I find it interesting that in examining online gaming culture, there is no one definition that anyone seems to be able to agree on. Some people will tell you that Console Games should be excluded, others insist that a console based game is the only one that counts. Some will say that Nintendo’s Wii is not a proper gaming console; others point out that portable games such as Angry Birds should not be considered a part of gaming.
With no one, solid definition of what Gaming Culture is, I find it interesting that there can be a cultural clash or hashtag even created for this ‘GamerGate’ controversy. If you can’t define the limits, how can you define where it begins or ends.
So, before I write this, I’m going to go ahead and throw up some definitions so that I am clear in my explanation:
Core Audience (Pre-2000) – the Core Audience prior to the year 2000 for video games were males aged 15-32. This is, in general, the audience that most people picture when they think of a ‘gamer.’
Core Audience (Post 2000) – the shifting demographic that advertisers and programmers are now trying to bring in. This is largely due to the rise of mobile gaming brought about by devices like smartphones.
Core Gamer – a person who plays games at least 20 hours a week and purchases titles regularly (1)
Casual Gamer – a person who plays infrequently and purchases titles less often (1).
So, even in my definitions, it is clear to me (and a number of actual online journalists and reporters) that there has been a significant shift in the gaming audience and its marketing appeals. There are now more people playing games than there have ever been before (2). Regardless of the platform that you prefer your gaming on, you are getting consistent new content and experiences at a pace almost unheard of in older gaming times.
This massive explosion of population has thus called in to question: is gaming’s culture keeping up with its audience evolution.
Different Zeldas, Different Casting
The answer to that question is long and complicated. It is, unfortunately, almost impossible to find any neutral information on the subject, but I’ll try and share what I have found along with my opinions mixed in.
The short answer is a simple ‘no.’ To put it bluntly, we have not seen a significant change in the social demographics presented in video games. A simple trip in to Wal-Mart to look at the covers of the available titles shows that the common protagonist in major studio efforts remains white males (3). You can also load GameFaqs.com and look at their top 10:
Wow, I wish I had a better screen cap grabber…
Anyway, if you follow through on those titles, most of them feature primary protagonist characters that are white males (or, at least, based on white males for games like The Elder Scrolls V or League of Legends) with casts to match. This is consistent regardless of platform and game sub-genre. The previously defined core audience is still the target of most major publishers and the advertising backs that.
Which is all just fine if the numbers played out in favor of that group being the one that is the most marketable and has the most success for publishers.
But it’s not. The casual gaming market is exploding and making a mega-ton of money.
Consider the following chart
To put it bluntly, console sales have been dropping. Meanwhile, mobile and casual games are going up (I could not find comarable or reliable numbers for PC sales)(2). There are many reasons for this that have been examined and questioned a lot LOT by those who have far more industry knowledge than I do, so I won’t go in to it in much more detail except to say that it is clear that console gaming is dropping away.
Yet, in gamer culture, console games are a significant part of the ‘core gamer’ assumption. Even as that market shrinks, developers scramble to grab on to it and try and grab that smaller audience. They do this in many ways. There’s the nostalgia factor where developers re-release old titles that were extremely popular on the hope that you will still think the game is as awesome as it was a decade ago (looking at you SquareEnix and Nintendo). There’s the competetive factor – where you are in competition with yourself/others to climb a digital hierarchy to reach the top (Halo, League of Legends, etc). And there is the completeness factor – think Pokemon or Trophies among many others.
All of these items are combined to make it so that the player feels as though they are a part of the elite group of ‘core gamers.’ And this is an elite group. Go check out many major gaming sites and you will see instances of conflict between this ‘core’ group and other groups. The most significant division in the group is between console and PC gamers, but they all will rally around their territory in an effort to protect it.
What I have to wonder, then, is why do game manufacturers pursue the market so heavily. The definition above is one big reason – 20 hours a week of time and regular purchases means you have a reliable customer. In today’s fluctuating market conditions, that kind of loyalty and reliable revenue is hard to come by and a valuable commodity. Going after these guys creates reliable income and that’s invaluable. When its expected, you can plan against it.
But, if the data above is true and console sales are dropping, even reliable revenue is going to dry up. Thus, you market more heavily to grab at those that are left. Because console manufacturers and developers are fighting to get their share of an increasingly smaller pool, we are not seeing demographic changes to reflect purchasing trends and social trends that are beginning to show in other media. The Wii bucked this trend a bit by bringing in a lot of new players and families to gaming, but it doesn’t appear that the audience that came in is really transitioning significantly in to the market.
So, these developers are struggling to hold on to a market that is, increasingly, shrinking. That’s probably why all of the current gen consoles (Wii U, XBoxOne,PS4) have so many ‘other’ features. I know that my Wii U is used for a Netflix box for my wife and daughter almost as often as I am using it to play Video Games.
Admittedly, there are far more developers in the causal and mobile markets. This slew of different developers, inherently, means a larger pool of talent and ideas to draw from, as well as differing objectives in game creation. For every 1 major publishers for the PC/Console market, there are thousands of ‘micro’ developers in the mobile/casual market (3)
Given that, is it any wonder that they don’t want to try and compete with all of that? You’re surrounded on all sides and have been holding out. Why switch tactics in the middle of the battle – even if your soldiers are bleeding out?
That’s not to say that we haven’t got some positives up in there, however. Even with that shot, I will point out that in at least 5 of those titles you have the option to build your character and create it how you want. And in those options, there is,invariably a female option. Many of them also offer other racial options to allow for greater depth of character representation (though some of Skyrim’s options are impossible in the real world). (4) This was unheard of until more recent console and PC developments. While part of that the fact that older mediums could not support more complex graphics and store the data required for a great deal of building options (not to mention there were far fewer titles that allowed customization period), the ugly other half of it was that there was almost no market approach to consider other audiences.
Now, though, the games are starting to flip in the other direction. Customization and unique experiences are the name of the game in the gaming market OUTSIDE of major publishers. To some extent, it is starting to leak in to the ‘Big 3’ (Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo), but mobile games are dominating the scene right now and they are offering an increasingly diverse and customize-able experience for end users.
What does this mean, then? It means that the recognition of ALL gamers, and not just core audience, needs to be established for developers. Similarly, the media and culture of the United States (and any other country, really) needs to accept and understand that this change of audience and demographic is both a positive item AND a potential for profit. Current ‘core’ gamers also need to recognize this shift and stop fighting against it. It would be, in my opinion, far better for them to accept it and try and re-classify their purpose in the system. Instead of being the major ‘go to’ for marketing and targeting, incorporate their experience with games and their appeal by working with the industry in it moving forward instead of fighting against the progress.
2 – http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2013.pdf
3 – Schick, Shane. “Evans Data: Mobile Developers Now Number 8.7 Million Worldwide.” Fierce Developer. FierceMarkets, 20 June 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.fiercedeveloper.com/story/evans-data-mobile-developers-now-number-87-million-worldwide/2014-06-20>.
4 – “Game Console Sales Over Lifetime.” 1 May 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.statista.com/statistics/268966/total-number-of-game-consoles-sold-worldwide-by-console-type/>.
3 – “Wal-Mart Video Game Homepage.” Wal-Mart.com. Walmart Stores Inc, 29 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.walmart.com/search/search-ng.do?ic=16_0&Find=Find&search_query=&Find=Find&search_constraint=2636>.
4 – Pyre, Andrew. “Bungie Talks ‘Destiny’ Playable Races, Character Classes.” GameRant. GameRant LLC, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://gamerant.com/bungie-destiny-player-races-classes/>.