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Casual Games Discussion
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Digital games have become a remarkable cultural phenomenon in
the last ten years. The casual games sector especially has been
growing rapidly in the last few years. However, there is no clear
view on what is “casual” in games cultures and the area has not
previously been rigorously studied. In the discussions on casual
games, “casual” is often taken to refer to the player, the game or
the playing style, but other factors such as business models and
accessibility are also considered as characteristic of “casual” in
games. Views on casual vary and confusion over different
meanings can lead to paradoxical readings, which is especially the
case when “casual gamer” is taken to mean both “someone who
plays casual games” and someone who “plays casually”. In this
article we will analyse the ongoing discussion by providing
clarification of the different meanings of casual and a framework
for an overall understanding of casual in the level of expanded
Categories and Subject Descriptors
I.2.1 [Applications and Expert Systems]: Games
Digital games, casual games, casual gamer, casual game player,
casual gaming, casual playing, expanded game experience
Digital games have become a multibillion dollar business  and
the casual games sector is one of the fastest growing segments
within the industry. Casual games have been described as “games
that generally involve less complicated game controls and overall
complexity in terms of gameplay or investment required to get
through the game” . Industry experts have estimated that in
2008, the market for casual games will exceed $2 billion dollars
in the U.S alone and it is reported that half of all gamers in the
U.S are playing casual games . Casual games can be played
on various platforms such as PC, consoles, mobile phones and
other hand held devices. Widest possible target group, easy online
distribution and world wide markets are seen as strengths of
casual games [18, 35].
The discussion on casual games has not been studied before and
there is no valid framework available to understand the “casual”
in casual games. The term “casual” is seen as ill-fitting by the
industry [7, 25, 35, 41] and there are even suggestions about
rejecting the term [8, 25, 36]. It appears that there is no consensus
as to what “casual” exactly means when people are talking about
games that are labelled as somehow “casual”. Although some
acknowledge the problem , generally the term is used as if
there were general consensus over its meaning. Without a clear
understanding of the “casual” in games and games culture, these
discussions are confusing and difficult to understand.
The purpose of this article is to describe and analyse the casual
games discussion. The goal is to provide clarification of the terms
used and to provide an early model for understanding the wider
sense of casual games in the light of expanded game experience.
This article is part of the GameSpace project, which studies the
design and evaluation methods for casual mobile multiplayer
2. METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH AND
In order to build the tentative terminology for the
“casual” in games and to gain a more profound understanding of
the phenomenon, we examined the issue by going through several
different sources. To reach the widest possible domain of the use
of “casual” we went through the various views of game
professionals, game journalists, gamers, white papers and reported
surveys to name a few.
Our sources were mainly retrieved from the web and
additionally the topic was discussed with Finnish game
professionals in GameSpace workshops on casual games
organised in autumn 2006 and winter 2007. Our understanding
was taken further by personal game experiences of researchers
playing over 60 different games that were from casual games
portals or games that had features that were mentioned in casual
This paper introduces different sides of the discussion and
serves as a starting point for further research and discussion. The
methodological approach can be defined as loose qualitative
content analysis or conceptual analysis.
3. THE CASUAL GAMES DISCUSSION:
GAMES, PLAYERS AND PLAYING
The casual game discussion often approaches the phenomenon
from the perspective of games by looking at their properties.
There are various definitions available from different
organizations (e.g. IGDA, CGA, GDC) or spokespersons for
industry on what is a casual game (i.e. [32, 35, 37]). The
definitions mainly focus on defining a casual game as one that is
easy to learn, simple to play and offers quick rewards with
forgiving gameplay, which all turns into a fun experience.
Sometimes casual games are connected with non-violent content
and it is also reported that casual games are affiliated with
advergames, web games and downloadable games . There are
also contradictions in the discussion. For example, multitasking
might be considered as an ill-favoured feature for a casual game,
yet many successful casual games, like Zuma or Diner Dash,
require multitasking .
A genre-based approach is also common in the casual game
discussion, with puzzle, card and board games often mentioned
[25, 27]. Sometimes casual games are considered as a genre of
their own with various sub-genres like puzzle, Mah-Jong, word,
casual-action and card & board games . Genres are also
present when companies publish survey results. Some casual
games fit into many genres, like Zuma, which could be considered
to be an arcade, puzzle, action or even shoot’em up game.
Discussions also refer to the casual gamer or player. The loose
“casual games” term is partly used because it refers to a casual
consumer who can pick up and play casual games easily without
great effort . It is also said that the casual games are aimed at
the casual players . Usually casual gamers are contrasted
against hardcore gamers so as to make a clear distinction between
the two groups. A casual gamer is someone who is not a hardcore
gamer and casual games are non-hardcore games. IGDA also
defines a third group, core gamers, who are between the casual
and the hardcore gamers. These groups are not meant to be
mutually exclusive definitions, but rather examples of how the
game industry usually sees the different audience segments. The
IGDA characterisation is defined by the competitiveness and
amount of involvement required in the games preferred in these
groups. Hardcore gamers play games that are “extremely
competitive [and] require greater degree of involvement” and
casual gamers play games with gentle learning curves that do not
require much involvement. The core gamer is in the middle. .
New user demographics are commonly emphasised in the
casual gamer discussions. Casual games are said to attract new
gamer demographics such as “females, non-gamers, thirty/forty-
somethings, and ‘lapsed’ gamers” . The specific information
on gamer demographics comes mainly from the press releases of
casual game developers and publishers. One notion which is
highlighted in these press releases is that the majority of casual
gamers are women and that the majority of these women are
middle-aged and older [9, 20, 27]. In the discussion around these
studies, it is also pointed out that women really “[buy the] games
for themselves”  and use them e.g. “as ways to rejuvenate”
, thereby underlining the idea that casual games have truly
reached women as gamers in a positive way.
However, even if the casual games are heralded as games
appealing to women and especially to older women, it is also
emphasised in some discussions that it does not mean that they
are games only for women. Instead, the design intention is usually
characterised as “games for all” [33, 34, 35]. This can be also
called games for the mass audiences  or broadest amount of
One viewpoint is that the term “casual gamer” is almost a
misnomer. Hardcore or core gamers sometimes use the term to
distinguish between the “true” gamers and the mass [22, 31, 30]
so that the casual gamer is not really a gamer at all. Similarly it is
said that the casual gamers apparently do not view themselves as
gamers [7, 34] even though according to the surveys they play
quite a lot and also at hours which could be seen as non-casual.
The term “casual gamer” does not necessarily refer to
someone who just plays casual games, but it can also be used to
refer to players of a game otherwise perceived as hardcore. For
example, in a discussion on the casual gamers in World of
Warcraft, some see casual gamers as someone who simply plays
for fun with a laid back attitude when it suits them . For some,
casual gamers are simply hardcore gamers who cannot find the
time to really commit themselves to gaming as a hobby  or
even as someone who use the lack of time as an excuse for not
being willing to “spend the effort” . Thus, the term “gamer” is
also used diversely in the “casual” discussions.
Casual games are considered to be something easy and quick to
pick up and drop. Mobile platforms emphasise especially the
“anytime, anywhere” gaming attitude. It all seems fairly logical,
when we look at the general properties of games that are labelled
as casual. However, surveys conducted by Macrovision and
PopCap Games reveal that casual gamers play quite a lot more
than expected [23, 26]. Loren Hillberg, executive vice president
and general manager of commerce at Macrovision, stated in their
survey press release that “Our survey has determined that
mainstream audiences dedicate a substantial amount of time to
gameplay - not just in 15-minute increments as previously
thought.” . Surveys by PopCap Games and Harris Interactive
(for RealNetworks) state that the motivations for playing casual
games are fairly instrumental, meaning that casual games are
played for example for stress relief, keeping one’s mind sharp or
as a distraction from chronic pain and/or fatigue [26, 27]. The
majority of parents think that casual games are beneficial for their
children in an educational sense . In the discussions the
motivational factors are sometimes pointed out as distinctive
features of both the casual and the hardcore gamers.
The surveys are somewhat skewed in favour of the hardcore
end of casual gamers. Macrovision reports that
70 % of those who answered in their survey have bought a game
after trying it and 30 % have downloaded more than 21 games in
the last year . The PopCap Games survey was based on those
who have bought at least one game from their website . The
conversion rate in casual games is said to be around 1 to 2 % [5,
35], meaning that of 100 people who try a casual game, only one
or two actually buy it. Casual games are often marketed with the
“try before you buy model”, which means the option to download
the demo version free of charge but obtaining the full version
entails purchasing the whole product . This means that the
surveys may well not reach the freeloaders, who might make up
to 98% of all the casual gamer population. Freeloaders try but do
not buy. Selecting survey respondents from a customer database
or website does not give accurate data on casual gaming
phenomena. It is also possible that freeloaders have a low effort
threshold, so they do not participate in surveys which makes them
unreachable . Current survey results make “casual” seem like
something paradoxical, emphasising the commitment of a casual
gamer and assuming that they are slightly more hardcore than
previously thought. Although the freeloaders may be
uninteresting from the business point of view, they are a very
important group to study from the perspective of academic
4. MAKING DISTINCTIONS: DIFFERENT
MEANINGS OF “CASUAL”
Although the discussion is about “casual games”, one word does
not seem to be enough. The discussion concerns gamers, players,
gaming and playing being somehow casual in addition to games
that meet all these requirements and restrictions ending up
labelled as casual.
In the next refinement of “casual”, the casual games, those
who play them; playing style and attitudes and the non-gamers as
casual gamers are separated in the level of meaning. Even though
these terms are interrelated, they constitute a more refined
terminology for the phenomenon of “casual” in games cultures.
Casual in games cultures. The phenomenon of the casual aspects
of games cultures.
Casual game. Certain properties of games are called casual, e.g.
game has generally appealing content, simple controls, easy-to-
learn gameplay, fast rewards, or support for short play sessions.
These properties can vary depending on the game and the term
should be treated more or less ostensibly (referring to “these”
Casual gaming. The aspects of the present game cultures are
characterised as casual: the attitude towards gaming may be
casual, e.g. playing games may be perceived as just one leisure
activity among others (e.g. TV, movies, sports) or present clearly
instrumental motives other than leisure for the playing activity.
Casual playing. The way a game is used or played is
characterised as casual, e.g. a game is played in small time bursts
or in a low cognitive state. This refers more to the play session
than to the general attitude towards games.
Casual gamer. A person who plays games in a casual manner, not
necessarily casual games, (casual playing) or who has a casual
attitude towards gaming (casual gaming).
Casual game player. A person who plays games that are called or
labelled as casual (not necessarily playing casually). Studies show
that the demography covers almost everybody (from teens to
older people, from newbies to lapsed gamers) and the largest
group seems to be “women over 35”.
Figure 1. Relations of the meanings of casual in games cultures.
It is quite obvious how in many cases these terms can be
confused. The ways different actors, such as developers,
publishers or gamers use ‘casual’, needs clarification. Currently
‘casual gamer’ is very often used synonymously with ‘casual
game player’ which may be a source of some confusion for the
speakers themselves. For instance, here are two quotes from the
article discussing Macrovision’s survey results:
“Casual game players are often portrayed as the antithesis of
hardcore players. The perception is that their focus on puzzles
like Bejeweled or games like MahJong is limited to small
chunks of time. While research has confirmed some
perceptions of these gamers, a new survey is challenging other
long-held beliefs. For example, it turns out many “casual”
game fans spend copious amounts of time with their favorite
titles. “These are by no means casual game players,” said
Alex Torrubia, vice president of business development at
Macrovision’s Trymedia Games, the organization behind the
“Casual gamers are playing often, and for long sessions.
According to the survey, 37 percent play nine or more game
sessions each week. Sixty-six percent say each session lasts for
at least one hour, while 31 percent play for more than two
hours at a time.” 
(Bold face added for clarification)
The authors use the terms ‘casual gamers’ and
‘casual game players’ at the same time to refer to a group of
people who play Macrovision’s ‘casual games’ and then state that
“these are by no means casual game players” referring to the
attitudes and devotion level of a player.
We feel that although “casual” can be confusing, there is no
real need to replace the term. Since the “casual phenomenon”
seems to be more complex and more extensive than previously
understood, a more accurate understanding of the phenomenon
may yield more fertile results in game design and research.
5. MORE TO THE DISCUSSION: BUSINESS
MODELS, ACCESSIBILITY, PRODUCTION
AND THE FUTURE OF CASUAL GAMES
Although the definition of ‘casual’ in games has mainly been
explored by scrutinizing the properties of a game, players or
playing styles, the discussion does not end there. Other frequently
discussed topics are business models, accessibility, production
and the future prospects of casual games such as social aspects of
Apart from the game properties, distribution and business
models are sometimes seen as distinctive features of “casual”. The
most common business models are listed as: try and buy
downloadables, advertising sponsored, subscription based and
skill-based gaming [1, 32, 37]. These models are not seen as the
only options; there is talk about in-game micro-payments ,
new advertising sponsored models  and emphasis on
experimentation with business models in the future. The
discussion on business models can be reduced to general talk
about the accessibility of casual games. IGDA lists three primary
points of access: downloadable games to play offline, online play
and other platforms such as mobiles and consoles. Other
platforms include set-top boxes, toys and electronic devices,
which have some sort of game pre-installed, embedded or have
the ability to load games . Retail packaged casual games are
also emerging [1, 35]. The need for different distribution models
is well characterized by Duncan Magee from RealArcade:
“wherever you find these customers is where we need to put our
Conversion rates of casual games are also one common topic.
The conversion rate in casual games is said to hover around 1 to 2
% [5, 35], and in web downloadable games around 0.5 to 2.5 %
 so paying for casual games is only the tip of the iceberg, as
mentioned before. However, there seem to be no clear data of
players who play embedded, bundled or pre-installed games like
Windows Solitaire, Minesweeper or Nokia mobile phone’s Snake.
Conversion rates are taken as an indication of potential
consumers but it has also been conjectured that the casual game
mass markets are much harder to reach and can be very much
“here today, gone tomorrow” . For example Michael Pachter
of Wedbush Morgan Securities thinks that the casual games
market has a larger audience but it is still smaller in dollars spent
compared to core games. According to him, casual games will be
a big part of the overall growth but they will not dominate the
future. David Cole of DFC Intelligence thinks that the key to the
industry is being able to diversify. A single casual game will not
reach the whole audience but a large number of different games
While targeting the widest possible audience, knowledge of
player demographics is considered important. There are already
suggestions that the demographics should have finer nuances
instead of the black and white setup of core gamers vs. hardcore
gamers [16, 36]. For example, a survey conducted by Parks
Associates suggests that there are at least six different gamer
groups; power, social, leisure, incidental, dormant, and occasional
gamers, all of whom should be taken into account . It has also
been suggested that there is a normal shift from one group to
another: casual gamers evolve and become more demanding [20,
Social aspects and gaming communities have recently been
studied with great interest (e.g. [11, 12, 21, 28]). Researchers
have been concentrating especially on the massive multiplayer
online games (MMOGs). Currently the most popular MMOG in
the world is the World of Warcraft with over 8 million subscribers
. Although WoW is not considered to be a casual game, there
is talk of casual players in WoW societies . It is also thought
that communities and social aspects will have a significant role in
casual games [8, 34]. This could, for example, be an “alone
together”  type of experience that some MMO gamers enjoy,
spectator experiences  or asynchronous casual multiplayer
experiences . There are also contradictory views on the social
aspects of casual games. For example, Richard Krueger of Boonty
and Duncan Magee of RealArcade have stated that casual gaming
is a solo based independent experience and there is no room for
competition in casual games which is usually a result of a strong
There is also speculation about a convergence of casual and
hardcore markets . This is already a reality with new consoles
like Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. Casual games are
shifting from the web-based PC world to other platforms. They
have already entered the console markets and are expected to do
well . For example, conversion rates in Xbox Live Arcade
service vary around 10-20 % . In some instances, mobile
gaming has already been labelled as casual gaming  and
spokespersons for industry have agreed that it is a promising mix.
Devices like digital cameras, which are not intended for gaming,
could also provide a possible platform to host casual games in the
future . This implies that casual games could be affiliated with
many different devices.
The characteristics of casual games and the different
expectations of casual gamers call for different kinds of
production strategies. This is apparent in the discussions related to
the production of casual games. Casual games are said to be
developed at a faster pace with smaller teams and lower
development budgets compared to retail PC and console games.
Dave Rohrl of PopCap Games reports that team size is three to
five persons, development time is six to twelve months and it
costs roughly 100,000-250,000 dollars to develop a typical
downloadable casual game . The risks are lower with small
budgets and a hit game can provide a big return on investment.
Low risk could also lead to more experimentation  and this is
eagerly taken as a potential for game innovations, which is also
one common topic  in casual games discussions. Low
investments in development are conducive to innovation in big
companies. Start-up companies also have to be innovative to
break into the market in the first place. Yet there are huge
numbers of cloned and slightly altered games in the market. Joel
Brodie of GameZebo thinks that the industry is stagnating
although he thinks that the casual games industry is still more
innovative than the retail video game industry . However,
within the innovation topic, some are concerned that casual games
are confused with indie games .
As stated earlier, the current casual gamers are becoming more
demanding and are looking for more content and versatile game
mechanics. This is probably true if by casual gamer we mean
players who enjoy titles like Zuma, Bejeweled and Diner Dash,
playing them several hours per week. This probably does not tell
the whole story, since those who enjoy such casual games as
online chess, poker and other parlour games, may not be looking
for more .
This underlines the important aspect that “casual” cannot be
contemplated from only one perspective. When one game is
“casual” in one way, another game may be “casual” in some other
way. Instead of interpreting the discussion concerning completely
separate issues, the fragemented views could be treated as an
indication that the phenomenon should be examined in a broader
6. THE CASUAL GAME EXPERIENCE
AND THE MODEL FOR EXPANDED
GAME EXPERIENCE (EGE)
Even though casual in games cultures is approached differently
while talking about the properties of games, attitudes of players,
different playing styles and distribution models, they are all
interrelated. When the talk is about players, there is the matter of
attitudes, motives, skills and behaviour that may be characterised
as “casual” and then supported as “casual” features of games.
Certain attitudes and skill levels then again can lead to situations
requiring new approaches to the ways to distribute and sell games
If we think about games as experiential products, we need to
understand the different possibilities that games can provide.
Traditionally game experience models concentrate on explaining
the gameplay experience [e.g. 15] and while working well as
guidelines for designing and understanding different aspects of
intensive play sessions, they may be powerless in front of the
diverse experiential space of games cultures, as the game
experiences are not limited game sessions, nor are they only born
within these. At least the issues addressed within casual games
discussions seem to indicate that relevant experiential factors for
gaming may also exist outside the play sessions, such as the
accessibility of a game. It could be speculated that failure to
seeing them as a part of the game experience design may lead to
failure to deliver a successful product. Yet again, this may have
implications for more holistic design processes.
An overall understanding of the different aspects of casual in
games cultures and of designing new types of casual games may
benefit from the perspective of “casual” as an expanded game
experience, where the experience should be seen as a continuum
from accessing the game to the gameplay itself.
Figure 2. Model for Expanded Game Experience (EGE).
We have tried to sketch an early version of the model to help to
understand the expanded experiences to do with casual games.
The model may also help in understanding hardcore game
experiences, but while hardcore experiences may be rather
gameplay concentrated, other models may elucidate these better.
In this early version of EGE model (see Figure 2) three
different phases of game experience have been identified. For
every phase of the experience there are different relevant outer
impacts and inner processes representing the contextual and
personal factors. Due to the simplified model, the experience may
be seen to form in the interaction of these two. Just as outer
impacts may vary according to situations and games played, every
phase may also have different relevant processes from the
This approach provides opportunities to understand players
more diversely than only within the approximations of being
“casual”, “hardcore” or other  segmentations. Casual games
may have the most heterogeneious audience, where motivations,
relevant skills and resources such as time vary even according to
the phases of the game experience. For example, for one player
understanding chess is not difficult, but complicated game
hardware may drive him away from online chess in the pursuit of
casual leisure. Somebody else may find that online chess is casual
fun if s/he is talented in gameplay and in understanding the
hardware. Then again somebody else may not succeed in finding
casual fun in online chess at all due to lacking the skills of the
game. In other words while skill level in outer game experiences
may concern general computer skills, in gameplay experiences
this may concern special skills in games (e.g. knowing that
smashing boxes may give you an advantage in the game).
Motivation and resources can be seen to be similarly varied.
While for someone the casual experience of games may mean not
being identified as a “gamer” even though they play games (outer
game experiences), for some it may mean fast access to the game
experience (game related experience) and for some short sessions
in gameplay and instrumental values of games (gameplay
experiences). In the design of casual games there can be different
approaches to support these casual aspects of the game experience
concentrating on what outer impacts they may be able to affect. In
this sense the different aspects of casual games discussions may
be thought of as being different approaches in casual game
7. FUTURE WORK
We will continue to develop the model for expanded game
experience (EGE) to get a clearer view of the potential of casual
games and this way to see what is absent from the discussions.
This will be then further developed into a method for designing
and evaluating casual games.
The casual games discussion is diverse. Discussions cover the
properties of a game, gamers and gaming; factors of production
and marketing. Confusion in the discussion may occur when there
is no clear conception of what is meant by “casual”. However, the
discussion is an indication of an extensive phenomenon that could
be called casual in games cultures. This includes the topics of
play behaviours, attitudes toward games and the widest possible
target audience as well as all the implications from these for the
design process. Casual is so far best defined by the easiness of the
game experience in its expanded sense, covering the whole
experience from the accessing of a game to playing it. This in no
sense make things less complicated: different and even conflicting
features may support the casual experience in different design
solutions. That is: casual in games may manifest itself differently
in different games.
In this article we have tried to shed light on the discussion around
casual games by defining some of the key terms used. We think
that it is important to understand the difference between playing
casual games and playing games casually. It is also important to
realise that “casual” itself is not only a property of the game but
relates to many other things such as player attitude or availability
of the game. The casual game discussion is also heavily biased
towards certain kinds of casual games such as Zuma or Diner
Dash, which represent the high-end products of casual game
business. Advergames, pre-installed games and Flash games can
be also seen as part of the casual games phenomenon, especially
when the “casual” is not explained only through the game’s
Casual games phenomena have revealed that gaming should be
studied from a wider perspective than just scrutinizing the
relationship between the gamer and the game in the gaming
situation. Future versions of the EGE model may give a wider
perspective on the design and evaluation of casual games.
We would like to thank Professor Frans Mäyrä and the whole
staff at the Game Research Lab for their support and comments
on the paper, especially Eetu Paloheimo, for the co-operation in
developing the EGE model. We would also like thank our
industry partners from Nokia, TeliaSonera, Veikkaus, Sulake and
Sumea/Digital Chocolate. Special thanks go to Eric Zimmerman
for interesting discussions on casual games during the Games &
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