The state of games: State of gamers

In part four of a five-part series, Polygon evaluates the state of gamers.
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This is the fourth part of a five-part series on the state of games, written by the editors of Polygon, following Wednesday's "State of mobile," Tuesday's "State of indies," and Monday's "State of AAA." Part five will be published tomorrow. The entire series will be re-published in total on Monday. - Ed.

What does it mean to be a gamer?

Certainly not what it meant five decades ago when gaming wasn't played on a television, but a table. The idea of a gamer as a person who doesn't just play games, but embraces the culture of gaming, wasn't even really applicable in the golden age of games when Pac-Man's quarter-driven popularity spurred not just a gaming craze, but a musical fever. The rise of the gamer as a culture didn't really kick off until the mid to late '90s. It's been a relatively short ride for a group that strives to be both a subculture of sorts and respected contributor of both pop culture and high culture.

Who is a gamer?

Each year the Entertainment Software Association, the voice of the biggest studios and publishers in the video game industry, publishes a report on the state of the game industry and the people who play games. And each year that report seems to expand the scope of how it defines what a game and a gamer is. Included in this year's report are not just people who play video games on the PlayStation 3, the Wii, and the Xbox 360, but also the computer, the smartphone, the tablet, and on a web browser.

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THE AVERAGE GAMER

"Computer and video games have reached a critical mass," ESA president Michael Gallagher writes in the report. "Today, nearly every device with a screen plays games, providing interactive entertainment experiences for a wide and diverse population. The creativity of our developers and publishers produces an ever-expanding variety of games to choose from in different formats and across all platforms. Their innovations drive consumer demand for our products, solidifying our industry's position as one of the strongest and most cutting-edge sectors in the U.S. economy."

Today, those who game, according to the report, are almost evenly split among genders. 47 percent of all gamers are female, up from 42 percent last year.

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LAST YEAR'S REPORT SHOWED THAT ONLY 18 PERCENT OF GAMERS WERE UNDER 18. THIS YEAR'S REPORT SHOWS THAT NUMBER HAS NEARLY DOUBLED.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

For years, the video game industry knocked back claims that video games were for kids by parading out statistics showing that gamers were in fact much older than the teens and pre-teens that many in the public thought typified game players. That's changing.

That average gamer age peaked last year at 37. According to this year's report, the average gamer is now 30, with typical adult gamers having played games for 14 years of their life. Why the dramatic drop in age? While the broadening of the definition of what a gamer is certainly impacted this number, the jump also seems to be tied to a massive increase in the number of young gamers.

Last year's report showed that only 18 percent of gamers were under 18. This year's report shows that number has nearly doubled, with more than 32 percent under the age of 18. Many of those younger gamers play on phones, tablets, or in browsers, platforms previously ignored by the industry and this report.

Children Gamers

Children today, more than any other time in history, grow up with gaming, whether that be via a console, a computer or a smartphone.

There's also been a huge increase in the creative ways that gaming or game-like experiences are being used to educate children. We see it in the classrooms that use games like Minecraft and Angry Birds to teach everything from art to physics. We see it in the use of gaming to help contextualize education, to simulate real-world experiences or even to simply make learning fun. The immersion of video games in not just the entertainment of children, but in their education, helps create a foundation upon which lifelong gamers are built.

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Sandbox_netflix_405NetflixON AVERAGE, 49 PERCENT OF U.S. HOUSEHOLDS OWN NOT ONE CONSOLE ... Sandbox_playstation-vudu_405PlayStation Vudu...But Two

CONSOLES AS GATEWAY DRUGS

The ESA's study found that 49 percent of U.S. households own a dedicated game console ... and among those homes, they averaged not one console but two.

Think about that. Almost half of U.S. homes have a game console, and of those homes, the average owner has two consoles. A dramatic shift from even the norm of the last generation of consoles and gamers.

Increasingly, we are a gamer's nation. Gaming isn't just surpassing other forms of entertainment it's absorbing them and, on some level, making them its own. Gamers who own dedicated game consoles use those consoles for not just gaming but all forms of entertainment.

A recent Nielsen study noted that video game consoles have become "strategically positioned as a secondary gateway to TV content" in 45 percent of TV homes. The ESA found that 40 percent watch movies on them, 20 percent listen to music, and 17 percent watch television shows.

And the video game industry has reacted to that, pushing more and more non-gaming content onto their consoles. Today a gamer can watch live sports, rent a movie, use Facebook and Twitter, chat and video chat, browse the Internet, or watch YouTube, all without leaving their console.

This in turn speeds up the process by which gaming culture becomes less of an offshoot of the mainstream and more of an important part of it. We are moving into an age where gaming isn't something someone does instead of other forms of entertainment; it's something people do alongside it.

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Playing with Others

We see gamers shirking the stereotypical loner-in-the-basement image. They are notably more social. About 62 percent of gamers play games with other people, either in person or online. While companies have tried to monetize this shift, only 15 percent pay to play those games online, according to the ESA.

Nearly half of all online gaming is driven by casual and social play, like board, puzzle, trivia and card games.

Where gaming was once an isolating experience, it is now a way people become friends, stay in touch, and form lifelong bonds. Online gaming and the advent of voice chat completely and permanently altered the culture of gaming. With that shift comes a steady increase in the importance of multiplayer, achievements, virtual badges and trophies, ways to talk, ways to share, and ways to commiserate about gaming. The games we play today define gamers as much as they are defined by them.

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EXPANDING AND SHRINKING INDUSTRIES


Historically the successes and advances in computer gaming, like video gaming, have been cyclical. But the two cycles tend to run opposite one another. Computer games are usually on the upswing when video games start to dip. This usually is most evident when game consoles start to near the transition from a current, aging console to the next, future-facing version.

But that trend seems to be changing.

That's in part due to the increasingly long lifespan of a video game console. Where consoles like the PlayStation 2 and Xbox were the primary consoles for six and four years respectively, this generation of consoles has managed to be the chief video gaming platforms for six to seven years and counting.

While console longevity is good news for gamers hoping to squeeze the most out of their hardware purchases, it also means that those consoles stick around with outdated technology for much longer, opening the window sooner for computer games to shine.

Why? Because gamers looking for titles that squeeze every bit of juice out of a computer or graphics processor unit start to shift their attention to the computer, once that platform shows it can blow away the console competition.

Another major boost for PC gaming is its ability to embrace not just new technology but new ways to make and sell games. Where Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are all still developing their plans for selling games directly to customers, without the need for boxes or stores, computer game makers have already mastered online stores and built up sizable fan bases.

And freemium and casual games, both of which have led to explosive growth in the number of people who play games on computers, still don't have a solid working system for consoles.

That's why massive companies like Wargaming.net, the publishers behind World of Tanks, World of Warplanes and World of Battleships, isn't bringing its games to consoles yet.

"Those big [console] companies are too big, too slow, too bureaucratic," Wargaming.net president Victor Kislyi told Polygon in a recent interview. "It's irritating sometimes. They need to change or they will lag behind."

That's also probably why casual games, and the new sorts of money-spending gamers that genre attracts, account for more than 20 percent of computer games but only four percent of console games.

It also may be why Epic Games vice president Mark Rein sees this as a golden age for computer gaming.

"I think the PC gaming industry is in a really exciting state right now," Rein told Polygon. "The PC spans all kinds of differentiated experiences, from super-casual browser-based games all the way up to hardcore single-player console-like experiences, such asSkyrim, with many hugely successful stops for different tastes all along the way.

"We're seeing a big improvement in PC gaming hardware. Even the low-end is becoming a decent gaming experience. Intel is finally pulling up their bootstraps and recognizing the value of delivering affordable graphics capable of providing a compelling experience."

And, he added, even the traditionally behind-the-times Mac gaming experience is undergoing a renaissance of sorts.

While it's no surprise that as this generation of video game consoles winds down, computer gaming is on the upswing, Rein believes the arrival of next year's slate of new consoles won't slow that.

"PC gaming has been on the upswing for several years now," he said. "I don't expect that to stop anytime soon."

Casual gaming, that often maligned form of video gaming, is a big part of why Rein sees computer gaming weathering the console transition storm.

"The demographics have expanded to the extremes and continue to grow in every direction possible," he said. "I suspect that casual games, and mobiles games, bring new players into the market in much the same way platforms like the Nintendo DS and Wii do."

BEING A MODERN GAMER SHOULDN'T SIMPLY MEAN THAT ONE PLAYS GAMES; IT IMPLIES A GREATER SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND CULTURE.

THE NEXT NEXT-GEN

Sales numbers show a consistent growth in non-traditional sales, like subscriptions, digital full games, add-ons and apps. These non-boxed copy sales now make up 31 percent of the industry's software sales, according to the NPD Group and Games Market Dynamics.

What does that mean to gamers? Most likely a wave of new consoles in the next couple of years that will increasingly stray from the current norm of selling video games that come in boxes, that can sit on shelves, that can be sold back for cash or credit, that can be purchased used.

Computer services like Valve's Steam, Electronic Arts' Origin, GameStop's Impulse and CD Projekt RED's Good Old Games aren't just on the rise they're also all exploring ways to increase their fan base and gamer support.

It also likely means that the PlayStation 3 may not have the same surprisingly long life as the original PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Instead, expect the coming transition to new consoles to be more like the relatively sudden swap that marked Microsoft's transition from Xbox to Xbox 360.

PLAYING IN PUBLIC

While the way gamers buy their games may not completely define who they are, it does certainly shape the culture of gaming. Already arcades, once a bastion for a certain sort of game culture, have almost entirely died out. The passing of arcades brought with it a major shift in what it means to be a gamer. The looming death of independent video game stores, followed by the slower death of major game retailers, will likely also shepherd in a new era of gaming and a new sort of gamer.

Being a modern gamer shouldn't simply mean that one plays games, or even video games; it implies a greater sense of community and culture, one that hopefully can stay connected not just online, but in person. Having a place to gather and celebrate gamer culture, and a reason to, could be the biggest challenge gamers face in the coming years. While console makers push for greater technical connectivity, it will remain with gamers, and perhaps indie game makers, to push for greater personal connectivity.

That last bastion for gaming culture may very well be the great game conventions cropping up around the world. Where once there was just Los Angeles' Electronic Entertainment Expo and a few conventions in Japan, now there are conventions around the world celebrating video games. Where E3 is a show for the industry, the Tokyo Game Show, Germany's Gamescom and ChinaJoy open that exploration of games to the masses. And shows like the Penny Arcade Expo don't just allow the public to attend; they shape the experience around the gamer.

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