This holiday season, the video game industry is looking to reignite sales as two game titans, Sony and Microsoft, launch the next generation of game consoles.
Their target demographic is the group of dedicated players known as hard-core gamers. Dive into the wide world of video game culture on YouTube and you’ll hear that term being thrown about.
So what exactly is a hard-core gamer?
“Well, a hard-core video gamer would be somebody that is there at every single midnight release,” said Kelly Kelley, known in competitive e-sports circles as MrsViolence. “Playing the game for at least five to six hours, beating it within maybe 48 hours of release. That would be a hard-core gamer right there.”
Kelley qualifies. She makes a living as a gaming personality. You can find her online most nights, streaming matches of Call of Duty to her many fans.
That’s right, gamers stay up at night and watch other people play video games, the way sports fans watch football. It’s about the most hard-core thing a gamer can do.
In fact, more than 32 million people worldwide watched the world championships of the strategy game League of Legends this month, according to the makers of the game.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people playing cellphone games like Words With Friends.
“I have parents,” said Kelley, “and they love those games, and they ask me all the time: Does this make me a gamer? Yes. Absolutely it makes them a casual gamer.”
The Other Side
Casual gamers. That’s the other big group that gets attention from game makers. Inside gaming culture, “hard core” and “casual” are tribal divisions.
For the hard core, gaming is the passion. Casual players enjoy games, yet they don’t steep themselves in gamer culture rites like midnight openings. Still, as the gaming population grows, and gets older, exactly where those two tribes begin and end gets a little blurry.
Case in point: Ben Hill, who describes himself as an attempted casual gamer, is 38 and a first-time father. Once upon a time, though, he was hard core:
“I remember beating my brother up because he made the wrong type of noise when I was fifth boss in Kung Fu. I was like, ‘You ruined this game for me!’ ”
Hill has chilled out a lot since then, but he says that when he plays anything — even just a puzzle game on his cellphone — he still feels the pressure to excel.
“So I can somehow feel that I’ve been productive in my entertainment today,” Hill said with a laugh. “Which in of itself is ridiculous because one of the reasons we adopt entertainment as part of our lifestyle is to avoid that constant American rat race of being X-percentage productive and efficient in a given day.”
The Industry Divide
Analysts at the research firm NPD Group say that hard-core gamers still spend more than others buying games, but they note that those who play casual games like Candy Crush Saga are the fastest growing segment of the market.
“I think there is an antagonism from the hard core towards the casual,” said Jeff Cannata, who reviews video games for the Web series Newest Latest Best.
“I think there’s this perceived threat of the hobby, which the hard core appreciate at a deeper level, … being dumbed down, being simplified to bring in a wider audience,” he says.
The industry has begun to split development along the cultural divide, churning out less challenging mobile games and speeding up production of large blockbusters.
This means more games for everyone. But the monolithic gaming culture that Hill and Cannata grew up with may become a thing of the nostalgic past.