Various classification schemata—the Threefold Model, GNS, Robin’s Laws, etc—exist to describe how players approach games with distinct agendas: triumphing over opposition, immersing oneself in an imaginary setting, playing with stories and themes, exploring a fascination with ninjas, etc. Some schemata purport to present all agendas as equally valid, while others expressly call out a pecking order of worth, indicating that some modes of play are more mature, more stimulating, more rewarding or otherwise preferable to others. Invariably, “casual” play finds itself at the bottom of the totem pole.
Whereas other play agendas focus on the game itself, casual play focuses on the social framework in which the game is played. Casual players aren’t there to beat the opposition, explore the setting or delve into thematic subtleties—or rather, while they likely have some interest in such things, that’s not where their focus lies. Casual players are there to be social. The game provides something to do while hanging out with one’s friends.
There’s a sense in some corners of the theorysphere that casual players are “lesser” players because they don’t share the grognards’ fascination with the minutiae of the game. At best, they should be encouraged to cultivate an interest in other play agendas and thus become “real” players. At worst, they’re dull, lumpish hangers-on whose presence dilutes the play experience for the rest of the group. Such casuals are encouraged to turn to other interests and leave role-playing games to the role-players.
I believe that much of this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the social play agenda. If casual players play solely for social purposes (as this train of thought seems to presuppose), rather than to pursue the agendas specific to role-playing games, then they have no specific interest in RPGs and might as well go do something else with their time. This is categorically false, as can be seen by looking at just about any other group social activity.
As a rule, adults in our society who want to socialize with their friends don’t just get together to “hang out” in some amorphous way; they choose specific activities that appeal to them, and those activities are not interchangeable. A group of people who meet once a week to watch old B-movies could conceivably change venues to try something wildly different—say, berry picking, playing touch football or attending the opera—but odds are that these alternate activities won’t appeal to the majority.
And then there’s the classic problem of the hardcore, which crops up in the damnedest places. Gamers invest a lot of time and energy into our hobby, and some of us can feel resentful toward those who want to harvest the fruits of play without first putting in the same effort. This is no more fair in gaming than it is in other social activities. Is someone a poor dinner guest because he doesn’t cook? Is a baseball fan just a poseur if she doesn’t memorize player stats, play in a local league or religiously attend every World Series in person? Is your love of movies a fraud if you’re not an actor or a screenwriter? Of course not! Such involvement may enhance your enjoyment of a form, but it doesn’t make you any less of a fan.
Of course, there are dull, lumpish players who fail to engage with the game and their fellow players, but this isn’t a mark of casual play. It’s just a mark of a dull, lumpish player.
Casual players are welcome at my table. If you enjoy the trappings of fantasy role-playing and you’re here to entertain both yourself and your peers, then you’re a boon to the game and all those playing it. Beer and pretzels for everyone!