Brain Age: Everybody is Hardcore

Today, I would like to write something about “Hardcore” and “Casual” players and how there is no such thing. As we all know, at some point somebody came up with those two names to explain how different people react to games. This distinction was used a long time in the industry. Indeed, the idea is simple enough to understand just by the sound of the words. Yet, makes you look like you actually have a profound concept and understanding of the market. Yes, the idea is perfect for idiotic powerpoint-based marketing meetings!

A scientific proof of how hardcore my grilfriend is.

Seriously, the distinction between “Hardocre” and “Casual” is just stupid and at least the game designers should immiediatly stop using it. Actually, the Nintendo DS Game “Brain Age” reminded me how difficult and complex the situation is. In fact, its so difficult and complex that understanding it might be the key to understand general cultural development.

This is too much for this little post so I just stick to the facts and we can all pretend to be philosophers later on.

For a long time, I was trying to get my girlfriend to play games with me. I know I am not the only one, many guys of my age have the same problem. I actually managed to get her to play with me regularly by doing a Salsa course in exchange. Although it sounds a bit silly, ended up spending a lot of time together both doing new things, which is always great for a relationship. So, don’t laugh! I know I would.
We were experimenting with a lot of games and I’ve learned a lot from her how “casual” players see games. She was quite patient and indulged the torture, but I couldn’t infect her with the same kind of devotion I have towards the topic. I had to ask her all the time, her attitude was quie reluctant. She always watched the time and complained if the game was running too long. All the time, she was quite reserved and neutral. It met the cliché of the “causal” player. However, the most intense reaction I got from her was when she first saw “Brain Age”. I didn’t think much of the game, for me it was some random, quite simple and witless puzzle game dressed as an IQ test. It made, however, all the difference.

My girfriend learned about the game from Yu-Chung’s girlfriend which already might have changed her attidute a lot. She was instantly quite euphoric about it and she kept telling me how she would like to buy it. I repeat: TO BUY IT! Before, she was nagging everytime I spent MY money on games. Now, she wanted to buy one HERSELF! She doesn’t even own the Nintendo DS. I was even more surprised when someday she actually bought the game completly on her own. Ok, she ordered it at Amazon but at that point, it struck me that it realy must have left a big impression on her. As you know, the game requires from you that you play it every day and for the last month or so she has been playing it every day. She does it totally on her own, I don’t even have to ask her. She doesn’t even ask me, which shows that she doesn’t really care if I know that she plays it or not. Interested in the game design, I also play it with her, but this is the first game she exhibits more commitment to then I do. Also, in many of the puzzles, she is much better then I am. I don’t know if it is a reason for that commitment or the result, I guess both.

This explains quite well the point of this post. There is no such thing as “Causal” players. Everybody is “Hardcore”. You just have to find a way how to motivate someone to play a game. In “Rules of Play”, Salen and Zimmerman quote Bernard Suits by bringing up the term “Lusory Attitude”. It is a certain mindset a player must be in, in order to play a game. The player needs to be willing to accept the game’s rules. To make it short: a player needs to WANT to play a game. In fact, we all reject various games for different reasons. There is no such thing a a player so “Hardcore” that he would have a Lusory Attitude towards every kind of game. So we can all understand how some games, you simply don’t want to play.

On the other hand, everybody can play a game with devotion and a hardcore attitude. If fact, this is what plaing games is about. You just need to get past their reflex to reject that game. The trick is to arrange everything in such a way that your players get in the right mood, the Lusory Attitude. So the distinction between “Casual” and “Hardcore” seems to make sense on the surface, but doesn’t explain anything at all. In Game Design, it is much more helpful to think about how your audience will percieve you game and what kind of attutude they take towards your game.

So how does “Brain Age” do that. I can only deliver small observations. First, I guess it helped a lot that my girlfriend learned it from another girl. I guess my girlfriend would be much more sceptical about a game I choese, since she knows I have good reasons to convince her to play something. In a way, she doesn’t want to play because I do. Here is a nice way to think about a game design: how to you bring people to talk to other people about a game they play? Brain Age is quite good at that. By being quite scientifical and making bold claims about someone’s intelligence, it recieved incredible coverage in non-game centered media. What other games have you read a newspaper article about lately? GTA and DOOM don’t count.

Brain Age doesn’t hide that it is a game. I already mentiond that in my Context is King Article. You don’t have to pretend you aren’t playing a game in order to play the game. You don’t have to pretend you are someone else then you are. Take “Half-Life” or “Final Fantasy” for contrast. “Brain Age” isn’t about some Gordon Freeman or fighting evil. It is about how smart YOU are. Prentending to be someone else is a habbit taken from the movies which games designers should always be suspicious against. Heroes and a big story might be necessary in Movies. They are a stupid burdens in games. Having to pretend to be someone else is too much for most people, they rather reject the whole game as childish. Rightly so!

And just like Street Fighter, Brain Age can be played very quickly if necessary. It doesn’t mean that people will spend less time in front of it. Oh no, if they like it, they will spend hours plaing it. It just means that you can simply try it very quickly and leave the game if you don’t like it. It makes the decision to play much easier since you have much less to loose.

The controls in Brain Age are extremly “non-standart” for a game. Here, you can see how it contributes to the excellent game design. You hold the DS like you would hold a Book. You use just the Stylus just like you use a pen in real-life. You even can simply speak into the Micophone. There is nothing that reminds you of the games that people consider childish. You might be surprised how alien and intimidating modern game controllers look for people, who don’t have gaming experience. The alternative controls don’t only look less intimidating, they are also much simpler to understand. Here, the Interface tries to understand the User, not the other way around.

This is a “Brain Age” inspired rendering of a standart game controller by my grilfriend. I told you she was harcore!

In the end “Brain Age” also gives you a good reason to play it: to get smarter. It doesn’t matter if you really get smart or not, this is stll a better reason then to save the Earth or save a Princess or something. It also constantly shows you how you get better (smarter!) and encourages you to play short but frequently.

Questions about what you eat, drawing contests and little rewards make you come back every day. In fact, it is even more fun if you play it together since you can compare your results. Again this encourages talking about the game and at the same time, the chance that you get bored and stop playing is smaller since it is something you share with other persons.
Other games seem to use almost a hostile stategy against their users. They seem to try to kidnap you by using up all you time you have. But then, after 30 Hours of constant playing the game is over, so you can go buy the sequel. “Brain Age” uses a very peaceful and diplomatic stategy, it goes for distance. It tries to become an exciting part of your life without destroying it. When a game cares so much about a players, it’s easy to develop a Lusory Attitude towards it.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

8 responses to “Brain Age: Everybody is Hardcore”

  1. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    i will comment on your post next week, but for now – i’d like to quote a developer of “casual games” in the “casual_games” mailing list:

    “This article suggests that a lot of what people think is true about the casual games market is very wrong. There are serious implications for anyone developing or marketing casual games. Here’s the article: “

    an nice excerpt right from the beginning:

    “Perhaps the biggest surprise of the survey, […} is that 37 per cent of participants stated that they play nine or more game sessions per week.”


  2. Krystian Majewski

    I just wanted to add this as a post scriptum but you were faster. What a coincidence.

    Btw, in “Humane Interface” (Sorry for quoting this guy so often, I will read new design books soon, Yu-Chung) Jef Raskin also notices that seperating users in experienced and unexperienced isn’t a good procedure either. Programs like Macromedia Flash use this bad philosophy by having a beginner-mode and advanced-mode. Also, in all programs you have mouse based menues which can be accessed by keyboard shortcuts as well. This sound resonable at first, however it means that you have to learn using the interface TWICE. First, you learn where the menu items are. Then, to use the program faster, you have to learn the keybord shortcuts. At this point, you are AGAIN a beginner and work slower instead of working faster. So most users will stick to Mouse-based menus and never learn the faster keyboard shortcuts. A better interface would use just ONE mode which is easy to learn and fast if you use it frequently. An interface that is easy to understand for a beginner doesn’t have to be a burden if you use it more frequently.
    I found this Advanced/Beginner fallacy similar to the Hardcore/Casual philosophy.

  3. Yu-Chung Chen

    about the hotkey thing: Rhinocerous (, a NURBS modeling program) uses an unusual approach I like:

    There’s a command line window between your standard menus/tools bar and your viewport (and possibly user-configurable).

    This command line window shows every command and also parameter input of the user. So if you click on the extrude icon, the command line says “extrude” while also asking for the height parameter. You can input this parameter by moving your mouse – while the value generated is fed back to the command line – and then clicking, or you can input the number directly and precisely with the keyboard.

    What I like about it is this: the command line window not only acts as an input device, but also as a feedback channel. And since your actions are tracked in there, learning the commands’ names almost happens naturally. Of course it also helps that the commands have distinct and understandable names for the most party.

    Here comes the part about the hotkeys: after a while of using, you are very likely to know the commands by name, and the fact that every keyboard input goes into that command line window means you can type in the desired command at anytime.

    There’s no need to assign single keypresses as commands and relearn them. And the mapping problem of single keys is avoided: does ‘R’ mean revolve or round? Does ‘F’ mean fillet or fill?

    The smart command line, on the other hand, will provide proposals with each keystroke: typing “R” shows “Revolve”, if that’s what you want, just press enter. If not, just continue typing. At “Ro” you will get “Round”. And you don’t have to rely on that: Chances are you’d just key-in the whole (short) command blindly and know you’ll get the right one.

    The drawback is, of course, the fact that your mouse hand would switch back and forth a lot. Maybe this would work great with the CombiMouse ( Or with verbal inputs? Then again, this wouldn’t require the command line window.

  4. Steven An

    Just discovered your blog – interesting stuff!

    Some comments: I think most marketers would agree with you, actually. Because, from what I gather in the gaming press, the “casual” market is basically full of people like your girlfriend. They’re not willing to spend 30 hours to immerse themselves into the role of a hero in a giant epic fantasy. They want games that are player-friendly, or as you so well put it, games that “care about the player.” So I think most industry people would characterize the “casual” market much like you characterize your girlfriend here.

    And believe me, they would LOVE to turn casual players like your girlfriend into “hardcore” players. Probably using the same tactics you mention here, such as mainstream appeal, short play times, and easy to learn controls.

    So one way to look at it is: your girlfriend was once casual, but Brain Age was the gateway game that turned her hardcore. And for an industry in need of more consumers, such gateway games are very important.

  5. darkflame

    To start with, I agree absoluetely the distinction between Hardcore/Softcore is stupid.
    Its also funny how games are retroactively labeled for one group. (eg, Tetris; A game that can get very hardcore indeed).

    Personaly, while I consider myself a gamer, theres many casual games I enjoy more then the hardcore games I am “supposed to”.

    For instance, I find most RPGs bore me to death. It just puts the player in a big loop of “Fight, level, Fight”, with no inteligence or *player improvement* happening at all. The *charecter improvement* is just a cycle that is unavoidable and inevitable.

    Brain Age, on the other hand, is more like Tetris, or even Mario.
    The things your charecter can do stay the same, but *you* get better at doing them.
    To me this is much more statisfying and far too few games are about this these days.

    One good example, Id recomend is “Zack and Wiki”. A game that I think really pushs why you cant devide games into casual or hardcore.
    Its a game thats accisble, yet makes you think really hard.

    One point I do argue with is this;

    “Having to pretend to be someone else is too much for most people, they rather reject the whole game as childish. Rightly so!”

    The “Childish” distinction is just as bad as the casual one.
    Games labeled as childish are normaly more enjoyable then many so called “adult games”.

    Secondly, theres plenty of adults who pretend to be other people; Actors.
    Not all actors do it for money, many amtaurs and semi-proffesionals do plays for their own enjoyment, and to entertain others.
    Likewise, theres also plenty of people enjoying (non-computer) Role Playing Games.
    (and yes, you can dismiss that group as “nerds”, but its a hell of a lot more socialy involving then just about any other form of gameplay)

    To dismiss the whole idea of pretending to be someone else as childish I think is a miss-step.
    I dont think its a barrier to getting people into games, I think the problems lye elsewhere. (mainly in that too many games are insula to their own internal logic that has to be learnt).

    A charecter-metaphor for the game mechcanics lets you have a story in a game, and, imho, a good story can improve just about anything.

    I think if more people were awhere of them, games like Zack and Wiki, or Another Code could be very popular amongst non-gamers.
    A lot of potential buyers for those sort of games arnt really awhere they exist though.

  6. Krystian Majewski

    Thanks for your comment. I would like to answer to some of your remarks.

    I’m not really suggesting a new distinction of “Childish” and “Non-Childish” games. I just think that using an embedded narrative, which forces the players to pretend they were somebody else puts them in a position they would normally consider childish.

    It is true that acting may be a very noble and worthwhile activity. However, we should also realize that most people, especially those who don’t play games, would rather watch other people act instead of doing it themselves. Acting always bears the danger of ridiculing yourself and thus it is perceived as something for people with great confidence or who take themselves less seriously – especially children. This creates a high threshold for entering those kinds of games if you are an adult.

    The two groups you’ve mentioned (Actors and Role Players) are minority groups. Additionally, Role Players have a strong affinity towards games in general. They can’t be taken as an example.

    However, I’m open to new ideas and I would like to hear more about what you think is the entry barrier for games.

    I’ve recently played the two games you’ve mentioned, Zack & Wiki and Another Code. I liked them very much and I will possibly write something about them soon. Another Code is by Cing, who later did Hotel Dusk, which I already wrote a lot about (here, here, and here).

  7. Krystian Majewski

    And thanks for your comment too, Steven. One thing:

    “So one way to look at it is: your girlfriend was once casual, but Brain Age was the gateway game that turned her hardcore.”

    No, that’s exactly not what happened. She did like Brain Age and she tried some other things but she never liked the more stereotypical games. Like I said, it is more complicated then that, labeling people is too simple.

  8. Evil Dan

    Wonderfull!! I will perhaps try to convince my wife to play games by being going to Salsa lessons – it’s brilliant!


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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