Even though I use them regularly out of necessity, I really don't care for the words "hardcore" or "casual." Broadening gamer demographics and the fact that the arcade kiddos are grownups now makes those words pretty useless. The terms retain some usefulness in terms of labeling taste, albeit crudely -- Peggle is most assuredly a casual game, for example. But does that mean people who spend more than ten hours a week playing console FPS don't also play Peggle on their mobile or on their lunch break? Probably more do than don't, actually.
"Hardcore" and "casual" are also generally useless when it comes to pegging a gamer's time commitment. Maybe you've got a huge library of Xbox 360 titles and your current passion is CoD4 multiplayer. But maybe you only play a couple short stints a week because you haven't got a lot of game time, and the stereotypical 42 year old woman "casual gamer" spends way more time grinding away at Diner Dash -- which now has microtransactions, by the way -- than you spend on any of your "hardcore" titles.
Clearly games offer a wider range of engagement options than they used to, varying barriers of entry and varying levels of time commitment required. Given that there is such diversity, it's almost pointless to identify yourself with a label anymore -- although we gamers love to do that. Perhaps the last leg to stand on is how seriously you take your hobby. Is it one of the first things you list when telling people about your interests? Do you keep up with current releases and gaming news? Do you care what happens in the future of the industry? Or do you just wanna play for a sec?
You could ring all those bells as far as "taking it seriously," though, and theoretically still only play Nintendogs and Wii Play. What about WoW? What do you call a gamer who spends every waking moment in Azeroth -- and doesn't play anything else? Plenty of people do that.
Do you use one of those labels to describe yourself? I plugged a little Blogger poll into the sidebar if you want to weigh in -- I'm interested in how the audience defines itself. As I said, perhaps the only merit that the word "hardcore" retains is to explain to newer, adult, social or primarily casual gamers -- the ones that haven't been growing alongside consoles -- that the game might be more complicated or thematically unfamiliar than they might be used to.
As of now, the last games I can think of that I called "hardcore" were: Phantasy Star 2, I think, because of its brutal level grind, and Devil May Cry 4, because it's an in-your-face franchise heir that inexperienced gamers couldn't just pick up and jive with. Two completely different games from two completely different eras for two completely different reasons.
Anyway, as pointless as labels are, the largest majority of the audience is probably "mid-casual," or "mid-core," or "hard-casual." (You see?) The largest demographic probably has a moderate to strong interest in video games, but not a lot of time or money for the daunting task of keeping up with it all. As a result, they read a lot of game culture stories looking for trends and ideas that might be worth their investment, and they take their time enjoying those games. N'Gai Croal said they're the player who, in a nutshell, wants AAA-title experience value with casual gaming's accessibility and low commitment.
By the way, here's a new blog devoted to this very demographic -- it's called Hardcasual, and it contains stuff like thoughts on just discovering Puzzle Quest, selected retro nostalgia and ideas on games in a somewhat more broader media context than the nose-squinched-to-the-screen look you often get (from people including me).
I discovered Hardcasual because I'm apparently part of blogger Chris Plante's "Phase Three" of appealing to established journos for attention (this blurb would have been much more laudatory if I had been part of Phase One, Chris). I capitulated because you probably wouldn't be reading SVGL now if I hadn't used the same sort of tactics back in the day, and I always pay it forward --unless someone totally sucks or is a jerk to me, in which case there's nothing much I can do.
The screenshot is from Three Sisters' Story, my very first "hardcore" game. Ha, ha, you see what I did there?