A self-formulated essay topic for a Popular Fiction subject. With this essay, I wanted to explore the conceptual, historical and empirical links between the rise of Popular Fiction and the rise of Social Gaming – in so doing, I identified a climate of change centered around the means, needs and paths necessary for a new, popular form of media to arise. I then used this platform to comment on the continued trajectory of casual games, as they further diverge from traditional games.
“Identify how the rise of Popular Fiction has informed the uptake of Social gaming”
The rise of casual gaming within the broader domain of today’s ludic forms evokes the rise of popular fiction in the late 19th Century. Characterized by their difference from traditional games, casual games can therefore be deconstructed and analyzed by examining the prevailing circumstances that saw popular fiction delineate itself from Literature. To do so, this essay will primarily expand upon the societal changes that allowed popular fiction to arise, and hence seek to establish similar parameters within today’s media landscape to explain the rise of casual games. Having established this framework, the essay will address the ways in which the rise of popular fiction has informed the rise in casual games: by exploring the differences and the similarities of the forms’ respective positions in relation to their established counterparts. Finally, an appraisal of how the rise of casual games can be related to the rise of popular fiction will be made.
In addressing such broad topics as gaming and literature, a limitation on parameters will help in establishing an informed discussion. To this end, when referring to ‘traditional games’, I have in mind the $100 blockbusters developed by large studios over the course of 2 – 3 years, with budgets in the many tens of millions, that require significant player time investment to complete. In other words, the Call of Duties of the gaming world. In contrast, when I speak of ‘casual games’, I am referring to the cheap — sometimes free — bite-sized games developed by much smaller teams within much tighter budgets and time frames. As a broad metric, Facebook or iPhone games are usually classified as casual games. Equally, when referring to ‘Literature’ and to ‘popular fiction’, I am ascribing to the definitions put forward by Ken Gelder in Popular Fiction: A Literary Field (2004: 11). Here, Literature broadly covers the texts of literary novelists such as Henry James, while popular fiction encompasses works by writers such as Ian Fleming.
Having established these bounds, what is meant by a ‘rise’ in popular fiction can be explored in relation to what it rose against, namely Literature. Viewed along paths outlined by abject theory, the ‘mutual repulsion’ eluded to by Gelder when describing popular fiction’s relative position to Literature can be understood by applying Kristeva’s framework (ibid; Kristeva, 1982). In this light, when Gelder refers to Literary authors who ‘spend a great deal of time and effort distinguishing themselves from popular fiction and everything it seems to stand for,’ their responses can be mapped along imaginary borders against which they self-define as not being a part of popular fiction.
A similar tension is evident between traditional game studios and casual game developers. Peter Vesterbacka, the CMO of Rovio, developer of casual games such as Angry Birds, put it this way:
A lot of people in the games industry, they think the ‘real’ games are on consoles. You’re only a ‘real’ games company if you do a big budget game. But we don’t have that inferiority complex.
Applying Kristeva’s theory to Vesterbacka’s assertions reveals a similar imaginary border as between popular fiction and Literature to be at work. Questions of what is a ‘real’ game, whether the term exclusively applies to big-budget games and whether traditional games studios have an ‘inferiority complex’ are all raised. Equally, Epic studio executive Mike Capps lamented as to the current state of the videogames industry:
We have not been this uncertain about what’s coming next in the games industry since Epic’s been around for 20 years. We’re at such an inflection point … If there’s anything that’s killing us [in the traditional games business] it’s dollar apps … How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it … They’re used to 99 cents. As I said, it’s an uncertain time in the industry.
What Vesterbacka and Capps are referring to is the paradigm split that has occurred within the videogame industry. Similar to that of popular fiction and Literature which occurred in the late 19th Century, the split between casual games and traditional games can be mapped across binary divides: one is either a writer or an author, just as one is either a developer of traditional games or of casual games. As in abject theory, the definition of one divide necessarily defines the other, thus producing a circular and at times intangible framework of analysis. In the case of popular fiction, it is therefore necessary to explore other more empirical dividers that trace their roots within the greater societal changes of the era.
Toward the end of the 19th Century, novels such as R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes began establishing themselves as important works within the literary field, creating literary celebrities of their writers. Characterized as a form of excess and adventure, popular fiction was born. However, in order to examine how popular fiction became popular, one must explore the societal changes that informed much of the field’s early development. Equally, to draw parallels with the recent rise of social gaming within today’s media landscape requires a focus on what I shall refer to as circumstances of change.
Of the many possible circumstances of change, there are three primary motivators that resonate with popular fiction and with casual games. Broadly classified as needs, means and paths, my assertion is that these three markers can be applied to both the rise of popular fiction and to the rise of casual games, explaining how these new forms developed in relation to older, more established siblings. In the case of popular fiction, the need for its existence can be attributed to the growing population of newly-literate readers. The application of an industrial mindset toward education in the 19th Century saw the creation of a large, new audience for whom questions of taste and artistic merit held little sway, becoming the ‘bullet-headed masses’ that Scott Turow refers to (Gelder, 2004: 22). With their new-found literacy and their lack of cultural hang-ups, this new audience wanted to explore and invest in stories of excess and adventure, creating the need for popular fiction.
To meet this need, a means of equal magnitude had to be developed. In the case of popular fiction, and thanks to advances in industrial printing, the needs of the many were met by the production of large quantities of inexpensive paperbacks and magazines, backed up by prolific writers producing serialized popular fiction. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle published more than 50 short stories between 1887 and 1927 within the Holmes universe (Gelder, 2004: 29).
Having established the means by which to meet the needs of a growing new audience, the development of popular fiction lastly required the creation of paths through which to deliver its production to the masses. The advent and use of the railway, amongst others, provided such paths:
In the flare of railway bookstalls, in the shop-fronts of most booksellers, especially the provincial, in the advertisements of the weekly newspapers, and in fifty places besides …
(James, 1899: xii)
The development of distribution channels that were capable of meeting the needs of audiences and sustaining the means of industry paved the way for popular fiction to be consumed by anyone, anywhere for any occasion. The three circumstances of change combined to make popular fiction popular, which in turn provides the catalyst for dividing popular fiction from Literature.
In much the same way, the rise of casual games within today’s media landscape can be mapped along my proposed circumstances of change: needs, means and paths. Similar to the rise in literacy rates that occurred in the the 19th Century, the increases in smartphone sales and the ever-growing pervasiveness of Facebook has produced an audience that has become literate in the frameworks of casual play. In the case of the iPhone, the mere use of the device structures and teaches users in the formal language of iPhone games: touch-screen user interfaces engender one-touch gameplay. Similarly, Facebook games are cast within social bounds: the question isn’t ‘Would you like to play online Poker?’, instead it is ‘David has invited you to play Poker with him’. What this amounts to is a drop in the barrier of entry for non-gamers into casual games. Framing their ludic experiences within social structures, this new audience of gamers has been made game-literate as a by-product of their techno-social interactions.
Equally, the means of production for casual games constitutes a major departure from that of traditional games. Able to be quickly developed by small teams, casual games on the iOS App Store now number more than 50,000 within 4 years of the service being launched (Parfitt, 2010). As in popular fiction, casual games are often serialized with multiple versions that could loosely be described within the literary world as tomes. The prevalence of Apple’s App store and its low barrier for entry has also allowed bedroom-coders to enter the game development world: 14-year-old Robert Nay’s first game, Bubble Ball, a simple physics-based puzzle game became the top downloaded free game on the App Store, unseating Angry Birds (Fried, 2010).
Within this context, the needs of the new audience of casual gamers has invigorated the development of a new means of production. As in the case of popular fiction, however, casual games also require paths along which to be made available to their audiences. In this light, Apple’s App Store and Facebook, among many other virtual storefronts such as Google’s Android Market, have provided new distribution channels for the delivery of casual games. Characterized by their embedded place within the greater structure of a particular device or service, as well as their completely digital nature, these new distribution channels have permeated the daily digital life of millions of people. As shown in the case of popular fiction, the three circumstances of change have combined to catalyze a rise in casual games as distinct from Traditional Games.
Having established an empirical framework that places the rise of popular fiction and casual games within similar societal circumstances and motivators, parallels between popular fiction and casual games can now be drawn. In an effort to move away from exploring the surface resemblance of the two forms, this essay will now address the ways in which the rise of popular fiction has informed the rise in casual games in less tangible ways: by exploring the differences and the similarities of the forms’ respective cultural-social positions in relation to their established counterparts.
One of the key points of mis-match between the rise of popular fiction and the rise of casual games is found in the way each is structured as different from an older, more established sibling. For instance, the high and low brow overtones of Literature and popular fiction form the binary backdrop for their differences. Casual games, on the other hand, cannot be distinguished from Traditional Games simply along lines of relative cultural-social positions.
What is meant by a cultural-social position is therefore necessary to explore. Using the parable of opera and soap opera to establish the distinction between high and low cultural production, Gelder posits that:
opera is a form of high cultural production, usually expensive to see and requiring a significant amount of cultural-social education from its audience, which remains small and dedicated…Soap opera, on the other hand, is a routine feature of television, cheap to produce and watch, and therefore able to attract the widest possible audiences.
Gelder eludes to what Bourdieu described as the ‘autonomous’ nature of highbrow cultural production: creating Art-for-Art’s sake, with little regard for the audience and the economic viability of produced works. By contrast, Bourdieu characterizes low cultural production as ‘heteronomous’: valuing commercial success, open to mass audiences and keyed-in to the requirements of the marketplace (1996: 218).
In this light, the distinction between popular fiction and Literature can be reduced to questions of high-autonomous and low-heteronomous cultural production. However, applying Bourdieu’s binary logic to videogames is problematic, as it remains difficult to define a high/low disembarkation point between casual games and Traditional Games in terms of artistic merit. While I do not wish to entertain questions of whether videogames are Art — they are — videogames began as, and still are, heteronomous in their production.
While this may seem like willful generalization, stating that videogames are low cultural productions is similar to stating that soap opera is a low cultural production. The difference between the two qualitative statements is in their respective position in relation to another cultural-social position: ‘Any form of cultural production…is dependent upon those features attributed to the forms from which it distinguishes itself’ (Gelder, 2004: 14). In other words, a polarizing reference point is required for a form of cultural production to define itself: soap opera is different from opera, much like popular fiction is different from Literature. My assertion is that both Traditional Games and casual games privilege commercial success and an awareness of player needs, above an adherence to ‘the field of restricted production’ (Bourdieu, 1996: 218), and so cannot be divided in relation to each other’s ‘features’ in the same way as popular fiction and Literature. In other words, casual games and Traditional Games occupy the same cultural-social position.
As a still young medium, videogames have not yet had the chance to mature and develop in a way similar to Literature: there are scant few identifiable Jane Austens, James Joyces or William Faulkners and there is little by way of Literature’s need for an ‘intense formal artistry’ or for ‘tangled plots’ (Amis, 2001: 327). In other words, videogames have yet to accumulate a set of social-cultural positions or syndicated philosophical overtones. This is not a disparaging take on videogames, but rather a simple way of noting that it is unreasonable to expect the split between casual games and Traditional Games to be mapped along borders of opposing thought, when videogames in general have not yet had time to identifiably state what their philosophical positioning is, and is not.
Nonetheless, videogames can be delineated from other mediums such as film and literature through their interactive nature, thus providing the overall division that defines what games are and are not (Vorderer et al, 2006: 312). However, if one accepts that a split exists between casual games and Traditional Games, but one recognizes that frameworks such as Bourdieu’s do not adequately define this sub-division and we cannot rely on assumed cultural-social positioning, then one must explore what this ‘split’ actually relates to. As stated above, divining a cultural-social change-in-position between casual games and Traditional Games that is similar to that of popular fiction and Literature is difficult to sustain. However, other characteristics of the rise of popular fiction provide new points of disembarkation that inform the rise of casual games.
For popular fiction, its heteronomous underpinnings reflect more than just a change in cultural-social position from the autonomous Literature:
…popular fiction has less to do with discourses of creativity and originality, and more to do with production and sheer hard work. The key paradigm for identifying popular fiction is not creativity, but industry.
(Gelder, 2004: 15)
In this light, prolific popular fiction writers such as Michael Moorcock, who produce 15,000 words a day when writing a new book (Kunzru, 2011), have much in common with casual game developers such as Rovio, who produced more than 50 games since being founded in 2003, before releasing Angry Birds (Munford, 2010). casual games also tend to be quickly serialized once an initial concept proves successful, with Cut The Rope Easter following Cut The Rope Christmas and so on. Similarly, when Elizabeth George speaks of Terry Brook’s long-term successful career, she sees it as a reflection of his work ethic and ability to ‘do it again. And again. And again’ (Gelder, 2004: 17; George, 2003: viii).
Serialization is therefore a key identifier of both popular fiction and casual games, as is a large number of readers/players: Farmville has over 80 million players on Facebook (McElroy, 2010), much like how the Harry Potter series had by 2008 reached sales of over 400 million (Dammann, 2008).
Other similarities in the ways both popular fiction and casual games diverge from Literature and Traditional Games is in their relative simplicity. While portraying adventurous, rambunctious and tempestuous scenarios, popular fiction retains a simplified logic that adheres to formulas, as when Moorcock describes his approach to writing:
… the other key is formula. You have to have a formula that’s absolutely strong enough to hold anything … It’s very close to mathematics … it was in some ways the easiest job I’d ever had because it’s all structure