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-- Image courtesy of onlineangrybirds.com

Rise of the casual gamer

Class starts in 10 minutes, and the person sitting next to you smells kind of funny. You don’t want to talk to him, but looking over your notes from the last lecture doesn’t sound very appealing, either. Then it hits you: “Angry Birds Seasons” just released 30 new levels!

Before you know it, you’ve spent the hour trying to destroy that one pig hiding underneath a stone slab, smiling that stupid little smirk each time you fail, and class is already over.

We’ve all been there or have at least witnessed someone silently celebrating a 50-point move on “Words with Friends” or anguishing the sun setting on another “Tiny Wings” run. With the rise of the smartphone, so came the rise of the casual gamer.

In the past, the term “gamer” harkened a very specific image — one that included Cheetos, a basement and a severe lack of pigment in sun-deprived skin. Those days appear to be a thing of the past as everyone and their mothers are now gamers in one way or another.

Now, I can’t sit here and pretend to be a video game historian or even call myself a true gamer. I have never been on a raid in “World of Warcraft.” I have no idea how many “Final Fantasy” games are out now. I have never beaten “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”

What I have done is achieved at least a two-star rating on almost every “Angry Birds” level to date, reached level 15 of Nazi Zombies on “Call of Duty” and earned a gold cup on every track in “Mario Kart” (for the Wii and N64).

You know what that makes me? A casual gamer, and I represent the majority.
Professor of Telecommunications and Cognitive Science and resident video game expert Edward Castronova agrees.

“Over 80 million people play ‘Farmville,’” Castronova said. “No more than a million have ever been on a raid in (‘World of Warcraft’).”

In fact, casual gaming has become so large that in 2005, the Casual Games Association was founded in support of those trying to develop the next “Cut the Rope.”

There are over 200 million casual gamers, according to the CGA’s website.

In 2009, casual game developers raked in more than $3 billion from mobile, iPhone and social network games.

“Smart game companies should make lots of casual games because that’s where the population is,” Castronova said. “Would you rather spend $100,000 to develop a game that 80 million people buy for $1, or spend $30 million to develop a game that one million people buy for $50?”

Does this shift in gaming spell doom for hard-core gamers who still enjoy complex storylines and insanely difficult levels? Of course not. 

“Just as there will always be a market for high-quality books, music and films, there will always be a market for high-quality games like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘WoW,’” Castronova said.

So, while companies continue to develop uber-expensive and complex games, many set to be released for the holiday season (Castronova assured me “Star Wars: The Old Republic” will be a hit), they still cannot come close to the number of casual games available anytime, anywhere.

There is just something about these addicting, five-minute games that keeps us entertained for hours. What is it about “Angry Birds,” a microcosm of the larger casual gaming world, that keeps us coming back for more, that makes it such a huge cultural hit? Leave it to Castronova to put his finger right on the pulse of the issue.

“‘Angry Birds’ combines rewards and challenges in a very simple, easy-to-learn way,” he said. “And everyone gets satisfaction from knocking stuff down.”

Yes, we do. And while I may never play the new “Star Wars” game, I guarantee I’ll be in class later this afternoon, slingshotting perturbed birds and causing as much destruction as possible across my iPhone.

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