Unlike other toys, video games belong to a certain generation rather than age group
A new study by market analysts NPD shows that the average video game player is 32, up from 31 last year. That is a dramatic change from the Nintendo days when the audience was mostly pre-pubescent kids. Curious, I searched the NYT for "average age" and "video game," and it turns out that the average video game player is whatever age someone born around 1978 would be at the time of the survey, from 1990 to 2010. This is only for home console game systems like Nintendo, Sega Genesis, PlayStation 2, etc. Computer game players tend to be 5 to 10 years older, but still their average age is however old someone born in the late '60s or early '70s would be.
Contrast this with the age profile of people who play with action figures -- their average age stays virtually the same across the decades, somewhere between 5 and 13 I'd guess. If a boy is too young, he doesn't have the motor coordination to manipulate the action figures, and he'd probably get too scared by dragons, monsters, and so on. Once he hits puberty, though, "toys" in general are no longer cool and he turns instead to music and movies.
Thus, action figures stay fairly constant in their basic features, and individuals adopt them or junk them based on changes in their nature throughout the life's stages. Video games, however, adapt themselves to whatever the 1978-born game player would most enjoy; they follow after him throughout life's stages.
For instance, when Nintendo ruled the video game world, games focused mostly on imagination and exploration, true to what a 9 or 11 year-old boy would dig. (He was too young to play a bunch of terrible Atari games in the early '80s and become soured on video games forever as a result.) By the time he turns 15 in 1993, video game developers make games that allow him to pretend he's a badass in an adolescent way -- more cursing, more defiant attitude, getting into bloody fistfights like he wishes he could with the popular guys in high school, etc. Thus is born Mortal Kombat.
When he goes off to college at 18 and begins in earnest to try getting laid, video game makers release Tomb Raider. The protagonist is a butt-kicking babe whose reliable presence consoles him on those many dateless nights. He's also at the age now when he'd think about joining the army to go shoot a bunch of shit up, and so the first-person shooter games begin to proliferate on home consoles with 1997's Goldeneye. (Wolfenstein 3D and Doom were computer games, and recall that computer game players are 5 to 10 years older.)
Throughout the rest of his 20s he still has a taste for shooting people, joining gangs, and committing thrill-seeking crimes. This accounts for the explosion of first-person shooters and play-as-the-criminal games like those of the Grand Theft Auto series during most of the 2000s. For those 15-24 year-old males who prefer daydreaming, the cornucopia of role-playing games in the late '90s through the mid-2000s offered an escape.
Still, as he approaches and then passes 30, his adolescent / young adult taste for psychopathy begins to fade and he thinks about settling down. He starts to complain that "all first-person shooters are the same old boring game," that Grand Theft Auto IV wasn't all it was hyped up to be, and so on, to rationalize his own dwindling taste for psychopathy-oriented games. He now turns more to games that mimic the activities he'd be engaged in if he'd actually bothered to have children, such as go-kart racing, hunting and fishing, sports that can be played in a park, and guitar lessons, mostly available on the family-oriented Wii. And now that he's not young anymore, he tries to keep in shape with fitness "games" -- also on the Wii.
If he had had kids, this is the age during which he'd think about what toys and such to get them, so he naturally recalls the entertainment of his own childhood. Game developers respond by reviving previously dead franchises in the original style that he discovered them in, such as Megaman 9 and 10, or perhaps just made prettier by current technology, such as Bionic Commando Rearmed. An avalanche of classic games that he played as a 10 year-old are re-released for download on current systems, such as the Wii's Virtual Console.
Looking ahead, we can predict a rise in 2020 of golf simulation games, in the '30s of gardening-themed games, and from the '50s onward of virtual reality games where he gets sponge-bathed by large-breasted blonde nurses.
I can't think of another major form of entertainment -- billions of dollars a year in revenue -- that shifts its shapes to so closely match the tastes of a cohort that's at most 3 years wide (about 1977 to 1979). Movies, TV shows, popular music, all have niches that tag along with this cohort or that -- metal reunion tours that cater to increasingly older audiences -- but in no other case does the entire industry attend to a single generation, no matter how old they grow. As long as video game developers can adapt their products to the changing tastes of this cohort, they'll remain profitable. Still, they would become even more profitable if they diversified their audiences to the extent that other industries with niches do. They could still release games that suited the 1978-born game player, but they'd also have a steady schedule of imagination-based games for the large number of 9 year-olds who enter the market every year. Once more Nintendo appears to be leading the charge here with plenty of games on the Wii and especially on the handheld DS designed with children in mind.
Fundamentally video games are toys, and so the best video games will tend to be made when the actual audience for these toys is close to the ideal audience for toys, namely 5 to 13 year-old boys (not girls). Everyone who has experienced video games from the 1980s through today recognizes the period from the mid-'80s through the early-mid-'90s as the golden age. That includes Nintendo, Genesis, Super Nintendo, TurboGrafx, and the arcade games of the same period. The quality of the average video game, regardless of outliers, started to slide once video games were targeted at the audience of adolescent losers and then college-aged shut-ins. The average quality has only tumbled further as they've begun to appeal to men who should be raising a family. If this pattern continues, things will only get worse -- just think of what action figures would look like if the average owner was in his 40s. Worst. Toy. Ever.