All of our misguided labeling of people as “casual” and “core” gamers has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The folks who played Pac Man in bars in the 70s didn’t consider themselves casual gamers, because no one was telling them to. These days, even the most infrequent gamer is inundated with messages online and in the world around them about games. They find “casual games portals” and see ads for “hardcore games on the iPhone!” These terms aren’t unheard of anymore, but they are unclear, and as a result we’ve all internalized our own meanings for them. What’s more, we’ve all labeled ourselves. The prominence of gaming in recent years has made our gaming habits part of our personal “Identity” – it is impossible to avoid.

Just as labeling others fails us, so does self-labeling – but sometimes we can’t help it. I, for one, know when a trailer is pandering to my inner geek, playing an epic score and showing some night elves back-flipping off of a basilisk, swords in hand (I made that up, I think). My sister, on the other hand, would think right away that this isn’t “for” her. That’s not due to a matter of taste, mind you, it’s just that the concept of a sword-and-sorcery RPG is too far removed from anything else she enjoys, and so she considers herself an outsider of its intended audience. The makers of that RPG might not consider her an outsider – they could simply consider her a “casual” gamer, and a month from now they’ll unleash new marketing tactics that mimic the Twilight trailers in tone, hoping to woo her over to their game.

The identity factor is important because it’s how the players evaluate themselves – even if you think you know that Johnny would love your Real-Time Strategy game, Johnny might hate all of the kids who have ever showed him one, and then you’ve got a problem. Microsoft’s recent faux pas at a Kinect publicity event – in which they insulted their established players by making them the butt of a joke for the sake of courting new players – all hinged on identity. Microsoft has made a strong case for Kinect’s appeal to uninitiated gamers, or gamers of certain tastes, but they assumed these gamers all shared a similar identity as well (by now we’ve figured out that these factors are all distinct). They called upon a negative stereotype of so-called “core” gamers and implied a correlation between the types of games available for the Kinect and the identities of the people who would enjoy them.

That’s not to say that identity can’t be used constructively when marketing games or generating interest in players – only that Microsoft’s words did more harm than good by sending the message to their established players that they wouldn’t like this (and it doesn’t like them!) Even the Kinect, however, has had some great, positive marketing that is identity-aware. The trailers, for instance, often feature the families playing the games more than the games themselves, and create a positive connection with the audience by appealing to our identities as a friend and family member. This opens doors for new users without slamming any doors shut for the established players.

How does your personal identity as a gamer, and as a member of society, affect what games you play? Think about this and you’ll understand why some gamers flock to derivative farming sims even when presented with a host of alternatives, or why Nintendo chose to shape their controller like a TV remote despite this design being impractical for many of their own flagship titles. It’s all a matter of player identity.

What are you Talking About?

I’m certain this isn’t a perfect system and there very well may be better ways of describing players and their relationships to gaming than what I’ve outlined here. What I am certain of is that the terms “casual” and “core” are not suited for describing games, but rather for describing players and their relationships to particular games. Furthermore, it is safe to say that “casual” and “core” often mean different things to different people, and thinking critically about these meanings can reveal new ways of thinking about the issue.

Next time you hear someone use the words “casual” or core to describe a game or a player, stop them for a moment for some clarification. Ask them, “What are you talking about? When you say ‘casual,’ what do you mean exactly?” Get on the same page with them before the conversation continues. Even if the two of you don’t come to all the conclusions that I have here, I’m certain that your conversation will benefit from it. And who knows, maybe you’ll realize that I got it all wrong (the number lines should be two-dimensional, and color coded!) and we’ll all benefit as a result.

Part 1: Core and Casual: What Are We Talking About?

Part 2: Initiation: Ever Played This Game?

Part 3: Taste: Everyone’s a Critic

Vincent St. John is an alumnus of The College of New Jersey where he majored in Computer Science, studied Interactive Multimedia, considered musical theater, and even passed one class in world history. When he is not being an armchair games critic, Vincent develops marketing strategies for social games developer Arkadium in New York.