Casual Games, Time Management, and the Work of Affect

by Aubrey Anable

Summary

Anable is specifically focused on casual games, specifically mobile or Facebook games that are designed for and that we play intermittently, for small bursts of time. She writes in response to critics of casual games, such as Sam Anderson‘s article from the New York Times Magazine, which argues that casual games are stupid and taking over our lives. She links his dismissal of these types of games to feelings that these games are just procrastination from work and also typically associated with female players. She argues that, “rather than being blank spaces in our day, casual games are affective systems that mediate relations between players and devices, workers and machines, and images and code (and our feelings about those relations).”

Screenshot from Diner Dash mobile game on Android.
Screenshot from Diner Dash mobile game on Android.

She specifically looks at the game Diner Dash and analyses by Ian Bogost and Shira Chess that discuss the game. She says for Bogost, casual games are looked at in terms of aesthetic and taste. Chess analyzes these labor/time management games with an affective lens, particularly focused on the labor system within the game. Anable sees potential in looking at how these games fill the spaces of the in between in people’s lived experiences such as the time during commutes between home and work as she sees these moments as most like “everyday life.” She sees studying these games, with particular attention to affect, as a way to capture our understanding of everyday life, despite the difficulty in theorizing about these moments.

Cultural Studies & Critical Theory

With the discussion of Affect Theory and the discussion of Marxist theory and the labor analysis of these casual games immediately made me think of the Amy J. Elias reading in the McComiskey English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s) that we read for this week. I hadn’t necessarily thought of Affect in this way, but more in terms of interface and design, so Anable’s piece opened my ideas up a little bit. The article also brought up issues of labor and power that are beginning to be discussed more in game studies such as issues of representation in games and in the labor pool of those involved with games (designers, game journalists, community managers, etc.) in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and ability and these seemed to relate closely to discussions in critical theory and cultural studies.

Coming Back to Narratology vs Ludology

One of Anable’s conclusions in the piece is that looking specifically at representation (narratology) or code (ludology) can be useful, but the entire field can’t be skewed in one direction. Rather, she says that the understanding has become too binary, and it also is gendered due to that binary. Representation is gendered feminine, while computation is gendered masculine (note some earlier male scholars in game studies that were very hesitant about the studying of narratives). Also, this makes me think of current debates in the larger public community in video games in which discussions of representation are often seen in negative ways by the male, heterosexual, and white gamers, such as #gamergate and the surrounding conversations.

“The divide between representation and computation in game studies mirrors other gendered binaries like nature/culture, emotion/logic, passive/active, humanities/hard sciences, etc. and makes it difficult to ask of casual games questions that seek to understand how computation and representation may actually work together to convey cultural meaning.”

This quote also seems to get at a question that I felt myself repeatedly asking–‘Why aren’t we looking at both game play mechanics and narrative?’ Anable was clearly problematizing the gendered binaries present within analysis frameworks in game studies.

Hardcore versus Casual Gamer Binary

Anable’s piece made me start thinking about a current mobile game I’m playing (and the internal shame I often feel in engaging in it. I know it’s ridiculous–I often still feel guilty for playing it though.). But it is fun! And weirdly, as a casual game, it’s linked to the Fallout series, which is more serious console/PC game.

Fallout Shelter screen capture.
Fallout Shelter screen capture.

 Even as someone who identifies as a gamer, casual games even moreso seem to have a shameful stigma attached to them in a couple of ways. First, it’s considered a waste of time (a lot of people feel this way about video games in general), but this comes out even moreso on social media when I see posts chastizing people for “wasting their time” playing FB games. There’s another level of this too though–mobile games are casual. Let me put it this way: Casual means you’re a scrub in hardcore gaming groups. Being a casual gamer means not being serious at all about games, not being skilled at games, and means in a multiplayer situation, you are a liability to your group members. Anable mentions the gendered connection between casual games and female gamers.

Therein lies some difficulty. Depending on the game being played and the community of gamers, your position as a gamer often comes into question, especially as to whether you’re hardcore or casual. It’s more of a spectrum, even though those two terms make up the binary. Players who spend more time in games consistently, play “serious” games, and have investments in games (achievements, titles, etc.) are more likely to be considered hardcore, while players who spend less time in games, play shorter or mobile games, or play games that are “gimmicky” games like Rock Band or Just Dance are deemed casual. The reality is that a lot of people fall along a spectrum and play a variety of games and spend varying time playing games.

It’s already difficult for female players to be taken seriously in hardcore gaming circles. I’ve repeatedly had to “prove” myself to raid groups that I can handle being in the group, something that my other guild members didn’t have to do. I think more casual games are being accepted by mainstream gamers (lots of people I know play Candy Crush), and some of that may be games like Fallout Shelter that stem from a line of Fallout games that are considered more “serious” games that people play before the new game comes out. There is still an association with women and being “casual” gamers though, that often forces them to “prove” their abilities which I find frustrating. This is something that I want to talk about in scholarship, though I’m still grappling with how to do that.

References

Anable, Aubrey.  “Casual Games, Time Management, and the Work of Affect.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1.1 (2012): n. pag. Web. 15 Oct. 2015.

Diner Dash. Playfirst. 2004-2015. Video game.

Elias, Amy J. “Critical Theory and Cultural Studies.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComiskey. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 233-274. Print.

Fallout Shelter. Bethesda. 2015. Video game.

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