When looking at the wide variety of games we have today, it can be difficult to remember that most games started out pretty similar to one another. The vast majority of games were competitions: the earliest titles pitted players against one another on a single arcade cabinet, or more frequently pitted one player against another’s high score. The astronomical popularity of games like Pong and Space Invaders meant that competition and quantitative achievement in gaming were here to stay.
As video games grew more technologically advanced and drew larger audiences, the method of competition changed as well: with the advent of the home console came split-screen competition against friends, siblings, and anyone you could share a sofa with. As the internet became faster and more widespread, MMOs and other online games hosted PvP rooms that allowed players to compete with others around the world for digital glory. Without these developments and advances, we wouldn’t be where we are today: a world where competitive FPSes, MOBAs, RTSes, and battle royales are some of the most popular and most-watched games. Competition is so ingrained in video games that esports, an entirely new type of digital competition, were made possible. When your parents and older folks think of video games, they probably think of competitive experiences.
However, competitive doesn’t describe every video game out there. Somewhere within the constant flow of play, some developers realized that players might want relaxing experiences in their games. Not everyone finds a thrill in memorizing a 10-button combo in Mortal Kombat or spending hours climbing the ranked ladder in League of Legends. Even competition against AI enemies in Mario or Pokémon titles can get tiring after a while. Games like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, and The Sims are examples of games that are more relaxing than competitive; they focus on experiences, emotions, and environments rather than competition against other players or AI. Mobile games have also helped fuel the rise of gaming experiences whose goal is to relax the player. Not everyone wants to compete in their games, and these relaxing titles provide another form of play for those audiences. Many of them are just as popular as major competitive titles.
While there’s nothing wrong with preferring one type of game over another, relaxing games have received more than their fair share of derision from players of competitive titles. Many players believe that relaxing games are somehow worthless than competitive games for a variety of reasons, many of which are uncomfortably rooted in sexism and an attempt to gatekeep female players. This derision is entirely unwarranted and actively targets and hurts the communities that surround relaxing games. It’s time for the gatekeeping to stop.
One Big Boys’ Club
As mentioned previously, one of the darker reasons that relaxing games are looked down upon is because their audiences skew female; the audiences for competitive games, particularly the major FPS and MOBA titles that appear frequently in esports, skew more male. Through the strange, archaic cultural spaces of masculinity present in gaming communities, many male gamers consider relaxing games, like life sims, visual novels, puzzle games, and mobile titles, to be less important or “valid” than competitive games. In many instances, this is just another way that women’s entertainment is diminished; similar derision is aimed at romance novels, soap operas, and other overwhelmingly female outlets. Despite the ridicule they receive, relaxing games’ popularity is undeniable: Animal Crossing: New Horizons has sold over 31 million copies worldwide, making it the second best-selling Switch title. The Sims franchise has been going strong since 2000 and has sold over 200 million copies worldwide. Something in relaxing games is striking a chord with players.
Even so, some gamers only see relaxing games as a target for mockery. Some believe that because relaxing games don’t provide a way to show off mechanical skill, quantitative progress, or player ability on a ranked scale, they are inherently worse than competitive games. The idea there is that to play a competitive game, you must be reasonably skilled. (My time in bronze rank in Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm and my decimal K/D in Apex Legends are arguments against that.) Because relaxing games have a lower barrier to entry and don’t provide clearly established ways for players to be better than others – and to publicly display this dominance – they are worth less than competitive games. This argument misses the entire point of relaxing games: their goal is to give the player a different kind of fulfilment than the competitive dominance offered by other titles, whether that’s creative expression in The Sims, social interaction in Animal Crossing, or an appreciation for the natural world in Stardew Valley. The wealth and diversity of games we have access to today means that different games will invariably have different goals. Just because my goal in Animal Crossing is different than my goal in Overwatch doesn’t make one more valuable than the other.
Along with the lower barrier to entry, relaxing games frequently include cute, colorful themes and characters that are seen as “something women would enjoy,” which is frequently said alongside “something children would enjoy” and therefore, “something beneath me” or “something immature.” A game’s color palette and characters don’t necessarily indicate who that game is for. People of all genders play relaxing games. Stardew Valley was created by Eric Barone, a fan of old-school Harvest Moon games who wanted to see the genre make a return after years of mediocre titles and inactivity. Games that are colorful, fun, and happy are not necessarily more valid than games that are dark, gritty, and “realistic” (a hotly-debated term in gaming). We get enough death and darkness on the news and in real life – is it a childish or feminine thing to want to escape to somewhere happy and bright, or is it a human thing?
There’s no denying that these structures and communities of performed masculinity are an attempt to exclude women – not to mention nonbinary and queer people – from any sort of game. There’s no way for women to win: when we try to play competitive games, we’re made fun of or ridiculed for our perceived intrusion into a male space, or even accused of cheating. When we try to play relaxing games, our choice of entertainment is disparaged and the ways in which we find enjoyment and fulfilment are diminished. Even as the world of gaming and esports becomes more welcoming toward women, these problems remain serious issues that result in the ridicule of relaxing games.
Mobile Games = Relaxing = Bad
Beyond overt sexism, some of the derision of relaxing games is focused on mobile games. Mobile games have exploded in the past decade or so, coinciding with the rise of the smartphone and personal tablet. Mobile games are frequently cheaper than their console counterparts and are more accessible, with lower barriers to entry. This is based mostly on design: most mobile players don’t want to sit down in front of their phones for a 60-hour RPG experience or even an hour-long round of League of Legends. They want something that’s quick, easy, and satisfying to play that can be enjoyed in short bursts during commutes and lunch breaks. Relaxing games are frequently easier to design around these short periods of play than competitive games. This has led many mobile games to adopt the term “casual”, to differentiate themselves from more “hardcore” console and PC titles that require more time.
The word casual has taken on a very negative connotation in the past few years, to the point where some players of more hardcore or competitive games call mobile games and the people who play them “casuals”, implying that they are not really gamers and they’re not playing real games. There is a grain of truth in this statement: the mobile games landscape, particularly when it started, can be a lawless place, full of low-quality games, shovelware, and junk. Mobile games are generally faster and cheaper to develop than console games, leading to a glut of games hoping to capitalize on the newfound popularity of the smartphone. Gamers became cautious when people referred to themselves as enjoyers of mobile games, because there’s a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t even really qualify as a game. The general quality of mobile games has dramatically improved since then, and there are some real gems out there. To deride such calm, relaxing experiences as Monument Valley or similar titles by saying that they’re not real games because they’re not competitive and aren’t on a PC or console is rude and dismissive to the people who play them. There are a lot of problems with this accusation, the biggest one being the assumption that everyone should want to be a competitive gamer. Mobile games have a majority female audience, so again, sexism and exclusion based on gender are at play here, too.
You may remember a tiny little game called FarmVille. The browser-based Facebook game was everywhere about a decade ago. It attracted a mostly female audience, but it also tapped into an unusual age group: older folks. Everyone had a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or distant cousin who was playing FarmVille. Besides the Wii, no other game or platform has managed to captivate older adults in such a way as FarmVille did. It was social interaction wrapped up in a colorful, appealing package, and it had all the hallmarks of relaxing games: low barrier to entry, easy to learn, no competition (it was cooperative instead), and slower-paced fun.
Gamers on message boards and forums everywhere hated FarmVille. Some people called it an abomination against games, while others simply considered it a major annoyance. The game did have some serious missteps: Zynga, its developer, installed a fairly predatory monetization model in the game, which laid the groundwork for freemium and free-to-play mobile games for years to come. The game’s social aspect was also quite annoying; in order to avoid paying for premium currency, players could ask their Facebook friends for help growing crops or raising animals, which resulted in floods of notifications for people who didn’t play the game. Many were rightfully annoyed by this, which ended up damaging the game’s popularity and reputation. Zynga still plans on releasing another game in the series, but its day in the sun is over.
Without these missteps, FarmVille could have started a revolution. It introduced thousands of older folks, particularly older women, to gaming. Regardless of what a self-professed gamer might say about the farming game, a lot of people played it and enjoyed it. It’s an example of the wide-ranging appeal and ease of entry of relaxing games, something that competitive games frequently don’t possess. Many FarmVille players went on to play other games, like Words With Friends, that they may not have discovered or known about if they hadn’t played FarmVille. A game or developer’s effort to reach an untapped or underappreciated market shouldn’t be considered a negative by those who are already in the community. FarmVille shouldn’t be derided simply for being more accessible than something like Call of Duty; on the contrary, we should mourn what it could have been and what it could have meant to the wider gaming community.
There’s no denying that gaming is bigger than it’s ever been, and relaxing games have undoubtedly helped that expansion. (Remember when everyone thought the Wii would tank because it didn’t have any major competitive third-party games? Yeah, me too.) Relaxing games that reach wider audiences and have lower barriers to entry increase popular knowledge of and participation in gaming as a whole, which indirectly helps all kinds of games receive more investments and puts more eyes on the latest releases. Attempts to gatekeep the status of “gamer” by declaring some games more or less valuable or worthwhile than others is a juvenile attempt to say, “This is mine and you can’t have it!” If we want gaming to continue to grow and foster new and diverse experiences, we have to get rid of these ridiculous strictures on relaxing games. At a time when we’re all stressed out thanks to the state of the world and the pandemic, gaming can be a sanctuary for everyone, whether you’re competing with your clan in Apex Legends or tending to your island in Animal Crossing. Relaxing games offer an alternative for folks who don’t find competition engaging or who just don’t feel like competing. It’s not up to any of us to judge what others find enjoyable, whether that’s competitive games, relaxing games, or something else entirely.
As Twitter would say: let people enjoy things!