I’m going to say something “controversial”. Hardcore and casual gamers has become a meaningless designation. Being any of those “types” of gamer1 says nothing about gaming habits anymore.
“Hardcore”, when the designation first appeared, was used to describe players who spend a lot of uninterrupted time in a game, who accommodates a lack of usability and accessibility in games and who enjoys negative fictions such as war and combat as a narrative wrapper for the games. “Casual” was used to describe players with a lower tolerance for long sessions, accessible and usable games and positive fictions such as farming or building. Both groups, when viewed from the outside, wanted difficult games, even though casual gamers have gotten a reputation for wanting “easy” games.
Nowadays, “hardcore” is a method of gatekeeping certain players from being “gamers” and just as may other terms used in the gaming culture, hardcore is most often described through what it is not.
A hardcore gamer is not casual. They don’t play certain games, but the games they do play are never considered casual.
At one point, in an attempt to keep women out of gaming, I was even told that Call of Duty was a casual game. The intent with the comment was to exclude women who play Call of Duty from the designation of hardcore gamer.
We’re still stuck in a way of categorizing players that is not only vague but in some cases harmful. What does hardcore mean? What does casual mean? It says nothing about what kind of player you really are, because there is not useful measuring tool or behaviour embedded in the designation. The fact that the goal posts keep moving depending on what the person who discusses “hardcore” or “casual” want out of the designation also has an impact. What was hardcore 10 years ago is not hardcore anymore.
In some circles I would be considered a hardcore gamer. If I said I spend at least 500 hours in a single-player game and that I’m a completionist, I would be pretty hardcore. But turn around and say that I spend those hours in Assassin’s Creed rather than Day Z or Elden Ring and I’m pretty casual. In some circles I wouldn’t even be considered a gamer. What I’m getting at is that players play games for many different reasons.
Choosing a game that is difficult to play and that doesn’t he;p the player much is not a better game experience than a game that is easy to get into and assists the player by teaching when how to play. But somehow, here we are.
Being a hardcore gamer is all of a sudden2 associated with games that punish the player for not understanding them while simultaneously taking pains not to teach the player anything.
Some players like that – most likely thos who designate themselves hardcore – and thus take pride in mastering those games.
At the same time there’s an underlying contempt for those who want to be aided along by the game, who want to be taught how to play.
This elitism and status hunt bothers me, because it is a symptom of what gaming has turned into and still is – a culture and identity that is based on gatekeeping, which is very precious about who gets to be a part of it and who is allowed the designation gamer.
I don’t think I would care that much about this if it wasn’t hurting the industry as well. We still use the fairly meaningless terms hardcore and casual and the problem is that they mean different things for different players, and they mean different things for different developers. The primary aspect of “hardcore” though, is that is excludes certain audiences, primarily women, who are never considered “hardcore” no matter how much they play.
I would also argue that hardcore and the lack of definition for hardcore allows both developers and gamers to continuously move the goal posts with the express purpose of exclusion of certain audiences.
It may not be intentional, but it is the actual effect of using a vague signifier such as hardcore, or for that matter, casual.
Looking at players, we shouldn’t be looking at labels like these, but rather at behaviours. What do players do in the game? What do they enjoy and which systems do they engage with? To go even further, how are those systems built and which behaviours do they encourage?
We often talk about the theory of self-determination in games, and we speak of competency, master and relatedness. Those are common ways that people motivate themselves for sure, but the way we motivate ourselves is very different. To use an easy example, relatedness. Some players get their relatedness kick from speaking to and competing against other players. Creating a feature to encourage this behaviour is very different from say a player who enjoys building a relationship with an NPC.
The hell of it is, that one player may well display different behaviours in different games or change their behaviour over time when their lives change and they have more or less time to play.
In other words, aiming a game towards a hardcore or casual audience is not very helpful.
For me as a UX designer and as an advocate for diversity and inclusion (and equity), the use of casual and hardcore is just another way of being vague in order to keep a core exclusionary group of gamers happy. It is also quite useless for me in my profession, because hardcore and casual says very little about the player behaviors in game.
My hope is that we eventually get rid of those designations, since I believe that they keep holding us back both in gaming culture and game development.
Just like a lot of areas of gaming, hardcore and casual are determined by what they are not, and it echoes strangely of a patriarchal mode of explanation that is based more on exclusion than on any actual useful information.
The reason it is exclusionary is of course because just like patriarchy, power in this domain is reserved for a specific type of gamer. Would it surprise you if I told you that gamer is more often than not a man?