May 31, 2010

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.


  1. This is a terrific analysis, I think you're spot on. I think the age band is a little bit wider than you think, though, up to the first couple years of the '80s as well. I was born in '82 and definitely part of the target market during your "golden age", though I don't play really at all now. Not sure that's relevant.

  2. When I say '77 to '79, I'm talking just about the average game player. There's always the somewhat below and somewhat above average people who fill out the rest.

    I know people born in the early '70s have been into video games forever, and even some born in '84 are too. So like 6 years before and after 1978 covers just about everyone, with the core group born within 3 years on either side of 1978.

  3. Yes, good points. Video games as an extension of the generational mood.
    I'm trying to make sense of the ascendance of post-apocalyptic zombie/fiend games like Left for Dead, Gears & Fallout. My son is hooked on those but the game play does not appeal to my Centipedian mentality.

    Do 11-13 year old boys really play with action figures?

  4. It seems a pretty thin basis for discussion. The stated average is a whole number, therefore could be round. If rounded, the real increment could be arbitrarily small, e.g. from 31.4 to 31.6 years.

    But suppose the increment is indeed about 1.0 years. It is still compatible with this alternative hypothesis: games gain the same number of new players every year in the youngest age groups, and at the same time keep all previous players. For, if this were the case, then we would expect the average age to increment by extremely close to 1 year per year. Think about it. Say, at age 8, people start playing games. So, say, 1 million 8 year olds start playing games (number picked for simplicity). But there are also 1 million 9 year olds who started playing games the previous years and have aged by 1 year. And 1 million 10 year olds. And so on. All the players older than 8 years, taken together, vastly outnumber the 8 year olds. So the average increase in age would be close to 1 year. This of course will eventually cease to be the case when the oldest gamers start dying off, but we haven't reached this point yet.

    More is needed than a simple average. The whole distribution would be helpful.

    Maybe a pattern in game popularity as vaguely described (e.g. golf simulation games becoming popular for a period), but we would need to see actual numbers, or at least estimates. Golfing simulation games have been popular for well over a decade. The popular Sims series doesn't seem to fit into the supposed age group (or gender). Etc.

  5. Do sports-oriented games like Madden NFL Football have a similarly narrow age focus, or a wider appeal?


  6. I was wrong when I wrote:

    "It is still compatible with this alternative hypothesis: games gain the same number of new players every year in the youngest age groups, and at the same time keep all previous players. For, if this were the case, then we would expect the average age to increment by extremely close to 1 year per year."

    Reconsidering, I'm almost sure I got my math wrong. The average increase would be half a year in the scenario I described, and not a full year. The new young players would pull down the average age a lot more than I thought, despite being vastly outnumbered by everyone else.

  7. What about strategy simulations such as "SimCity" and Syd Mead's "Civilization"? These have become quite sophisticated as computing power as increased and show no signs of abating. I play these games when I do computer games, but avoid them because they are too addicting.

  8. I'm 22 myself, and personally, I still thing exploration and imagination should be key points in game design. As a game developer myself, that's what I strive for in my biggest works.

  9. It's easy. In recreation and entertainment, people tend to stick to what they have known before the age of 20. These tastes are imprinted and don't change throughout life.

    This is why generations can be distinguished by the type of music they hear: rock, pop, rap, electronics. This is the same music that was in fashion during their teens.

    I was born in 1970 and I like 80's pop. I never liked what came after: rap or electronics.

    People who enjoyed jazz or swing were horrified when rock appeared. "This is not music: this is noise!" (the same feelings I have about electronic music).

    Classic toys are not dependent from technology so they are enjoyed generation after generation.

    Technological toys are a fad, because technology changes very quickly. I was born in 1970 and I was fond of computer games. When the first console came to my country, I was twenty-something and more worried about girls and my college studies than about playing games.

    Every now and them I can play again some platform game in the computer, similar to the platform games I enjoyed as a teen. Time flies.

    Now, young people will probably stick to MMORPGs or Facebook games throughout their life.

  10. My big problem with this idea is that the best selling games rarely seem to match up with the generational type the post above suggests they should.

    Take, for example, Halo 3. It breaks records - but at the same time "Tiger Woods Protour 2009" should have been at the top. Save that it wasn't.

    The reason for this, I submit, is that video games (and the people who play them) are just like every other type of game. There are people who enjoy playing 4 hour long bouts of Risk and there are people who believe Uno to be the summit of fun. The former types are a lot more likely to adopt games like Diplomacy and Axis and Allies as time goes on; the latter group will likely pick up Skip-Bo or Pit. So it is with video games. Those folks I know who liked first person shooters ten years ago still like them now; those who liked RTS games still buy and play them to this day.

    In truth, I don't think there are really more than two true demographic transitions in video game consumption: the transition away from exploration and platforming games when children begin identifying themselves as teens, and the transition back into them when parents which to buy suitable games for their children to play.

  11. I'd agree with you that many people see the late 80's, early 90's as the golden era of video games, but you have to realize that this is a specific demographic that holds this perspective. It's clear to me that children born in the late 90's, early 00's will probably hold the same opinion of this current epoch of the video game landscape. Xbox 360, Wii, PC, PS3 have all evolved gaming to something I could have never imagined growing up playing 1942 and blades of steel and sonic the hedgehog back in the day.


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