Apple's iTunes gaming division recently released a chart designed to educate new gamers, helping them progress from "lowly casual player" all the way up to "hardcore shooter junkie." While the thought behind the chart is harmless, it points to many of the issues and stigma that often prevent gamers from trying new things. According to the chart, if players start at the top and follow down the list, skills will improve, a blast will be had and they will learn the fundamentals. That's probably quite true. But, imagine sitting your grandmother down with this list and seeing how far she got before giving up. Some grandmothers might get farther than others, and some might sneer at the process in general. The point is that there seems to be a default persona that people picture when they think of lists like this, and that default is not always correct. Often, it is completely wrong.
Now, imagine that we took a tween or young adult who generally does not play video games--yes, they exist--and gave him or her down this list. It's quite possible that the kid sails through all of it or, like his or her grandmother, gives up after a few minutes. Again there are no guarantees. While the list is quite thorough, it's based on the age-old presumption that challenge level generally comes from the ability (or lack thereof) to respond quickly. If a gamer has quick motor reflexes, he or she is closer to "hardcore". This is not only insulting to those players who have little to no motor control--disabled or elderly players--but it also leaves out people who otherwise seem to be perfect for gaming but have zero interest in getting better at gaming.
If we are to measure "core" gaming, as we attempt to do each week right here, we should measure it with a general sense of the word. "Core" simply means a game that is slightly more challenging than a casual game, but not so challenging that a player would need to look up cheats to get out of a jam. But, we should never define "challenging" in such a way that only shooters or reflex-based gaming goes straight to the top of the charts--or in this case, the bottom -- automatically. While a pro gamer might very well have the reflexes of Star Trek's Data, his neural net might have a rough time tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle. For that hardcore pro-gamer who specializes in shooters, that crossword puzzle could be the hardest game he has ever played. It's also possible that we could ask a crossword puzzle champion, someone with a large IQ and a vast knowledge of, well, everything, to sit down and try a few levels on the latest Facebook shooter. Like many of us, he would be dead within seconds. For the genius crossword champion, that shooter could be his undoing. Each of us has something that is more or less challenging for many different reasons, but in general we can say that "challenge" can be measured and charted. It still needs to be clarified that challenging games come in all sorts of styles and mechanics.
This list actually attempts to show players how to start out slow and finish big. True, someone who became an expert at the games on the list would eventually find his or her skills honed and reflexes tightened. It can be argued, however, that much of that learning happens because of repetition, familiarity with equipment, or even recognition of oft-repeated mechanics. Many gamers can sit down and perform better than others not because they are somehow more skilled but because they are more familiar. Gaming, especially core gaming, can be daunting at first. But it's not rocket science, and the last thing the gaming community should do is confuse the issue. When we talk to non-gamers about our hobbies, we should never suggest that because they are starting out they have no ability. It's usually just a case that the newbie has never been around a game before. Casual, hardcore, core ... these terms do have meaning. We can comfortably apply them to games to represent different levels of challenge. But, "challenge" is not defined by only a handful of shooter or twitch-based mechanics. Puzzles, word games or hidden item games all offer their own form of challenge, and can be challenging in different ways for different people. We shouldn't forget that or we'll end up treating not just e-sports, but all gaming, as sport rather than entertainment.
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Beau covers MMORPGs for Massively, enjoys blogging on his personal site and loves social and casual gaming. He has been exploring games since '99 and has no plans to stop. For Games.com News, he explores the world of hardcore Facebook and social games. You can join him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.