Games for Nongamers: What are they and why should we be concerned about them?

I’ve been seeing this phrase around a lot lately, specifically on the Apple App store. Little articles about the best or newest “games for nongamers”. Most of the time I ignore these lists because I already know the game I want from the App Store and I can’t be bothered by a distraction. Frankly, I also never figured that I was their target demographic, given that I’ve been playing games (digital and non-digital) for most of my life and would be considered by many to be a “gamer.”

My curiosity about these so-called “games for nongamers” piqued, however, when I opened the App Store a week ago and saw this photo:

What really caught my eye here was that they were now equating games for “nongamers” with families and games that were “fun, wholesome, and easy-to-learn”. Interesting. Does that mean that games for “gamers” are boring, indecent, and confusing? Well, no, that would be a propositional fallacy. Just because a nongamer’s game is fun and wholesome doesn’t mean a gamer’s game is the opposite. But it does shed some light on how some people who are outside of the gaming community and have little to no gaming experience view the wider world of games. A world that they don’t believe is for them.

So what games are for them? I was now curious to see what a game for a nongamer looks like. This particular article mentioned three games:
Clue: The Classic Mystery Game, OLO Game, and Pocket Build.

What Defines “Games for Non-gamers”?

In looking at the games (the latter two of which I owned well before this article came out) and in language used to the describe them, I found three different traits that the App Store curators might consider hallmarks of a game for nongamers.

The first is straightforwardness. The player knows what is expected of them either because of the simplistic and easy-to-learn controls or the familiar mechanics. For example, Clue: The Classic Mystery Game is just that, a classic mystery game. This is an adaptation of the very well-known and well-loved board game. Even OLO Game is a new take on shuffleboard, which is fairly ubiquitous, even in this age.

The second trait is creative or player-goal-oriented play. This is especially relevant to Pocket Build where there really is no “goal” other than ones that the player sets for themselves. This is similar to the Sims series which is another game often cited as a game for nongamers.

And the third in final trait, is that they are quick to play or facilitate stop-and-go play. In other words, they’re not a time suck. Each of these three games can be played in either under 10 minutes, or can be saved and returned to at a time that the player wishes with no consequences.

So I’ve talked about what might define a game for a nongamer, but what I’ve failed to explore until this point is what the heck is a nongamer? In a Google search for “games for nongamers” you’ll see that they are also referred to as “beginner” gamers, a term that I much prefer to “nongamers”. Nongamer is fine on its own to describe someone who doesn’t play games (either due to lack of interest or accessibility), but when you put it in the context of “games for nongamers” then it kind of loses its meaning, you know? As soon as a nongamer starts playing a game regularly (which is what this App Store article is trying to get them to do), does that, by definition, now make them a gamer?

But what, you may ask, defines a “gamer”? Great question! Everywhere I have seen formally defines a gamer as someone who plays video games or role playing games. Cool, I’d agree with that. And by that definition, I’m definitely a gamer. But informally, as a culture, we ascribe the title of “gamer” to someone who plays video games, probably competitive FPS or MMOs, for several hours a day. They are probably antisocial and almost certainly out of touch with reality in one form or another (according to pop culture and society). In most people’s minds, they are also probably male. But more generally, gamers play games. A lot. It’s what defines them. So frankly, it’s no wonder that nongamers are hesitant to play games that they think are for the societally defined “gamers” of the world. It’s intimidating and maybe misaligned with the nongamer’s view of themselves.

It alienates nongamers from gamers’ games and gamers from nongamers’ games, when really, in my opinion, they should all be just “games”…for everyone.

“Film Buffs” vs. “Gamers”

In talking about this phenomenon with my boyfriend, he mentioned that it reminded him of the distinction between so-called “film buffs” and the general movie consuming public, as it’s viewed by society. The relative break down of movie viewers might then look something like this:

Translating this language to games, you’ve got “gamers” and the general game consuming public, as it’s viewed by society. The relative breakdown of game players might then look something like this:

This is a fairly accepted social distinction. Just because there are a chunk of hardcore film buffs out there does not make the rest of society feel excluded from cinema as whole, and they still feel that they can enjoy movies more casually. Obviously, this is a very binary distinction of “film buffs” and everyone else–there are many shades of grey within each of these groups. The important thing to note though, is how the labeling and the effect that labeling has on the group that is not considered “elite” like “film buffs” and “gamers”. The gaming industry, and the way it has been represented in media and manifested in society, does not appear to be for everyone unlike the movie industry. “Gamers” are to games as “film buffs” are to movies but unlike with movies, the general public views that group as the only ones that can enjoy the medium. Thus, the creation of “nongamers”: people who play games, however casually or seriously, but do not fit the mold of the culturally-defined “gamer”.

Why Should We Care?

What effect does this have on the industy? Well, for one thing, it’s alienating to both parties, gamers and nongamers alike. It also artificially creates a singular genre of games, that is, the “gamers games” of which FPSs, RPGs, MMOs and other “complex”, intensive, probably competitive games are a part. It also, conversely, implies that games for nongamers are not “real” games, at least from the perspective of gamers. Frankly, that’s bad for the industry as a whole. If neither market feels that the other’s games are for them, then there are a lot of games whose potential is being widely missed. Not to mention the fact that it will be harder to attract more people to games long term if they’re constantly worrying about whether or not they’re hardcore enough to be a gamer or whether they’re wasting their time and money as a nongamer. Currently, both of these labels have some negative connotations and by marketing games to both “gamers” and “nongamers”, the industry is just reinforcing this false dichotomy.

It also as an effect on the kinds of games likely to be produced in the future and the quality of games we can expect. Designing for two drastically different demographics may limit the growth of each kind of game (i.e. “gamers’ games” vs “nongamers’ games”) as they get stuck in that particular market’s bubble. Crossover might be rarer and more difficult which would be a shame for the industry as a whole. There are plenty of great qualities of each kind of game that would be very cool to see paired together and fused. Finally, as relating to the industry again, it discourages movement between groups (e.g. nongamers become gamers and vice versa). Granted, I think that this issue of exclusivity in games has gotten much better over the last couple of decades, but continuing to use language that enforces the binary distinction between the elite and everyone else is detrimental to all.

What Can Be Done?

To be honest, I don’t really have a concrete answer for that question, but I think that the solution will have something to do with the kinds of labels we do or don’t give to the consumers of games. For example, I think that there are more accurate terms for “nongamer”, as it is defined by the App Store and other publications: “beginning gamer”, “casual gamer”, or “new gamer”. There are obviously issues to be found with each of these titles because they still carry distinct connotations of otherness since they are just defined in relation to “gamer”, while not actually being “gamers”, but each is better than just writing people off as “nongamers”. Frankly, I think the best possible solution, but also the hardest, is drastically redefining the term “gamer” to mean something more than it has in the past. A gamer is someone who plays games. Period. Maybe we need to use film language to describe elite gamers as “game buffs” or something else like that.

Regardless, it involves shifting the terminology so that “gamer” is the norm and “game buff”/”elite gamer”/etc. is the minority. Because currently, I’d probably not fit the definition of gamer, and that seems wrong to me.

Game images taken from the respective games via Google. Featured image from wallpaperswide.com; edits by me.

Thank you to Brenden C. for coming up with the great film buff and gamer analogy.

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