The new mobile game starring Kim Kardashian is gaining attention for a lot of reasons – it’s going to make a fortune, people love to hate Kim Kardashian, and over at Polygon, because the game lets you be gay. While that’s certainly something to be lauded, it’s not really all that unusual in the casual game space. Here’s a quick post I wrote on my Facebook page back on June 26, 2013:
Casual games, as a rule, don’t get a lot of attention from the game industry. Sure, there are the crossover hits like Plants vs Zombies and the games so large they can’t be ignored like Angry Birds, but by and large, “real” gamers look down their noses at casual games because they’re for “soccer moms” and people who don’t really care if they can pull off a headshot or not.
There’s a game called Life Quest 2 that is very popular in the casual gaming scene. It’s a cute little time management game, in which the challenge is to find enough time in your busy schedule to fulfill your personal goals while also eating, sleeping, and commuting. You juggle school, work, family, recreation – even local politics, if that’s your jam.
You can also marry someone of the same sex and have kids with them, an event the game meets with the same fanfare as completing a degree at school or getting a promotion. In other words, within the scope of your life, it’s a big deal, but it’s not a Big Deal. You didn’t get a press release about the same-sex marriage in Life Quest 2. You didn’t read a news story about it. It’s just part of the game, not a statement about anything other than the fact that, hey, some people want to share their lives with someone who’s the same sex, so we should let them do that in the game.
I can’t help but wonder how this same game mechanic would be treated if it were in a triple-A game. You know, a “real” one. Oh, wait, I don’t have to wonder – we’ve seen the hullaballoo and shouting that happen whenever game aimed at the hardcore audience dares to suggest that anything other than heteronormative behavior is ok.
You can find Life Quest 2 on BigFishGames.com, if you’d like to see what the complete lack of fuss is about.
It’s not an in-depth examination of Life Quest 2’s casual handling of sexuality (I don’t even touch on the fact that you can adopt a child as a gay couple), just a brief commentary on the fact that casual games have been forward thinking for a very long time. For example, you want to play as a woman in a casual game? Take your pick. The majority of protagonists in casual games are realistic women, albeit women who are traveling through time, trying to break a curse, or rescue their true love. (Supernatural romance is a hot trend in the casual game space right now. Thanks a lot, Twilight. You’re da besssssss.)
Casual games offered on portals like Big Fish Games also have demos. All of them. You can try every single game for at least 30 minutes, if not an hour, before you decide whether or not to pony up the cash for the rest of it, something I certainly wish “real” games let you do. Oh, and in case you’re thinking that casual games don’t really matter in the industry, Big Fish gets about a billion downloads a year. Yes, with a b. Now, each download doesn’t turn into a sale, but you go right ahead and figure out what conversion rate you’d need on those before it started to Seriously Matter. And that’s before we get into subscription models that reward you for making frequent purchases with things like discounts and extra content. Yeah, casual games are a serious business, and have been for a while.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that casual games are something everyone will enjoy – they are, by definition, smaller experiences than something like Shovel Knight or Call of Duty or Dragon Age. Those with stories can usually be completed in six hours or less, and they’re not packed with an abundance of deep systems. They’re for players who like to play for a bit and get on with their lives, and they are, overwhelmingly, designed for women. (I’ll just let you simmer on how normal it is for games not designed with a male audience in mind to treat female characters with respect and consider it ordinary for you to be something other than straight.) The industry could learn a lot from the so-called casual space, though, if it would just deign to look.