The Casual Divide

Talk to any group of seasoned gamers long enough, and eventually the topic of casual games is bound to come up. From the most hardcore to the relaxed, most gamers have an opinion of casual games. Some despise them, seeing them as nothing more then a development that cheapens the medium. Others see them as a fun way to play games with family and friends who've never bothered to try games before, and others still stand hopeful that casual games will be a stepping stone from something simple to something with more meat.

Credit to Forbes.com for the image
I've been one who has stood on the latter end of that spectrum, watching casual games be gobbled up, hoping and believing that these games would be a way for those who still holdout on the medium to realize that there is a lot of fun to be had in gaming. For the most part, I've held to that. But the other day I had the chance to experience a 'casual game' that made me think the actual outlook may not be as rosy as I had hoped. This particular casual game is one that had rocked the sales charts since it's release, has been one of the top sellers in games for months, and even made national news when President Obama purchased the title for his children. Which come to think of it, had to be the greatest spoiler of all time. Nothing like finding out what your Dad got you for Christmas via national news. I was Just Dance 3.

The Neon! The Neon!
Just Dance 3 is the sort of title you would expect to be a casual game. If you're still unfamiliar with the title, the premise is very, very simple. You hold a Wii-mote in your right hand and then 'match' the motions of a neon-outlined 'dancer' on the screen to the time of the music. I draw your attention to the words 'match' and 'dance' because what really occurs is much closer to people flailing in a way that the system grants them  mercy and calls it good,  rather than any real dancing. Honestly, I wasn't expecting much, knowing how the Wii-mote functions was enough for me to know that at no point while playing Just Dance would anyone be actually required to really dance.

Nor does it. After all this is a casual game. Whats the point of being casual if not everyone can play? That's the design of casual games, to create a game where those experienced and new can sit down together and have fun together. Or so I thought before I actually stood up, controller in hand to play Just Dance.

I failed at it, abysmally. Now before you think this is another case of a fat, out-of-shape stereotype failing to move right, let me correct you. I'm quite active. Not only do I mountain bike and hike regularly, but I danced all through college (Latin to Aerobic), currently work out several times a week, and have a well used copy of Dance Central for Kinect, which of all things actually expects you to dance. But putting those well learned and oft practiced moves into Just Dance led to me failing quite horribly. Turns out, I'm not the only one with this problem, a friend of mine has a sister who is a professional dancer, and she had the same issue. Why? Because Just Dance is so casual, not only are you not required to dance, in order to succeed you cannot. The games single limited input is so geared towards casual gaming that the game actually requires a level of failure in order for you to succeed. Forget making those smooth moves you're seeing on the screen, if you want to succeed at Just Dance, you'd better make everything as choppy and flailing as possible, because that's all the game measures success by, and the only way the input will pick it up.

Dance Central, unlike Just Dance, requires substantial effort
So I decided to try an experiment. I suggested to the group that we also plug in Dance Central and give it a try. Of the entire group present there, only one had ever tried, and he didn't want to do it again because it was (paraphrasing) "too hard." The rest of the group muttered some faint dismissals and then went back to playing Just Dance 3. Just like that, my opinion that casual games were bridging the divide was shattered. Just Dance 3 seems to be causing the opposite, it's burning the bridge out from under us.

Are you doing it right? Sure, why not?
The problem doesn't lie with all casual games, but of those that I've experienced, Just Dance 3 seems to be one that does by providing a similar amount of reward for as little effort as possible, much in the same way a third grade teacher would give a spelling exam without a single correct word an "A" for creative use of letters. It sells the message to newcomers that the reward is easy, the object simple, and that anything requiring more than that is an expenditure of needless effort. Just Dance 3 reminds me of the children's shows that encourages a child to say a word, only to reward them whether or not they said it correctly, or even at all. Just Dance 3 isn't bringing new gamers into the group, in fact, it's only reinforcing the stereotype that games are just simple expenditures of time.

Yes, it may be fun and easy, but is that all we should be advertising? In my experience that night, I realized that Just Dance 3 was causing people who might have been interested in games to turn away. They enjoyed the experience they had, but had no desire nor acknowledgement that other, even similar titles could be fun as well because they required effort that to their eyes was unneeded.

Pictured: A much better game by the same publisher that deserves your love
Just Dance 3 (and the rest of the series) is the casual game that is actively widening the gap between those that play games casually and those that understand games as something more then a cheap thrill. So please, when your non-gamer friend or friends ask you to pick up a game that you can all enjoy, don't give into the appeal of neon flash and glitz and give them something that will only destabilize their own view of your hobby. Get them something good, like Rayman: Origins. It deserves more sales anyway.


TheFishGod said...

Also you achieved god-like status on dance dance revolution for 360 which i take my hat off for you now and in the future

Lunesar said...

God-like status on DDR you say? Man, that sounds like a challenge to me. Before at socials only Radman could keep up with me. Too bad I never got a chance to challenge you.