The Age Game
Earlier in the week, Scott of Pumping Irony fame posted a question to Google: are there any games being developed with aging gamers as the core target demographic?
I usually refer to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) for consumer numbers, and their 2015 sales, demographic, and usage report tells us that the bulk of people who play video games* lies between the under 18 group, and climbs up to about age 35 (for a total of 56% of the surveyed population). That puts everyone over the age of 35 at 44% of the gaming community. The ESA claims that the “average” gamer is 35 years old.
I am 41, so I’m a bit outside of the average range. In fact, I fall into the ESA’s smallest demographic of 17%. That kind of blows my mind, as most of the gamers I know are in or around my same age bracket. To me, it feels like my core gaming community age exceeds the ESA’s stated average. Still, it makes Scott’s question that much more important to me because it would illuminate the broader situation in the gaming community and the industry at large.
If the average age of gamers is 35, then what does a 35 year-old play? The ESA tells us that 28.2% of the best-selling console games of 2014 fell into the “action” super-genre, followed by shooters at 21.7%, and then sports games at 13.3%. A whopping 37.7% of the best selling “computer” games sold in 2014 fell into the strategy super-genre, followed by 24.8% in the “casual” genre, and finally role-playing games at 20.2%. This is all well and good, but doesn’t tell us anything about age. It might be tempting to assume that older gamers favor the well worn PC as their gaming workhorse, while younger gamers favor the less-expensive, higher profile consoles, but there’s a lot of overlap there, and the ESA doesn’t provide any split between the two except to say that 62% of gamers use their PC, and 56% use a console.
That’s about all I can say about the data at hand, but Scott’s original question was “are there games being developed for us, the aging gamer?”. I think the ESA stats are important to consider in this because video game development is a big business that’s risk averse, so they’ll be using the same or similar (and probably greatly expanded) data to figure out which demographic to target. Yeah, we get the “by gamers, for gamers” line from pretty much every studio, and the indie movement has allowed more developers to “follow their dreams” than “calculate what will make the most profit”, but someone, somewhere in these organizations needs to have a sit-down think about the ROI if they want to stay solvent and make a career out of game development. That means figuring out who’s buying the most games, and what games those people are interested in…and who can afford it.
After the bills and taxes are paid and investments and savings are socked away, what’s left over is considered “disposable income”. This is the money that (theoretically) people use to spend on luxuries, which in this case we’d consider when talking about who’s spending what on entertainment, specifically video games. I couldn’t find a decent breakdown of recent disposable income by age bracket, but ArcGIS ESRI seems to have a lot of demographic information (which is heavily monetized, as you’d imagine) on disposable income by age. I’ve found two publicly available reports  from two towns in the US from 2012 that were sourced from this data, and they show that the 25-34 age bracket has less average disposable income than the 35-44 age group on average, which has less than the 45-54 age group on average. If this is the trend, then the gamers 35 and up have more money to spend on games, it seems.
Conventional wisdom says otherwise, but is it really a trend or just a lot of smoke and mirrors when marketing campaigns are invovled? A lot of people across a broad spectrum of ages like shooters, a la Call of Duty or Halo. They also like action games such as Assassin’s Creed or the Batman Arkham series. Look across any cross-segment of the games industry press, online and retail marketing efforts, and social media talking heads and you’ll noticed that there’s a lot of ink devoted to selling these franchises when a new installation is announced. Again, I don’t have data on this, but it seems that certain games in certain genres receive more high-profile PR for longer periods of time than do other games, which may inflate the impact these kinds of titles have on the perception of who’s playing what. When a new Call of Duty game is announced, it seems like there’s nothing but Call of Duty on the market for quite some time.
That shooters and action games make up the majority of the console sales in 2014 tells us that the industry is making them, and people are buying them; in common parlance, don’t fix what ain’t broken. Again, I know people of all ages who play shooter and action games, but we need to circle back: what’s the image of the average consumer that the industry has in mind when they decide to make another cash-cow in a long running shooter or action game franchise? Is it just “make it and they will come”? Or do they continue to point their marketing engines at the mythical 18-35 demographic because it’s whom they assume their games appeal to?
Without concrete data, I can only speculate based on my personal experiences. Right now, we’re seeing a resurgence in “aging franchises” that appeal to older gamers but are built with the latest technology. Wasteland 2, The Bards Tale, Elite: Dangerous, Shadowrun Returns, and others are some of the more recent games that have their roots in my childhood, but are being revived with new, modern entries. These games can appeal to any age, but a lot of the marketing (and Kickstarter promotion) seems to rely on that “nostalgia” angle that only older gamers would appreciate. Looking at that list, I notice that these games are less action-packed, and are more thoughtful and strategic.
Contrast that to the rising tide of esports, possibly the “next great frontier”* for gaming for several reasons. First, it “legitimizes” gaming, taking it from a nerdy past-time to something that’s challenging stereotypes. Second, it’s a wide open marketplace that has the potential to grow sponsorship for participants, and exposure for the games they play. Combine that with the age of Internet celebrity, and esports seems to have no option but to grow in scope and adoption. But as a 41 year old gamer, I know that I don’t have the reflexes or the focus to play these games; my chance at being a “cyber-athlete” has long since passed. Look at how many MOBAs we have on the market, though, and if we accept the notion that younger players have reflexes better suited to these click-fest style games than older gamers do, if companies pump out a greater number of these action-based games than they do thoughtful strategy games, then the industry is signaling that they’re putting their eggs into the younger demographic basket.
Again, it’s all conjecture, and when you step back and look at things, it seems less about who is being targeted, and more about how they’re being targeted. Really, there’s no hard and fast rule that says “MOBAs are for younger players, simulations are for older players”. What the industry does is follow market trends, craft PR campaigns that appeal to a community that unabashedly likes sci-fi and fantasy, and puts their products on (virtual) shelves. As consumers, we trend towards what we like and what we feel we can deal with, be it mentally or physically. For younger players, that might be games with a high adrenaline quotient or that offers intense fantasy immersion, while older players gravitate towards nostalgia and games that challenge them mentally or allow them to unwind after a day at the office.
Gaming, like books and, increasingly, movies, are becoming “age agnostic”. You might have recently heard about the dust-up over comments by Simon Pegg when he was quoted as saying this:
… Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously. [Click here to read his clarification.]
I don’t know if I disagree with this assessment, but back when my parents were growing up, there was a strict demarcation between the activities of children and the activities of adults that took effect when a person was expected to “grow up” and “put childish things aside” in order to to get on with their new set of responsibilities like work, buying a house, and raising a family. The 21st century has been shaping up to show that we don’t have to give up one interest to replace it with another; we’ve got the bandwidth for both. As the arbitrary walls around our societal expectations continue to fall — be they gender-oriented, race-oriented, or here, age-oriented — we don’t have to stop being interested in things we’re interested in simply because society expects us to conform to a mold based on artificial boundaries of what’s appropriate and what needs to be abandoned or ignored.
The same really goes for age restrictions on the kinds of games we play. There’ll eventually be a time in our lives when we simply cannot pick up a controller, or when our eyesight fails us to the point where we can’t see what’s on the monitor, but until that time I don’t think it really matters whether or not the industry is making games for a specific age since there’s nothing stopping us from playing what we like.
* I don’t want to get into the whole “esports is not a sport” debate. Sports takes many forms — chess is considered a sport, like it or not — and I think that esports is a good thing for gaming, regardless of what it’s being called.