The Cultural Gutter

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the not-so casual gamer

Andrew Smale
Posted May 11, 2006

When knowledge becomes an essential part of play.As the game industry continues to expand at an alarming rate, the hunt for mindshare continues. Hardware manufacturers and game publishers don’t care about people like me, the guy that buys at least one game a month and considers part of their daily intake of current events visiting sites like Gamespot and Evil Avatar. I’ve already been assimilated. They want the person who has a computer, but uses it for email and surfing a few websites. The person that finds the simple games that come with their cellphone strangely addictive. The person who orders a CD-ROM of Bejeweled when it is available for free. There is a constant search for the game to capture this demographic and get them to put a console next to their TV or upgrade their PC’s video card. But there is another archetype that quietly enjoys their genre, relatively free of the shackles of the hardware arms race, but having enough sense of what games have to offer to stay away from inconsequential puzzlers and the barrage of first-person shooter clones. They take their love of flight and manifest it inside a game. They are the flight simulator enthusiasts.

With games becoming more accessible, the definition of “casual gamer” has been broadened to the point where if you aren’t consistently immersed in games and gaming news, you’re labeled as casual. It’s unfair, of course, but consider it punishment from those that felt slighted back when games weren’t exactly considered a socially acceptable pastime. Casual gaming is not the same as console gaming; there is enough money being spent to suggest more than just a passing interest. It also isn’t the same as Grandma’s obsession with FreeCell — to me that’s just something to do on a computer. It’s a piece of software; the people that are playing it aren’t actively gaming. I think “casual” is dependent on a measure of effort spent to pursue the hobby coupled with the amount of time invested actually playing games. It’s a fragile characterization, but I’m going to continue with it for the sake of argument.

When we got our first family computer in the late 1980s, it didn’t have a hard drive. The operating system booted off of 5.25″ diskettes. My first experiences with the King’s Quest series involved swapping disks like it was going out of style whenever I went into a new area. It was frustrating. But my parents didn’t get this lumbering beast for us to play games — it was for education. They wanted my sister and I to be technically proficient. They wanted us to write professional-looking reports and impress the teachers. Not everyone had a computer in those days, and we should appreciate it they would say. But I liked playing games. I cut my teeth on monochrome arcade and adventure games with ear-bleedingly awful PC-speaker sound while my friends played with their NES in eight bits of glorious color. But that’s not the point of this story.

notsocasual-big.jpgMy father, ever the aircraft enthusiast, purchased Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 (Microsoft, 1988) shortly after getting our PC. He used to take me to Pearson Airport to watch the planes land when I was younger. He reads books about commercial airliners, and fiction that involves commercial airliners. He taught me the differences between the Boeing 727 and 747. Playing Microsoft’s ultra-realistic flight simulation was like a dream for him. He spent hours flying imaginary people between polygonal interpretations of real-world airports. I thought it was boring and had moved on to Spyhunter at that point (colors!).

Years later I tried to give him a copy of Falcon 4.0 (Microprose, 1998), to this day the most advanced flight simulator the PC has ever seen. I’ve passed off copies of Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simluator series that take players back to the air warriors of World War II. But he won’t touch any of them. “I’m not interested in dogfighting,” he would tell me. Ever since our first computer, Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series are the only games my father would ever be interested in playing. Though I’ve rarely known him to go out of his way to play it; it’s only a matter of whether he feels like it when already in front of the computer. Does that make him a casual gamer?

Flight simulators require a prior knowledge of aircraft in general, if not the basics about actually flying a plane. If this isn’t the case, it is necessary that time and effort be spent to learn about the science of flight through the game’s application of physics and complicated control schemes. It’s a significant mental investment, and not suited to the typical game sessions afforded by the pick-up-and-play console variety or the gunplay of first-person shooters. Furthermore, for the aircraft enthusiast, flight simulators may not even be considered a “game” at all. They simply become an extension of the hobby, like books or films on the subject. In that regard, there’s nothing casual about this type of gaming at all: it’s like research.

Spending time with a flight simulator involves wrestling with a substantial learning curve — a prospect that is daunting for the average gamer, and not even worth a second look for most. The market for these types of experiences is extremely niche as a result, because they don’t provide the immediate rewards of games that share more familiar control schemes and identifiable settings. The mod community keeps games like Falcon 4.0 alive, but what does the future of flight simulators hold in the face of this entertainment-driven industry? For people like my dad, these will be the only games they’ll ever play, with the need to upgrade to the next version entirely dependent on whether they feel like getting a new computer to handle the improved visuals. Similar to real world pilots, they are content to fly the same routes repeatedly, at ease in the notion that these simulators are the closest they’ll come to the real thing. There’s no need to worry about sitting through a puerile storyline or gimmick-laden gameplay; the game must simply satisfy a man’s desire to fly.

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