‘Casual’ vs. ‘Competitive’ – The False Dichotomy Needs To Die
You know how this goes. There are ‘casual’ players and there are ‘competitive’ players. There are players who try their utmost to win, for whom anything goes and there are no rules except the ones written down; there are players who don’t care whether they win or lose and are just out to put whatever toys they feel like down on the table and have fun.
My old friend and comrade Ranz wrote a screed back in the Mark I days, which I feel outlines the situation perfectly:
I owe it to my opponent to try to win. If we are not both trying to win, then why play? There are plenty of other FUN things to do. Why play a game? Why have the game governed by rules? Why have rules about victory points and conditions? Why not just get drunk? Why not just play “Sorry” and roll dice and run around a board while drinking beer and eating pretzels?
I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of wargames – the ones that aren’t about pushing your toys around as you accurately recreate the Battle of Knob Creek Bridge in 15mm scale and not rolling a single die or making a single tactical choice of your own – are games with a winner and a loser. One player or team wins and the other players or teams involved do not win. That’s competition. Whether they like it or not, the most laid-back and super-chill of ‘casual’ wargamers are still playing a competitive game. They are competing. They are engaged in competition. They are competitive.
Their denial is understandable. They have been told to shut up because people are concentrating on a super serious game over here. They have been scolded over and over for ‘sloppy play’ because they don’t care about measuring down to the millimetre. They have sat through half-hour arguments and interminable forum ‘discussions’ over the precise impact of the Oxford comma in the Skeleton Militia’s equipment options. They have carried their toy soldiers all the way to the games club of a Friday night and have sat down ready to chill after work and the game’s over in turn two because someone’s solved the scenario pack with a series of perfectly chained synergies, combinations and exploits. I understand that feeling. I know it of old and it sours me to the depths of my considerable belly. I understand why people wish to disassociate themselves from those Others whose fun seems to come at the expense of… others. The others doing the Othering, I mean.
The problem is that it doesn’t work. Try as you might to label those guys ‘competitive’, at the end of the day you’re the one playing the game where someone wins and someone loses. The attempt at disassociation and distance has failed and all you have achieved is denial about yourself and what you want. You are still playing a competitive game. You can’t say that Competitors are the Other because you, yourself, are competing.
This fundamental error of self-definition cuts the other way, too. Many ‘serious’ players are adamant that there are all sorts of things to encourage ‘casual’ play – leagues of various sorts and campaigns and so on – and that complaints about the Scene being dominated by tournament play are therefore maladjusted and why can’t they, the people who take this game seriously, be allowed to have their fun?
The problem is that they’re wrong. Not about the existence of the things encouraging ‘casual’ play, but about what a ‘casual’ player is.
A ‘casual’ player is one who doesn’t want to think about the game in between times, not very much at least; they want to paint their models, take their chances, and then put it all away in a box and get on with whatever people who have lives get on with in between times. Chances are, the ‘casual’ player lacks the time or the inclination to sit down, commit the rules to memory, establish a nuanced and accurate sense of every threat range they have available, fully consider the ramifications of every possible objective combination or puzzle out how to untangle a Harbinger control brick or whatever the local equivalent is. It’s not that they don’t want to win – it’s that there’s only so much effort they’re willing to put in to winning before the experience becomes tiresome and they’d rather be off jetskiing or whatever.
Many of the formats or variants of wargames which encourage ‘casual’ play actually introduce more rules – campaigns with territories or maps, leagues with scoring systems and list restrictions, anything with experience points – and more rules are the last thing the ‘casual’ player wants. Casual play which demands that the player engage with more stuff than usual seems to be missing the point.
Likewise, a ‘casual’ player is probably one who doesn’t want to commit to playing the same game week in week out, often with the same list or the same commander or some sort of enforced restriction. The casual player is a natural pick-up gamer (and while I believe we’ve discussed the problem with pick-up games before, I still think they are the natural habitat of the player who doesn’t take this shit too seriously). The league or campaign player is just as serious, just as committed, as the tournament player. They have chosen to engage in a more complex version of the game which requires regular commitment and rewards a series of victories.
What we learn from this is that the ‘serious’ players don’t understand the ‘casual’ players and the ‘casual’ players don’t understand either their games or themselves. Claim not that thou knowest the Other; know thyself. There’s no dichotomy between ‘casual’ and ‘competitive’ – there’s a spectrum of effort that one’s willing to put into one’s toy soldier games. We all want to compete but some of us want to compete harder than others. Recognise that, admit that, define yourself by how much you want to put in by all means, but don’t go taking sides in some shitflinging contest that doesn’t really exist anyway.