The homogenization of gaming is a mixed blessing.
There are clever, apparently Eastern, proverbs about punishing someone by giving them exactly what they wish for. Every time I buy a Powerball ticket I hope that particular adage will finally “proc” for me and unleash the punishment I so richly long for, but apparently this is a problem that keeps happening to other people. Most recently, gamers.
We gamers have long been marginalized by a popular culture that looked down on our shared digital interests. What was once unpleasant bullying during recess by thugs with early facial hair became unpleasant bullying in court rooms and legislatures by thugs with male-pattern baldness.
Gaming, which had been a niche to be laughed at by gatekeepers of popular culture, is now a booming multi-billion dollar megalith of consumerism. We wanted to turn the rest of the world into gamers, to be taken seriously, to be a dominant media empire, to see videogames breaking financial records long held by the music and movie industries, and at long last,we succeeded.
We have seen the revolution, and in so doing have perhaps also learned that if you ever want to take the heart and soul out of an enterprise, you simply need to make it popular.
This week, the ESA released the results of a study revealing that gaming truly is now cross-gender, cross-generational and homogenized throughout our culture. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust the ESA of late to release a study on the likelihood of a sunrise, but for the sake of moving forward let’s take it at its word. According to the study:
- 65 percent of American households play computer and videogames;
- 38 percent of American homes have a video game console;
- The average game player is 35 years old;
- One out of four gamers is over age 50;
- Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (33 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent); and,
- 41 percent of Americans expect to purchase one or more games this year.
These are the kinds of numbers we gamers once dreamed of seeing, a clear portrait of an America that takes gaming seriously. I can walk into my full-time corporate job, announce that I’m a gamer and , the likelihood of becoming a pariah for the revelation is far less than what it used to be.
The once seemingly unreachable dream of interesting women in our counter-culture even appears to be commonplace according to the study, a fact that probably won’t come as much surprise to neither my Y chromosome deficient editor Susan Arendt (yes, these things do get edited), nor our editor-in-chief Julianne Greer.
But, a closer look at the numbers, particularly on the heels of an E3 that seemed to leave us traditional hardcore gamers drowsy with boredom, reveals another tale of the tape. What does it say about the definition of a gamer with 65 percent of Americans playing video games but only 38 percent owning a game console? What does it say that 25 percent of gamers are over the age of 50? Should we expect a feature story in the next AARP magazine about “fragging newbs”?
In fact, the study suggests something that may seem a little troubling. While the market for games has increased dramatically, the actual number of hardcore gamers seems to have not kept pace. Perhaps at some point the ESA, which admittedly is bolstered in strength the more people it claims to represent, expanded the definition of gamer to include people who play the occasional game of solitaire or online crossword puzzle at work. The end result is that the once fiercely flowing river of gamers seems to have spilled into a lazy flood plain where we’ve picked up all kinds of unexpected detritus.
That may seem elitist, and smacks of the kind of self-absorbed scorn that so-called cinephiles unleash on the millions of people who hail the latest Batman as celluloid genius. I run the risk, by minimizing the relevance of our new gaming brethren, of posing as artificially superior in stratifying the relative hierarchies of gamer, but let’s not sugar coat the reality of gaming in popular culture.
The industry will trend where the majority resides. If the majority of “gamers” are no longer the clique that lives and breathes for big-budget, high-concept game releases, then the importance of those gamers will diminish. What we might start to see are conferences like, say, an E3 where the attention is focused squarely on adorable avatars, minimizing barriers to entry, monetizing the online space with media like movies and music, and only offers a passing nod to games that once would have been the marquee headliners.
Obviously, as long as games like Halo 3 and BioShock prove that gamers will support the big-budget, high-concept model, we have little to worry about, but even against monster opening weekends like Halo‘s a franchise like Guitar Hero has evolved as the golden model; the middle ground between big release games with no way to capitalize afterward and customer intimidating subscription models. There’s a good reason why so much money and attention was leveraged in last week’s battle between Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour (pictured) – these are money making machines that cross generational divides while offering long-term revenue generation through downloadable content.
These two franchises are the most important in all of gamingdon these days, which is why Activision, which isn’t even part of the ESA anymore, invaded the news cycle to show off its latest iteration of the franchise against Rock Band 2‘s coming out party. These plastic music simulators overshadowed games like Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2, which had their moment and then seemed lost in the shuffle.
We hardcore gamers will remain a segment of the market to be attended, but we are no longer the market. If only 38% of the gaming population owns a console, the industry publishers and manufacturers are going to be in an arms race to see who can devise a system of revenue generation for that other 62%, and my guess is those folks aren’t going to care much about Halo or God of War.
Sean Sands is a freelance games writer, co-founder of gamerswithjobs.com and an unabashed videogame snob, except when he can be found playing solitaire at work.