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Defining Playstyles: Beyond casual vs. hardcore

In a recent Totem Talk post, I made a loot list for enhancement shamans that have access to ICC but are not progression raiders, because they are either alts or they are -- drum roll, please -- casual. That's right: I used the c-word without context. Casual. There, I said it again without context. Excuse me while I duck from the rotten vegetables being thrown in my direction.

The use of that c-word in relation to an Icecrown Citadel loot list sparked a very interesting comment thread. Most comments were well thought-out, added value and furthered the discussion. Some were, to borrow Adam Savage's favorite term, vitriolic, because of my heinous misuse of the term "casual." I said it again without context. I'm just casually throwing around "casuals" here.

Given the reaction that post received, I started doing some research into what exactly "casual" and "hardcore" actually mean. What I found was not surprising at all: They mean completely different things to absolutely everyone. The MMO population of players, across all games, is estimated at over 61 million people. There are as many variations on play time and playstyle as there are players in the game. Do you really think we can divide this many people simply into two groups of just casuals and hardcores?

I think it's time we move beyond the polarizing definitions of casual and hardcore and come up with some definitions of our own.

Is my casual your hardcore?

In a WoW, Casually article from last year, Robin Torres asked -- and answered -- the question, "What is casual?" She defines different levels of casual play and concludes the distinction is how you define fun. That may answer the question about defining "casual," but what about everything beyond that level of play? And where does the "casual" line end?

In late 2008, after the release of Wrath of the Lich King, Adam Holisky and Mike Schramm went back and forth about hardcore, including an official forums quote from Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer) noting if you were level 80 at that point, you were "relatively hardcore."

In Big Crits, we have a social rank called "da Crew," built for players who either can't commit to our 12-hour-per-week raiding schedule or who aren't up to the progression requirements. It includes fans who are passionate about the show (hi, Blaargh and Altheath!) as well as Sen'Jin locals who got sick of unsuccessful PUGs on a medium-population realm. On the whole, it's been a very successful platform for raiders and casuals non-raiders alike. Thus, my basis for a "casual" player is one who has regular access to approximately six endgame ICC bosses in three to four hours of play on one night of raiding. Is my "casual" your "hardcore"? Are we sick of these two words yet?

I even put the question of hardcore vs. casual out to Twitter a few days ago. Rhidach responded with a post trying to answer the question, and it sparked some great discussion in the comments. He concluded that "serious" is a good classification for his guild. I like the term, and it's a good start to get away from the casual/hardcore polarization.

These aren't the classifications you're looking for

I thought maybe there was some study about MMOs and player types. When I think of MMO research, I immediately head to Nick Yee's Daedalus Project and his more recent PARC PlayOn 2.0 study with Nic Ducheneaut. They tackle motivations of game play, but they don't define where these motivations lay on the casual-to-hardcore sliding scale. There is an older article about the player life cycle, but these aren't the classifications I'm looking for, either, because even within the life cycle, there are different levels of play to the game.

And that is the purpose of this exercise today: to clarify the levels of play beyond a polarized view.

The scientific world uses a model of classification that we all learned in school: life, domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. Imagine if mammals were at the species level of classification instead of the class level. That's where I think the terms casual and hardcore belong: at the class level. I want to get down to the species level.

At the species level

I'll my best to avoid categorizing by PvP, PvE and RP. Those are goals of play, and within each goal there are variations in play or participation. My goal is to not use the polarizing terms in any of these classifications.
  • Single Player MMO I don't care about your endgame. I might make it to max level, or I might not. I won't join your guild and probably won't return your whisper. Whether I play one hour per week or 40 hours per week, I play the game for the solo content.
  • Socializer I play to play make friends and have fun. I'm just as happy to hang out in Dalaran and chat with guildies, make fun of people in trade chat, or get in Vent/Mumble. Battlegrounds, raids, dungeons and the like are not important to me, but I'll run them if my friends are.
  • Altaholic I must play every class, sometimes multiple times, across multiple realms. Max level and endgame is not a priority, but playing every class is.
  • Hobbyist I like to play but want to play the way I want to play. I might do an obscure achievement, just because, or level a profession, or immerse myself in one long quest line. Ultimately, it's a hobby, and I can put it down tomorrow. (Credit to Casual Raid Leader for this term.)
  • Jenkins I'm max level and I play endgame content, whether it's raids, arenas, battlegrounds or organized RP. I love the game, but I'm only willing to push myself so far. Too much pushing from leaders isn't fun. No theorycrafting, no research; I'm just doing my thing and participating in the game as it goes on around me. Hey, at least I have chicken.
  • Time Crunched If I could, I'd play at a serious level or above, but due to time constraints I can't. While not in game, I read everything I can. I research gear, specs and encounters. I maximize my in-game play time by being as efficient as possible; I'm only limited by the amount of time I can play because of real-life commitments. I sometimes get misclassified as "casual," whatever the heck that means!
  • Serious I participate in endgame content and push myself to be better. I play in a group with endgame goals, whether it's battleground wins, arena points or boss kills. I'll spend time out of the game doing research for my in-game goals. I "don't always approach fights 100 percent optimally," but I still get good results! (Credit to Celendus' comment on Rhidach's post for the term.)
  • Progression I play with the intention of taking on the hardest content in the game and reaching the top levels of play. I research my role extensively out of game and apply this knowledge in game. I still want to enjoy the game, but I'm not afraid of putting the extra hours and work into it, including committing to a schedule and being pushed by my leaders or my fellow players. My enjoyment of the game comes from achieving my goals, but not at the expense of my sanity.
  • Competitor I play to compete at the highest levels of the game. I will make sacrifices in game and out of game to achieve this end. I research and theorycraft to find ways to continually stay at peak performance. When new content or competitions become available, I will be among the very first players in the world to achieve them. I may be Machiavellian in my approach to achieve this goal, because the end justifies the means.

The scientific classification analogy breaks a bit because we move between different "species" of play depending on real-life circumstances. But isn't that a better system than just being "casual" or "hardcore"? What would you add? What would you change? Where do you fall?

May all your hits be crits!

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will destroy Azeroth as we know it; nothing will be the same! In WoW.com's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from brand new races to revamped quests and zones. Visit our Cataclysm news category for the most recent posts having to do with the Cataclysm expansion.

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