Not a Casual Review: Reading Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolutionby Staffan Björk
“Why don’t most people play video games?” This is probably a question you have asked yourself at one point or another if you are an avid gamer or a game researcher. This is actually an irrelevant question today since quite a lot of people do play video games in one form or other, but these people do not comply with the typical stereotypes of gamers and do not play the typical AAA titles most often written about in both academic and popular press. Taking the view that a shift has occurred from technology towards gameplay design and that video games have become a normal part of our culture, Juul sees this as a revolution in how games are perceived. In his book, A Casual Revolution - Reinventing Video Games and their Players, he explores this new development where new large groups of people are beginning to play video games and where simultaneously new types of video games are emerging. In doing so he suggests that erroneous assumptions, from developers and the general public alike, have previously kept video games from being designed for everyone.
Wishing to “capture what is happening with video games,” Juul combines a variety of methods in the book to provide a holistic approach to the subject. He explicitly makes distinctions between player-centric and game-centric views, and illustrates how taking only one of these results in problematic conclusions. To avoid this, the book contains a mixture of approaches: surveys of casual gamers, interviews with game designers, historical views of how some games are presented as fitting certain audiences, and the tracking of game mechanics through the evolution of certain games. In doing so, he does something commendable which is seldom done within research of games; using the methods most appropriate for the specific topic at hand, rather than sticking to the methods of one discipline. Juul’s academic strength is shown in how he can use this variety of approaches successfully and deliver thoughtful analyses and insights for each of them. The inclusion of appendixes with interviews allows fellow researchers to view the empirical data but is also likely to be interesting to readers in general. By taking this approach, he can be seen as one of the quite few researchers working towards making game research a discipline of its own and not a specific topic explored from an already established research field. This can of course be argued against and reveals a subjective view of this reviewer. Likewise, the overall positive view of Juul’s approach and conclusions can be seen as subjective and to balance this, several subjective weaknesses of the book are included in the descriptions below. The intention of this approach is to provide a more detailed view of the book and support future readers of the book.
After two introductory chapters, the book explores various aspects of the concept of casual in relation to both players and games. Chapter three starts by pointing out the paradox of player expectation: simultaneously wanting to have new innovative experiences and wanting to have the experience of competence that comes from playing familiar games. This interesting observation return in the next two chapters and can be said to be an undercurrent in the books exploration of casual. The chapter continues by looking at how Solitaire games were presented and sold before they became readily available on computers through being included in Windows 3.0 in 1990. Juul draws the conclusion that Solitaire already was a casual game before become mediated by computers, but that this made it even more casual. By doing so Juul makes the important point of noting that games have been part of popular culture long before the advent of video games, and that the view of those playing games as being mainly teenage boys is probably a historical anomaly. As being a researcher who prefers to explore games regardless of medium (which Juul himself has argued one should do in his previous book Half-Real), one is glad to see the casual aspect of non-computerized games being mentioned. That more current design philosophies for non-computerized games, e.g. the difference between the so-called American and German board game design schools, are not discussed is understandable since the book focuses upon video games. However, doing this could have provided an interesting mirror in other mediums since the concepts of casual players and casual games are equally valid there.
Chapter four looks at games that qualify as being casual but also are distributed, or directly playable, through the web. A considerable part is devoted to “matching tile” games and how one can tract influences over time by which additional, more specific, mechanics have been used in this type of games. By looking at this evolution of tile games through which game mechanics they make use of, Juul can illustrate how casual games in this distribution channel can balance having innovation without requiring too much investment from players and this also seems to be what casual gamers prefer. The analysis is also used to position a disappointment from game designers, who had hoped that the distribution channel would provide a renaissance for game design, and thereby a friction between the wishes of gamers and developers. One aspect of the analysis which does not harmonize so well with the framing of the chapter is that the first games studied were released in the 1980s or early 1990s. The absence of the Internet at that time makes it difficult to take a view of casual gamers using the distribution channel of downloadable games to access games. That is not to say it was impossible, games were distributed in this way back then but through the ad hoc network of hardcore gamers. Here Juul misses an opportunity to make the observation that digital casual games have existed and distributed before Solitaire on Windows 3.0 but have been propagated by hardcore gamers, thereby supporting his view that one cannot simplify gamers into two distinct groups regarding the types of games the play. Even if one can make the above criticism, the chapter nicely makes use of game analysis to problematize the question of innovation versus copying in game design, with the case of Puzz Loop, Zuma, and Luxor being especially illustrative. The identification of a friction between the player and designer wishes is also an interesting observation which reappears more or less explicitly in several different chapters of the book.
After looking at matching tile games, Juul moves over to explore how game controllers have changed over the years, and how recent developments with these pave one of the avenues for casual gamers. While doing so he explains how the controllers which allow players to mimic real-world activities, i.e. have mimetic interfaces, lowers the threshold for people to start playing games while at the same time making games more entertaining to an non-playing audience since players become performers. Although maybe nitpicking, it seems that it might have been better using a custom-created figure for figure 5.5 in chapter five, rather than the aesthetically pleasing one taken from an exhibition at an art museum. The figure, which is intended to show how mimetic interfaces disappeared from the 1970s to more recent years, requires a knowledge of the game console history since it does not include information about when these became available. Further, it fails to include some of the first interfaces as the Magnavox Odyssey and its “light gun”, recent developments such as Sony’s EyeToy, drum sets, and microphones. The use of a figure not including dance mats is especially surprising since chapter one mentions the 1998 game Dance Dance Revolution as the game that popularized mimetic interfaces. Besides providing this historical view, the chapter makes use of a magic crayon concept and theories from interaction design to go into more depth on how these interfaces change the actual activities and experiences of the players. The chapter concludes by identify four key qualities which mimetic interface games have that make them casual: easy to start playing since players can take advantage of their previous experience of other activities, providing a sense of competence due to the gaming activity being easier than the activity it is representing, making the players’ space be in the focus of attention rather than the game space, and putting focus on social relations between the players.
That non-computerized games had only made a brief appearance in chapter two was mentioned above as a slight disappointment. Tantalizing, Juul ends chapter five with another reference to these by saying that the success of mimetic interface games partly depends on reaching back to these, but without having explicitly discusses this (possibly he refers to the discussions of sports and/or minigames). Chapter six initially promises to redeem these passing mentions since it “looks both at multiplayer video games and traditional board games, to show how multiplayer games take on meaning from where and with whom we play them.” However, Juul means traditional in a literal sense and only discusses the approximately 1500 year-old game Parcheesi in the eight pages short chapter. It does introduce an interesting framework that shows that there are three different considerations behind every choice made in a game: the one directed toward purely winning, the one directed toward maximizing the enjoyment of all players, and the one directed toward managing social relations beyond the scope of the game. This is briefly put in relation to casual and hardcore gamers but overall the chapter fails to explore the complexities of social interaction. With only short explorations of the social aspects in the games Animal Crossing, Parcheesi, and World of Warcraft (and mentioning Buzz! in passing) it neither puts social interaction in explicit relation to casual and hardcore games, nor properly looks at traditional board games.
To help structure the exploration several concepts are introduced throughout the book, with the two overarching ones in the second chapter. The first concept is the idea that both casual players and causal games (and by analogy, hardcore gamers and hardcore games) need to be considered to understand the change in games during the recent years. The second concept consists of a framework with four dimensions which is used to describe both different types of players and affordances of game design. True to the multidisciplinary approach, the framework reflects several different research aspects: social through how much time the games demand from the players and how much players need to be part of a gaming culture; theme through how the general mood is presented by the game; and gameplay through game difficultly and punishment strategies. This framework allows Juul to match different games with different groups of players and doing so he can uncover several interesting points, e.g. that some casual players are ex-hardcore players and that many casual gamers prefer difficult games and are willing to invest a lot of time into their gameplay. Unfortunately, the framework is only used in two of the books eight chapters which seems like a missed chance to provide additional structure and insights to the book. Likewise, the concept of Juiciness is introduced over five pages but then not used later in the main text of the book. This is especially surprising since three pages are spent trying to convey the visceral interface feedback the concept denoted through black and white images. Even if the concepts are not used in other chapters this does not mean that they lack precise descriptions; they introduce their own set of useful concepts to discuss the specific topic of the chapter. An advantage of the approach is that most chapters can be read independently of each other, something that opens up for using these as reading requirements in academic courses. This is not to say that there is no sharing of concepts between the framing chapters and the centrally-placed ones, e.g. chapter five makes use of a screen and players space dichotomy introduced in chapter one and an interaction model from chapter two. It is however surprisingly how many concepts are introduced and then put to surprisingly little use.
After arguing that the concepts introduced in the book are not used as much as they could have been, it may seem paradoxical to suggest that adding an additional one could have been beneficial. Nonetheless, it is surprising that the concept of gameplay is not directly discussed in the book (it does not appear in the index of the book). Besides providing a way to more precisely describe intended or observed game activities, it could increase the granularity of understanding casual by adding the concept of casual gaming, which could for example explain hardcore gamers playing a typical hardcore game without great commitment and with a willingness to interrupt at any point. Chapter seven comes surprisingly close to introduce the gameplay perspective late in the book, beginning already with its title “casual play in hardcore games.” But rather than doing so Juul chooses to focus upon goals as the value bearing component in this context. If the book had used casual goals and hardcore goals this would have added an elegant symmetry as good as one produced by using gameplay, but instead Juul uses the terminology of obligatory goals and optional goals and explain how seemingly hardcore games can be casual but explaining that these are games without enforced goals.
If the introduction of concepts in most chapters make the book seem academic in nature, this is only partly true. The book is well-written and at a concise 252 pages (including appendixes and references) should be illuminating to the general public as well as researchers. However, the book does give a certain feeling of being a collection of independent texts. This is maybe not too surprising since two of the four longest chapters have been published previously. In itself this is not a problem since they all look at relevant aspects of the concepts of casual players and casual games. However, they do not make as strong use of the introduced concepts, e.g. juiciness and the framework mentioned above, as could have been done. Neither do they follow up question areas raised in some chapters, e.g. the relation between digital and non-digital casual games, the friction between design goals of developers and the preferences of players, and the paradoxical wish of players to have innovation and familiarity at the same time. By not doing so, the reader is provided with many interesting observations but is not supported by a clear line of argumentation throughout the book. This is most clearly seen by relating the conclusions from chapter two to seven with the overall conclusions in the final chapter. The former all contain the relevant highlight of what was revealed about the casual phenomena in games when taking a specific area of study and research stance. The latter answers the questions asked in the first chapter but do not do so by making explicit use of the conclusions from the preceding chapters. Instead, a mixture of references to previous specific observations and the general approach is used together with new external references. While this does not invalidate the final conclusions, the book could have provided additional insights if the different threads of the book had been picked up to provide an explicit synthesis. For example, the conclusions about mimetic interface games point to key qualities of casual games but Juul does not discuss if these are only possible through these interfaces or if other design solutions can provide the same qualities.
Summarizing, A Casual Revolution is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how video games and their players are changing in this first decade of the 21st century. Although some chapters would have benefited from being expanded or modified to better make use of the overall conceptual framing, Juul provides several different perspectives on the issue with interesting and convincing insights. This is done from a balanced and informed view that does not try to simplify issues and categories into easy takeaways, and does so without becoming bogged down in discussions on specific definitions or distinctions. Further, Juul breaks a lot of new ground in this book, both in looking at the casual aspect of games and in many of the specific studies describe in the book. As such, the book not only provides many insights about games and players in generally but is also a good time capsule that describes games and their players in what is likely to been seen as one of the pivotal moments of video game history.