July 8, 2009

No wonder video games started sucking in the late '90s

As a follow-up on the post where I traced the horrible present state of video games to the late 1990s, here's a partial explanation: just look at who the audience has been recently, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Read the whole fact sheet -- won't take longer than a few minutes.

The average video game player today is 35 -- about 5 to 10 years past the age when visuospatial skills are at their peak. Fully one-quarter are over 50! No wonder games aren't tests of skill anymore -- that would be like raising the badminton net in the retirement home as its residents are shrinking. Adult women outnumber under-18 boys by nearly twice as much. Females have visuospatial skills about 1 standard deviation below males.

Put together the huge change in the age and sex make-up of video game players, and the current mediocrity is a little less mysterious. The audience isn't mostly hyperactive, imaginative kids but a bunch of boring grown-ups for whom playing a video game is like popping in a DVD and vegetating on the couch. (The grown-ups who aren't boring are probably not playing video games at all, or are playing something challenging like Blaster Master.)

One encouraging fact is that most video games sold are basically all-ages, swamping the stupid shocker games for 18+ audiences only. (If you want a real thrill, go for a joy ride, shoplift something cheap and pointless just because, or dance with girls in a club.) It's the exact opposite of Hollywood movies, where too many R movies are made, and a huge niche of G and PG movies has been left untapped.

And note that G-rated games (or whatever the rating is) aren't necessarily dopey and juvenile -- the Nintendo had the best success rate at making great games, and there's hardly any gore, sex, or swearing in any of them. Beating people up, sure, but nothing really gory. Hell, Tetris is one of the greatest video games ever, and it's about as inoffensive as you can imagine.

The only downside is that although all-ages games are flourishing, they're still geared toward adults and the entire family playing along. There needs to be a large market share for all-ages games, but that are about testing your skills, exploring hard-to-navigate areas, and giving a good whomp to things that get in your way. Young boys today are pretty deprived -- they've got either kiddie games that their helicopter parents won't mind ("Parents report always or sometimes monitoring the games their children play 94% of the time"), or else games that loser 30-something males use to make-believe that they're badass.


  1. I've read quite a bit of research that visuo-spatial skills actually peak in the mid-40's, while fluid g peaks in the mid 20's. I could be wrong though.

  2. They're pretty closely related. If you go to Amazon and find Ian Deary's excellent summary of IQ research, Looking Down on Intelligence, and search inside for "cognitive ageing," there are graphs there showing how the various IQ sub-test average change over time.

    Vocabulary stays pretty steady or increases a bit over time, while everything else plummets after 30 or so. The highly visual ones drop the earliest and fastest.

  3. I've been trying without luck to complete two courses on Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii. Both require jump/spin manoeuvers which, while undeniably complicated, are do-able according to walkthrough sites. I've tried each manoeuver over 100 times without success. Perhaps if I were 25 years old, with a 25-year-old's visuo-spatial skills, I'd be able to do them.


  4. One thing I notice from the report is that most of the top-selling console games are "party" type games I would expect someone to play with friends or family while the computer games are more of the "virtual nerd world" type. Since the console games account for almost all of the sales, it is pretty clear what kind of video games are driving the industry these days.

    I found it hard to believe video game sales have increased over 300% since 1996. I suspect the market among kids has stayed relatively stable over that time while the adult market has been the source of most of the growth. I mean, kids aren't going to the pool, riding their bikes, or playing basketball; they have to be doing something.

    I think video games, like rock music, will never match the creativity of their early years of popularity when the market consisted entirely of the young.

  5. I think they probably didn't adjust for inflation, but there's still a big increase nonetheless.

    Re: "kids have to be doing something," not necessarily. I'll put up a funny post tomorrow about another thing they're not doing. One we'd expect to be going up.

  6. Well, as always Peter is a Loser.
    I have collected all 241 Stars in Super Mario Galaxy. Agnostic however is right. Games have become easier over the years. However, I would like to point out that NES games were considerably harder than Super NES games. I recently beat Metroid 1 and it's much more difficult than Legendary Super Metroid. Although Super Metroid is easier, I consider it the better game. Zelda II must be among the most difficult games ever. I haven't been able to beat the giant bird end boss of the last castle, and haven't been able to reach Dark Link. One the best games ever must be Super Mario Bros 3 (NES or All Sras Version). The game is not too difficult r easy. The difficulty is perfectly balanced. The later Stars of Super Mario Sunshine or F Zero GX (Gamecube) were pretty difficult also.
    2D and 3D gaming are two different kind of beasts. Nintendo is by far still one of the best game makers:
    Punch Out on the Wii will give you some of the old school play you have been looking for, playing with the Wiimote NES wise:
    defending your world champion title isn't easy.

  7. If you're trying to recapture some of the difficulty of NES games patterned to take your quarters, you might want to look into rom hacking and romhacks. A quick Google for "kaizo mario world" and "super metroid redesigned" turn up fun things for people who still have their fast-twitch skills; "zelda parallel worlds" will dig up something for those of us who don't have them anymore (or, in my case, never did have them anyway).

    Also, if you want to prove how awesome you are and can't use "I beat the game" as a metric anymore, try speedrunning a game and then sending in a movie of it.

  8. I still play my NES, SNES, and Gamecube (for Mario Golf and Tennis) so I can't say much about new games, but what Gannon said about the older ones is right on. If you want to play some hard as fuk games, go pick up any of the Mega Mans on the NES. Zelda II is still one of my favorites, but again ironically Gan(n)on is right about it, hard as fuk.

    I pretty much sucked at video games growing up so I watched my little brother play, but I remember picking up Zelda: A Link to the Past and spending hours without much of a hiccup getting right thru it. Compared to Zelda II, it was child's play.

  9. I'm glad to hear people talking more about Zelda II -- I've always enjoyed it more than any other Zelda game, by far.

    Yeah, when the Super Nintendo came out, they already started making games a bit easier -- Zelda, Super Metroid, even Mario World -- but there were still lots of pretty hard ones -- Super Castlevania, Super Ghouls N Ghosts.

    I'll be sacrilegious and say that I don't really love the N64 Zelda games -- they hardly have any action and are too movie-like. But of the two, Majora's Mask is a lot more fun because there's more to explore. I don't get why everyone thinks that Ocarina of Time is the best game ever made.


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