simultaneously attach them to a presumed player base of bored housewives and older women, implies an unspoken judgment that women’s time is worth less than men’s time, that female players lack taste or a desire for difficulty, and that women are social creatures, while men are not. Juul himself argues that casual games almost always deploy “positive fictions” (as opposed to the hack-and-slash, run-and-gun style of the games preferred by hardcore players). I have no sociological data to call upon here, but I can feel a slippery slope under my feet as much as the next person. Plenty of casual games already on the market appear more than happy to cash in on the supposed feminine preference for happy, domestic dramas (leaving men all those grisly and violent “negative fictions”… oh goodie?).
Furthermore, Juul brushes lightly over evidence that monetary considerations may actually trump any kind of design-based or social-context issues in determining whether or not someone picks up a casual game. In his own Gamezebo player survey, by far the largest selected response to the question “Is there anything that makes you choose a casual game over traditional computer/video games?” was “Computer/video games are too expensive” with 44.9% (the next highest is “I don’t have the time to play computer/video games” at 23.7%). The lead designer for the mega-hit Diner Dash also tells Juul that the casual games audience “is a phenomenon of the business model more than anything else” (free trials or try-before-you-buy, free-to-play or F2P, and “freemium” models come to mind). Meanwhile, Juul argues that one of the reasons games have gone truly mainstream is that home computers are more pervasive than ever before. But what about mobile devices? Is the revolution simply a case of hardware saturation and software deflation? Or are casual games a sign that games are no longer just for the technological and economic elite?
One final, crucial omission in this account of casual games would be its lack of comparative, or cross-cultural, analysis. As Dave Rohrl of Zynga acknowledges, “Most of these innovations have really come from overseas, especially from China” (202). My own research on farm games supports this statement, and yet Juul’s book is written as if only Western audiences counted. But games are one of the few cultural arenas in which Western influence is not necessarily paramount! In other words, what might be a casual revolution for us is probably old news somewhere else.