Congenial by Design: A Review of A Casual Revolutionby Stewart Woods
Nearly ten years ago, Espen Aarseth proclaimed the year 2001 as “year one” of video game studies in this very journal (Aarseth, 2001). The field has grown considerably since then; numerous other journals have appeared, dedicated departments in many universities focus exclusively on the study of games, and books like the one I review here are also being reviewed in the Wall Street Journal of all places (Last, 2009). Although it might seem hard to imagine for recent entrants to the exciting discipline of game studies, there was a time when the idea that videogames were anything other than merely the latest manifestation in a long line of storytelling media would earn a look of confusion at best, and contempt at worst. This journal signalled the beginning of a shift away from this attitude. Indeed, it is notable that Jesper Juul was amongst the authors included in the first edition of the journal, in an article that explicitly challenged scholars to reflect upon the differences between games and narrative. Along with writers such as Aarseth, Gonzalo Frasca and Markku Eskelinen, Juul helped lay the groundwork for the emergence of ludology - the study of games as games that we now happily take for granted.
And so it is, close to a decade later, that I come to review A Casual Revolution, Juul’s attempt to address some of the fundamental shifts that have occurred within the gaming industry and the broader culture during this period (Juul, 2010). The growth in popularity of short downloadable games, the phenomenal success of the Wii, and the prevalence of quick, simple games on mobile devices have contributed to a shift in popular culture wherein it is rare to find people who don’t play video games in one form or another. A Casual Revolution is thus motivated by an observation that is only too apparent - “to play video games has become the norm; to not play video games has become the exception” (p.8). What Juul seeks to answer here is why and how this has happened. Whilst for most scholars of games, the answers to these questions may appear self-evident, it is Juul’s ability to think through these issues, to break with conventional wisdom and to lay out clearly and succinctly the contributing factors in this shift that make this book so engaging and readable. For the most part, Juul abandons the formalist approach of his earlier work to address the phenomenon of casual play from a wide variety of perspectives. Indeed, a particular strength of the book is the scope of the discussion, especially given the tendency within game studies to focus on specific titles and/or aspects of play. The topics covered include game and interface design, player demographics, the social elements of play and the role of the video game industry. This freedom from the kind of concentrated scrutiny that is typical of more overtly academic books provides Juul with a large canvas on which to paint a picture of the current state of videogames.
The launching point for the book is the problematic nature of identifying a particular form of play as “casual”. As Juul notes, the term has been applied equally to games as well as players. Thus, two themes are interwoven throughout A Casual Revolution; the change in the form of games and the way that players approach them. Juul argues, and I would wholeheartedly agree, that attempting to make sense of either of these two elements in isolation is a critical dead end - “game audiences and game designs co-evolve” (p.10). This in itself is indicative of the scope that Juul is able to work with here. Typically, game research tends to be of the “this is the game and this is how players experience it” or “this is one trait of games” variety. The fact that Juul is able to analyse the emergence and evolution of these games, the longer term understandings of players and the role that industry plays in one volume adds significant weight to the claims he makes. Of necessity however, this breadth comes at the expense of depth in some areas. In terms of games themselves, Juul chooses to focus on only two of the more visible trends in game design. These are the rise in popularity of short downloadable puzzle games and the advent of mimetic interfaces such as those found on the Nintendo Wii. In discussing the elements of casual game design, his argument is that casual games typically present a positive fictional valence and intuitive usability, that they are designed to be played in short periods of time - to be interruptible - and tend to feature lenient punishment for failure combined with excessive positive feedback. The term Juul uses to describe this feedback is “juiciness” - a wonderful addition to the lexicon of game-related language.
The first example used to highlight these elements in casual games are the short downloadable titles that are distributed through websites such as Big Fish and RealArcade. Although, as Juul notes, this form of game has spawned a number of distinct genres (E.g Time-Management, Hidden Object) the focus here is on the genre of tile-matching games such as the seemingly ubiquitous Bejewelled (2001). An entire chapter is given over to an analysis of this form of game, beginning in 1985 with Tetris (Pajitnov, 1985) and the lesser-known Chain Shot! (Kuniaki, 1985). The result is a fascinating insight into the way that games evolve through emulation, even while their developers make claims to originality. Juul’s reason for discussing the somewhat derivative evolution of these games is an important one. As he argues, players bring to a game all of their past experiences with other games. This knowledge of the conventions of gameplay is central to the ongoing attraction of this type of casual games. It is easy to infer the mechanics of tile-matching games from experience of their non-digital predecessors and, later, from “all the games you played before” (p.65). Consequently, developers walk a fine line between genuine innovation and the need to create games that players are at once comfortable with. This, of course, is arguably the same problem that has faced hardcore game genres - if you’ve played one first person shooter, you’ve played them all. Indeed, this is an issue that Juul also identifies. The conventions of the games you have played tend to influence the types of games you will play.
The analysis of the way games have changed to bring about the “casual revolution” is only half of the picture. Throughout the book there is a constant interplay between what games are and how players experience them. Juul draws on a survey of 182 players of casual games, identifying price and time as the two biggest reasons that these players choose casual over more traditional video games. He discusses the reasons why some games are attractive to some players and not to others, identifying the way that particular games “fit in” with player’s lives. The ageing demographic of video game players increasingly demands that players be able to drop in and out of play without being penalized for doing so. As is to be expected, respondents to Juul’s survey tend to be “hardcore” casual game players in terms of the amount of time they spend playing. Nevertheless many indicate the importance of being able to put down a game at short notice and return to it later. This pick-up-and-play quality is an important consideration in the growth of the casual games market. Whilst it does not exclude the extended play of casual games, it does explain why traditional hardcore videogames are difficult to fit into player’s lives. As Juul observes, “a casual game is sufficiently flexible to be played with a hardcore time commitment, but a hardcore game is too inflexible to be played with a casual time commitment” (p.10).
The familiarity of experience that Juul sees as so important in the attraction of tile-matching games is also a key factor in the popularity of mimetic interfaces. Indeed, the most amusing illustration of how it is that video games came to be appreciated by a particular niche audience is encapsulated here by a figure depicting the evolution of console controllers from early “one stick and one button” designs to an image of the current XBox controller. In contemplating this image, it is no wonder that mimetic controls such as those found on the Wii have had such a profound impact on the nature of games and the people who play them. As Juul argues, the fact that games on the Wii allow players to engage in activities with which they are already familiar, even if only by observation, opens the world of video game play to an entirely new audience. Also identified as significant is the way that mimetic interface games such as Wii Sports and Guitar Hero tend to shift the focus of play away from the screen towards the world of the player. Like casual downloadable games, they are not typically concerned with immersing the player in a 3D environment, but rather situate the play of the game within “a concrete player space” (p.117), a shift that Juul argues brings video games closer to traditional board and card games in their facilitation of play.
Which brings me to my only concern about the book. As a researcher who studies more traditional forms of social play, I have always found the classic game model far too presumptive in terms of how it situates the player. In A Casual Revolution the move away from solitary towards social play is an area that feels somewhat under-explored. It is not that Juul is unaware of this change, indeed he refers specifically to the way that mimetic interfaces emphasise the social aspects of play. Rather, the way that this distinction turns the focus to the study of play rather than of games is not sufficiently addressed. Juul’s account of the way that meaning is produced in social play feels perfunctory. His “interstitial” chapter on the way players create meaning through social play is short and unsatisfactory, resting mostly on conjecture. The observation he makes - that players may choose to explore a variety of personal goals within games dependent upon the social context - has been adequately observed in the play of other forms of game (Hughes, 1983; Hughes, 1988; Albert, 1991; Woods, 2009). However, it lies in contrast to the presumed attachment to outcome that forms the most speculative part of his earlier classic game model. Yet this contradiction is not explored with any depth. Indeed, given that this model was used to describe virtually all games prior to the emergence of roleplaying, and hence most competitive non-digital play, this abrupt theoretical U-turn is never satisfactorily resolved. In the chapter where he discusses the nature of goals in games, there are distinctions made between games with obligatory goals, optional goals and no goals. In the case of the former, Juul describes the arcade game Scramble (1981) as one where the player is “forced to work toward the goal” (p.133). As an example of optional goals, he uses the free-roaming environment of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2005). Yet, aside from arcade games that explicitly task the player with survival as an over-arching goal, examples of enforced goals have always been rare. Instead, the pursuit of goals has commonly been a trait of players and/or the context in which they play rather than of games. The way that the classic game model assumes the attachment to outcome as being inherent in the play of games has been identified as problematic in the past (Eskelinen, 2005, pp. 15-16). The fact that Juul observes this less formal aspect of play, yet fails to address it with any rigour, is, for me, the most significant weakness of the book.
None of this is to suggest that I did not enjoy A Casual Revolution. This is far from being the case. Juul lays out quite clearly why casual games appeal to players and how the industry is increasingly being shaped by their preferences. His ability to analyse the traits of games and see where the “gameness” lies is as evident here as it is in his previous work. In particular the discussion of the player space and the constituent elements of casual games are required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the way that games are heading in the future. The survey of players and developers that makes up the last third of the book provides a fascinating glimpse into the ways that both understand the nature of games and play. Overall, for anyone working in the games industry or studying games and their role in popular culture, A Casual Revolution is a succinct and indispensable summary of the current state of video games.
Nonetheless, I cannot help but feel that there is something missing here in terms of understanding the impact that this return to more traditional forms of socially expressive play is having on video games. Whilst one can point to various traits of particular games and argue that they make games more accessible, the mainstream adoption of video games is being driven largely by the fact that they that they are becoming increasingly social experiences. As these games become more social, they appear to be bringing to a close the small period in time when video games were significantly different from other forms of game. As this happens, the game increasingly becomes a framework for interaction and slips into the background. In keeping the game at the centre of his discussion, I am concerned that Juul misses an opportunity to tell the reader something about the future of play, rather than of games.
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