Growing Pains: The Rise of Casual Gaming (Part 1)

By Michael Mendis

In this two-part series, Michael and Jacob talk a bit about how gaming has expanded its appeal in recent years, and how that has affected gamers and game communities.  This first part contains Michael’s thoughts, and the second will be Jacob’s.

A lot has happened in the gaming industry since I was child playing Sonic games in the 1990s.  As the game-playing kids of the ‘80s and ‘90s grew up, the games grew up with them.  While classic franchises like Mario and Sonic lived on and evolved, the dominance of colorful platformers was eclipsed by the rise of grittier, more mature titles like Metal Gear Solid, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto.  And with video games (along with some tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons) viewed by the wider culture as toys that are meaningless distractions at best and dangerous at worst, being a gamer was sort of like being in a club; they became their own people group, with their own culture (and even subcultures) that was distinct from the world around it.  We gamers formed a bond around a hobby that we loved and that had catered exclusively to us since we were children, and we liked that.

But as the game industry became more successful, increasing in its monetary and cultural impact, what had once been something of an exclusive club became much more inclusive.  When the Nintendo Wii was released in 2006, it offered a radically new experience that catered not to traditional gamers, but to people who typically didn’t play video games at all.  The unusual control scheme meant that a lot of games that traditional gamers were excited for didn’t make it to the Wii, and many of the games that did (such as Wii Fit and Just Dance) were far less complex than what we wanted.

Then, as we crossed into the 2010s, smartphones started to take off.  Gaming on the go had long been the realm of dedicated handheld consoles like the Gameboy or the Nintendo DS, with games that, like those found on home consoles, were aimed at traditional gamers.  But with smartphone gaming finding a footing with wider, more mainstream audiences, both handheld and console games had to compete with this new sector of the industry, not only for consumers, but also for the developers who make the games we play.  New business models like free-to-play took hold in the mobile space and started making its way to PC and console, disrupting the way we gamers were used to purchasing our games.

All of these changes have happened over the course of the last ten years or so, and in many ways it has come as a shock to those of us who grew up playing games.  The adjective “casual” has been attached to many of these simpler games and to the people who play them (despite the fact that plenty of people play games like Candy Crush just as much, if not more, than people who play Battlefield or Fallout), and it’s typically used in a derogatory manner.  Gender plays a factor as well; most traditional gamers are male, and some segments of gamer culture have not been very accommodating to the influx of women who have entered the gaming scene due to these “casual” games (and women have often been subject to discrimination and verbal abuse when they play more traditional games as well; click here, here, and here for some examples of the difficulties faced by female gamers).

So the challenge for Christians: how do we respond?  How do we represent Christ in a community that is reeling from change and often fails to treat newcomers with respect?  I think there are at least three things we should be doing:

  1. Love the oppressed.  Gaming should be fun for everyone, not just those who fit neatly into the category of “gamer” or “hardcore gamer.”  Be welcoming to those who are breaking into gaming or a particular community within gaming.  If you see someone being bullied or discriminated against, stand up for them and affirm their place in the community.  We all grow when more people are able to bring their experiences and expertise to the gaming scene.
  2. Love the oppressors.  When you see someone bullying another person, it can be easy to make the bully a villain in your mind.  Remember that the bully, just like the one being bullied, is an image bearer of God; Jesus came to die for that person as well.  Seek to befriend people like that; they too need to know that Jesus loves them regardless of their sins.  And when the time comes to call out someone for discrimination or bullying, do so out of love, not only for the oppressed, but also for the oppressor.
  3. Celebrate all types of games, and point out games that some may have missed.  All different types of games add value to gaming as a whole, from the biggest sprawling AAA blockbuster to the simplest puzzle game on mobile.  Developers will often revisit ideas that fell out of favor sometime in the past, and put a new spin on them that makes them appealing once again.  And in today’s gaming landscape, I truly believe that there are games out there that appeal to every type of gamer.  To those hardcore gamers who feel like the industry is leaving them in the cold, take another look!  Not only do we still have plenty of high quality, big budget titles that come out every year (see Uncharted 4, The Witcher 3, and Batman: Arkham Knight), but the indie scene on console and PC is thriving.  Games like Rocket League, Undertale, and Inside prove that there is still plenty of creativity in gaming; you may just have to look beyond the AAA space to find some of it.