Casually Hardcore

Sometimes I think God rested on the seventh day because he celebrated His Creation a little too hard the night before. Certainly I’ve spent my fair share of Sabbath days sobering up on the couch, but purchasing an iPad has made that ritual substantially less penitent.

Yeah, this is going to be Another iPad Post. i’m even typing it out on the damn thing. Hungover on the couch, remember?

I’ve spent a ton of time today tapping my way through Groove Coaster, a simple rhythm game with a funky techno soundtrack that digresses into cheesy J-Pop synth just often enough to be entertaining. I completed seven or eight tracks in about an hour of casual play and felt really satisfied with how I’d spent my time.

But hang on a second. That’s not how I would have felt five or ten years ago. In fact, chubby ol’ 16-year-old me would have laughed in my face for being so simple-minded and easily amused. Games are supposed to be complex, engaging experiences that enthrall you on multiple levels (narrative, design, music, mechanics) and hold you captive for hours or even days at a time. In high school, I played Deus Ex five or six times over. I lost more than a hundred hours to Morrowind when I should have been in class at the local university. I played straight through the entire Call of Duty campaign in the middle of pulling an all-nighter the night before my research paper was due. Man, those were games.

In comparison, Groove Coaster seems anemic. It costs $0.99 (buy that shit) and can probably be completed in 2-3 hours, maybe 4 if you want to get a perfect score on every track. The graphics are simplistic, just a wavy line studded with tap points that twists and turns before a flashing neon background that looks like a WinAmp equalizer skin circa 1996. Even the act of playing the game is simple: I had the most fun when I unfocused my eyes slightly and concentrated on tapping the screen (anywhere will do) when the music hit a beat. Simple. Hypnotic. Dumb.

But what 16-year-old me doesn’t realize is that it’s a false dichotomy: casual rhythm games and epic role-playing adventures are two sides of the same coin. They’re the currency with which we buy respite from the trials and tribulations of our day. When I was younger, I played games to escape a suburban existence I found banal and unfulfilling. Today, I played games to make the time pass quicker while I recuperated from a weekend of poor decisions, including drinking heavily and running three miles barefoot through city streets. Which Alex is hardcore, and which is casual? Today I learned the difference is meaningless. I hope that in the coming months more game developers will reach the same conclusion.

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