I recently came across an article that touches upon a really cool topic, the division of hardcore and casual gamers. The article raises various valid questions and the comment section below makes for a really good definition of what is a hardcore gamer or a casual gamer. In this post, I would like to address the points made in the comment section that divisions between player categories such as “casual” and “hardcore” or “pros” and “noobs” are useless and harmful. I disagree, and here is why.
Humans like to belong. They like to belong to groups, societies, communities, faiths, institutions, cliques, clubs, clans, guilds, organisations, companies, the list could go on forever. The reason we belong to groups is two-fold: the positive aspects of in-group favouritism (in-group bias), by which individuals belonging to the same group will have friendlier tendencies, such as evaluating, helping and respecting each other. The other reason is the negative aspects of out-group negativity, by which individuals tend to hold preconceived negative attitudes and stereotypical beliefs against people of different groups. These beliefs help to grow one’s own self-esteem. These groups can be anything concrete, such as a sports team, or very abstract, such as religion, ethnicity or even preference of gaming platform:
Having said that, it only makes sense that even within the gaming communities, group divisions occur. They are not necessarily harmful, as players that define themselves as hardcore know that other individuals with a similar mindset will be around to help them achieve their goals. An example of that is the “Looking for Guild” system in World of Warcraft, by Blizzard Entertainment. People can use a tool to search for guilds for their character, and can define whether their gaming style is “hardcore”, “casual” or “moderate”. What this achieves is that like-minded people can then form guilds that work together in ways that every member feels comfortable with. None of the terms have a negative connotations, but rather they help people find others they would enjoy gaming with.
Can these labels be used to the developers’ benefit?
Since the divisions happen by players themselves, the tool I mentioned above is a nice example of game developers catering to the players by observing user behaviour. And this is where I would argue that divisions of player styles can help developers to create UX Personas, and get everyone within the developer teams – from engineers to marketing – to get on the same page. Lennart Nacke, from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, presented a talk at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) advocating the use of gameplay metrics to help and build personas, and how those feed into the bigger picture of using quantitative and qualitative data to inform game design.
For example, creating a Persona with the tag “Hardcore player” could provide various benefits to developers. Hardcore should not be equated to skill. It is a mindset by which the players decide to invest themselves in a game, gain as much knowledge as possible, beat the game in the best and most extreme ways, not content with “just” beating it, and generally strive for personal improvement. The hardcore gamer might never get there, but he will try. So by having this background, developers can think of ways to allow for such perseverance and thirst for personal progression: do checkpoints allow the player to try and try again? Does the player get rewards over time for trying over and over? Should they reward quality over quantity by penalizing players who take too long on a task, so that hardcore players actually need to learn to be quick and efficient? All of those design choice and possibilities can revolve around the dividing labels that players themselves use.
Does it make sense for developers to divide players in those categories?
It does. Since players are not hardcore with every game, or casual with every game, developers need to provide the tools necessary for their particular target audience to play their particular game. A good example is the Dark Souls series by FromSoftware: their target audience is a niche, masochistic, hardcore bang-my-head-against-a-wall group of people. Can you play Dark Souls casually? Yes. Will it be fun, and will you advance? Probably not. It is not meant for casual gaming, and that is a design choice. Also most of the time, players make the division themselves. In the case of World of Warcraft, the terms “casual” and “hardcore” were never present in the game itself during the early years, but rather sprouted from guild labeling within the community and on forums. The developers adapted and introduced the term hardcore within the game (for an increased game difficulty setting), and later on casual and moderate were added for the Looking for Guild tool.
Another example is League of Legends, by Riot Games. Hardcore gaming can easily be defined by players that try and learn as much as possible by spending as much time playing in the ranked ladders of the game. For those that don’t care about advancing in the ranks, it would be frustrating to be constantly reminded that they are at the bottom of the ladder. So instead, there is a “Normal” game mode that does not take into account any rankings, and as such the stress/adrenaline of going up or down the server ranks is not present. The game is still exactly the same, and one can still play at the highest of skill levels in normal games. However, with the cost of losing being removed, and the impact of winning reduced, the Normal game mode allows players to play without being as involved.
Out-group negativity can sometimes take over, for example with “noob” being replaced by “you are Bronze 5” – Bronze 5 being the lowest rank in League of Legends. But this negativity that is seen everywhere in the world can not just be detrimental, but also productive. It can push an individual to want to belong to the groups of higher rankings, aiming higher and higher. This player is another persona that can be catered to. A casual gamer who decides to become hardcore in order not to be discriminated against and to bolster their self-esteem by being good at what they do. Involvement and commitment are the bread and butter of hardcore gaming, and I don’t think it is wrong, unnatural or harmful for players to divide themselves into groups. Just like most divisions, the problems start when they are used with a negative connotation in order to insult someone. But that is not the problem of division or labels, it is the problem of toxic behaviour that lies with the individual.
Cover image © Alexander Khokhlov