Exploring the Popularity of Poker as a Minigame
Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs, Far Cry and Yakuza. They all have one thing in common.
No, it’s not that they are all brilliant games, although they are. It’s that they all allow the player to spend hours playing poker, whether in a dusty Wild West bar or the penthouse of the Diamond Resort and Casino in Los Santos.
Of course, all these games were vast open-world experiences, widely regarded as the best of their genre, which they also have in common. An open-world game is judged on several criteria, but the quality of the side quests and distractions is almost as important as the storyline. Grand Theft Auto’s storyline lasts between 21 and 48 hours, depending on the pace at which you play, but the game is going strong almost a decade after release. Why? Because there’s plenty to do. It is no coincidence that some of the very best open-world games all feature poker as a playable minigame.
Why does poker make multiple appearances, but other casino games like blackjack and roulette do not? It could be the random nature of other casino games; there is almost no skill at a roulette table. Poker does require an element of skill, and that appeals to a gamer as they always want to feel like they’re winning. In Red Dead Redemption 2, players could even cheat if they could get away with it. TheGamer.com describes Red Dead Redemption 2 as the most impressive game ever, and attention to detail such as that certainly helped. The western setting was perfect for poker, as the game was often played in dusty bar rooms with dollar bills on the table.
Poker serves multiple purposes. It is fun to play on its own, but it’s also universally known. The hand rankings are familiar to many, so there are no complicated rules to learn. With some franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher, bespoke games have been created that might be passed by because of having no familiarity.
Poker is also a game of intense atmosphere, which can be used to drive the narrative and build characters within a game. The nature of wagering also allows players to accrue in-game currency by playing, so it is a vehicle for what many gamers call ‘the grind’, playing something repeatedly simply to increase their in-game wealth. Of course, wealth and long play sessions fit with real-life poker as they do in-game poker, which shows why it is popular as a minigame.
Most poker instances in a video game see the protagonist playing Texas Hold‘em, which has those vital skill elements. Games such as Far Cry and Yakuza featured that version of the game, but sometimes we see other variants. That’s certainly the case in Rockstar’s other epic, Grand Theft Auto, which had three-card poker as its game of choice. It is an easy variant to pick up, and as Poker.org reveals, it is also the most popular version in casinos. That is where gamers can find it in Los Santos, although it is worth noting the base version of the game doesn’t have a poker table. GTA Online added the Diamond Resort and Casino, a hub for online play, within which you can play three-card poker and eventually even have a private dealer and table in your penthouse.
Where and When
Some games have poker available from the start, whilst others write the game into their storyline and unlock it. Far Cry 3 did this; the first interaction with poker saw Jason Brody knocked out and dragged before the antagonist before the table opened for general play. Watch Dogs was the same; you had to play a hand of poker, and the storyline progressed afterwards, but you could return and play again once the mission was complete.
Poker makes a great distraction from the main game, and in the days of 8-bit gaming was even a satisfactory standalone title. In today’s expansive open-world genre, it is perfect for bringing on a storyline, earning some in-game currency, or just taking time out from the overwhelming worlds developers can create.